On Sunday, the United States sent China a message.
Be concerned. Be very concerned.
As Washington and Beijing’s relations continue to deteriorate, William Brent Christensen, the US envoy to Taiwan, joined Taiwan’s independence-leaning president Tsai Ing-wen at military memorial service.
The fact that neither Christensen nor Tsai spoke at the annual event for soldiers killed by Chinese bombing in 1958 on Kinmen, a Taiwanese-controlled island near the mainland coast — or that Washington has no official relationship with Taiwan, which split with the communist-ruled mainland in 1949 following a civil war — is immaterial.
With Donald Trump fighting for his political life against Joe Biden and the US president desperate to be seen as “tough on China” in all avenues combined with Tsai, after a landslide victory in January, warning China against threats of force against the self-governed island, it is possible that Beijing could be facing its biggest challenge to its domination in its own backyard.
Nothing has been more of a constant irritant to China than Washington’s support for Taiwan’s democratically-elected government. Leave aside the poke in the eye to Beijing that Washington, despite no formal relationship with Taipei, is its top supplier of arms and that the US’ stated Taiwan policy is “strategic ambiguity”.
That Sunday’s unusually high-profile event — broadcast live by some Taiwan TV channels — coming just days after Taiwan released a video of its troops fending off attacks from the mainland will not go unnoticed by Beijing’s foreign policy mandarins (who have thus far offered no comment).
As per the South China Morning Post, Taiwan’s defence ministry issued this statement accompanying the video: “The most egotistical country can thoughtlessly provoke a war and the most ignorant government can be caught in the flames of war.”
It further added that the “repeated provocation and intimidation” by the People’s Liberation Army would not work but only have only the effect of triggering the wrath and antipathy of Taiwan’s people and hurt peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
Taiwan is clearly feeling it.
Its bold statement and video come on the heels of the US finalising a sale of 66 F-16s to it and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar becoming the highest-ranking US official to visit Taiwan since 1979 (prompting a Chinese protest).
Which doesn’t much sound like the United States is pursuing its policy of “strategic ambiguity”.
How Taiwan came to exist
Taiwan, whose more than 23 million people are squeezed onto a mostly mountainous island roughly the size of Maryland, has only 15 diplomatic allies, all smaller nations. However, it issues its own passports, has a foreign minister and maintains its own military and legal system. Economically, it is an important hub in the global high-tech supply chain.
Most of the island’s residents are descendants of migrants who began arriving from China’s Fujian province in the 1600s when Taiwan was a Dutch colony. The emigration flow grew after Taiwan was incorporated into China under the Qing Dynasty later in the 17th Century, but Taiwan was not given formal status as a Chinese province until 1885.
A decade later, it was transferred to Japan, which ruled it as a colony until the end of World War II. It then split again from China in 1949 after Chiang Kai-shek relocated his Nationalist government to the island after being driven off the mainland by Mao Zedong’s communists. Aiming to retake power on the mainland, Chiang and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, maintained martial law on the island until 1987, when the democratic Opposition began to gather its strength.
Tensions with China
Talks in 1992 ended the long, formal silence between Taipei and Beijing, but tensions have risen and fallen since then. Fearful that Taiwan was headed for a declaration of formal independence, China lobbed ballistic missiles into the seas north and south of the island ahead of the first fully democratic presidential election in 1996.
The tactic was seen as backfiring badly, with China’s bete noire, the pro-independence Lee Teng-hui, winning handily and the US Navy deploying two aircraft carrier battle groups in waters near the island in a demonstration of Washington’s determination to follow through on its own legal requirement to consider threats to Taiwan a matter of grave concern.
Beijing claims Taiