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Mainstream, VOL LX No 26-27, New Delhi, June 18 & June 25 2022 [Double issue]

Dispute between China and Taiwan: an ambiguous balancing act of the U.S. | Sheel Bhadra Kumar

Friday 17 June 2022


by Sheel Bhadra Kumar *

On 23rd May, 2022, during a joint news conference with the Japanese premier Fumio ki shida before the start of the QUAD, the president of the United States, Joe Biden made a statement that created a hyperbolic controversy. In a reply to a question on whether the U.S. will come to the rescue of Taiwan in a situation of invasion by china, the U.S. president answered in affirmative. It set off an angry response from the government in Beijing which vowed ‘’firm action to safeguard its sovereign and strategic interests and warned that ‘’we will do what we say’’. This is the third time that the American president made such statement, first in August in 2021, and the second in October, 2021 when he committed to defend Taiwan militarily if military aggression comes from Mainland China[when he was asked at a CNN town hall]. Following Biden’s statement, the white house hastened to clarify that what the president said did not amount to a policy shift on the question of Taiwan. The U.S. president’s statement raises a question whether the U.S. is shifting its long standing policy on Taiwan from strategic ambiguity to that of strategic lucency? In reality, President Joe Biden has been walking a thin line between pledging support for Taiwan, and keeping the lid on tensions with Beijing.

Background of Taiwan dispute

As a leading democracy and a technological powerhouse, Taiwan is a territory inhabited by 23 million people of an area of 35808 sq km. It lays some 180 kms across the Taiwan Strait from the South-East the running coast of mainland China. From 1945 to 1949,in the Chinese civil war between the ruling Kuomintang[founded by Sun Yat-Sen] Nationalist government of China under Chiang Kia-Shek and the communist forces led by Mao-Tse-Tung, the ruling Kuomintang government was defeated and compelled to leave mainland China. The Kuomintang nationalist government left China and sheltered at Taiwan and formed a government in exile there. Thus the communist party of China, PRC, came in existence in the mainland of China and ROC [Republic China] was established in Taiwan. Chiang kia shek government existed in Taiwan until his death in 1975.

Since 1949, The Republic of China [Taiwan] retained its membership of the United Nations and its permanent membership at the U.N. Security Council. The peoples’ Republic of china regarded the island as an apostate region [rogue province] which would reunify with the mainland in future. But in international politics, curve line does not go on predictable lines. The cold war between the Soviet Union and the U.S. strained relations between the mainland China government and the government of ROC.

Shifting geopolitics

The shifting geo-politics of the cold war gave birth to new alignment between big players of world politics. The myth of unbreakable unity among communist countries was shattered with the rift and tensions that was generated between the Soviet Union and the Mainland China. The two communist countries had confrontations on boundary issues, nuclear policy, leadership and others. Their relations nose dived and deteriorated to nuclear attack threat from the Soviet Union. In such an uncertain situation, PRC was in dire need of an ally which would avert danger created by powerful nuclear Soviet Union.

In such a fluid situation, the PRC reproached the U.S. to counter the growing threat from the USSR in the 1970s.The U.S was also feeling threat from the USSR. Thus with the historic visit of the U.S. president Nixon to china, through secret diplomacy named ‘’Ping-Pong diplomacy’’ of Henry Kissinger, national security adviser to the U.S president, led to the US-China rapprochement in 1972’. It was much later in 1971 that PRC managed to enter the UN through Resolution2758, which unseated ROC as the official representative of china, It had become imperative to abide by ‘one china principle’ for the U.S. administration to store diplomatic relations with PRC. Taiwan at that time did not value much for the U.S. and to avert the common threat from the USSR, the U.S. administration did not care much for the Roc. The United States recognized PRC instead of ROC.

The US ‘one china policy acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one china and Taiwan is a part of China. The U.S. government does not challenge this position. Subsequently the US administration including the present one, have reiterated their commitment to the one china policy. In operational terms, the one china policy is a balancing act wherein the U.S. maintains an official relationship with China, and an unofficial one with Taiwan. The U.S. maintains ties with Taiwan and sells weapons to it but officially subscribe to the PRC’s one china policy in which Taiwan does not exist as an independent entity. It is the U.S. delicate diplomatic balance that is called ambiguous. The one china policy of the U.S. is not the same as the one China principle of PRC.

Afterwards we find transformations in PRC and ROC economy and politics. Taiwan was transformed from a single party state into a multiparty democracy and at the same time PRC was transformed from a rural agricultural state to a modernized society and market driven economy based on technology and global export and ready to assert its position globally. Therefore we find a continued competition between China and Taiwan for international recognition and identity assertions.

Foundational arrangements

There lies a mutual understanding on Taiwan questions between the US and China which has been outlined in Taiwan Relations Act, 1979, the three US-China communiqués1972, 1979 and 1982 and the six assurances.

  • The communiqué 1972:

The Shanghai communiqué acknowledged significant disagreements between China and the US over the status of Taiwan. The Chinese side repeated that Taiwan is China’s internal affair  and no country has right to interfere. The US must withdraw all forces and military installations in Taiwan. The US acknowledged nod china policy and expressed peaceful settlement of Taiwan issue but did not explicitly endorse the PRC as the whole of China.

  • The US-PRC joint communiqué-1979:

The US government acknowledged the China position that there is but one China and Taiwan is its part. It also established unofficial relations with Taiwan in the name of the people of both the countries.

  • Consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act-1979:

The US makes available defense articles and services as necessary to enable Taiwan make self sufficient in self defense and maintain capacity to resort to force of coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social and economic system of Taiwan. It does not require the US to step in militarily to defend Taiwan if China invades, but makes it American policy to ensure Taiwan has the resources to defend itself and to prevent any unilateral change of status in Taiwan by Beijing.

  • The 1982 communiqué and six assurances:

No definite conclusions were reached on the issue of arms sale to Taiwan in previous communiqués. The US declared its intent to continue selling arms to Taiwan and declared that it would gradually change its level of arms sale to Taiwan with the PRC’S militarization of the Taiwan Strait. The US clarified Third communiqué by issuing six assurances to Taiwan .The six assurances were intended to reassure both Taiwan and the US congress the US would continue support Taiwan despite severing of formal diplomatic relations. The assurances have been reaffirmed by successive administrations.

With these foundational arrangements, the US developed a mechanism to balance recognition of PRC with the concerns of Taiwan. This delicate balance has been increasingly tested by PRC lately.

ROC asserts

With the flowering of Taiwan’s democracy, the public mood in Taiwan drifted towards a new Taiwanese identity and a pro-independence stance of sovereignty. As the Democratic People’s Party [DPP] under Tsai Ing- Wen became powerful political force by winning two consecutive general elections in Taiwan, the ties between the PRC and ROC declined rapidly in the past decade. Taiwan in quest of new identity, freedom of action tried to diversify economic relations with other countries. This has made Xi wary of Tsai.

Why Taiwan matters so high for PRC?

  • China has always seen Taiwan with high geographical significance. Taiwan keeps central location in the first island chain between Japan and the South- China Sea which is an area of power projection for China.
  • The U.S. military outposts are scattered throughout the region. Control of Taiwan would mean a significant breakthrough for China’s geo-strategic calculus.
  • China under Xi Jimping is determined to realize Chinese dream of gaining power status by 2049.Therefore integration of Taiwan with the mainland is mission of PRC after takeover of Hong Kong.
  • Taiwan is a hub of future technology. China cannot leave it scot free.
    Therefore we find growing frequency of rhetorical spats between China and Taiwan. China frequently exercises military drills, patrolling, and aerial transgressions of Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone [ADIZ]
  • The Russia- Ukraine conflict has given an excuse to China to heighten military assertion in Taiwan Strait region.
    What deters China from taking extreme action against Taiwan?
  • Forced acquisition of Taiwan will invite sanctions against China which would weaken the communist party and the economy. China is not prepared to confront with the US and its allies.
  • With the US and its allies moving for supply chain integrity, employment drive for locals; China would lose a vast market share in high value tech business.
    A question arises will China try to invade militarily on Taiwan? There is no clear guarantee. The US has long utilized the strategic vagueness with its own interpretation of one china principle to maintain its strategic interests in the western pacific. The Chinese Communist part in China is well entrenched under Xi’s firm leadership even though faced with many structural problems.PLA with its superior strength can overrun Taiwan any time and no American President will send its and its allies troops in defense of Taiwan. The US, EU and its allies cannot win a war with China which has vast weapons of mass destruction. Exerted pressure from the US and its allies may create a situation of emergence of Sino-Russia axis and a long cold war may reemerge for many years.

The US congress has no laws for a direct military action against China in defense of Taiwan. Will the US provide Taiwan with a nuclear deterrence capacity? Only a MAD doctrine can ensure sovereign Republic of Taiwan’s Survival. Will the US go to such extent? History does not support this assertion.

Present divergent positions:

  • The United States, maintains a stance of strategic ambiguity about what it might do in case of mainland china invades Taiwan.
  • Taiwan has responded by hardening its own military posture by buying weapons, artilleries, sea ships, missiles and doing military drills.
  • China is a strengthening its military posture and flexing its muscles so as to deter an American intervention aimed at protecting Taiwan. China has stepped up military provocations against democratic Taiwan in recent years aimed at intimidating it into accepting Beijing’s demands to unify with the communist mainland.

Future Visualization:

Thus stalemate continues. China believes that the residents of Taiwan will eventually have no alternative but to accept Chinese terms for reunification while most Taiwan residents hope that the PRC will eventually undergo a transition to democracy and then be willing to reach a formula that respects Taiwan’s autonomy freedom and democratic values.

(Author: Dr. Sheel Bhadra Kumar, is Assistant professor of political science,
Government Girls ‘College Mahasamund, Chhattisgarh)

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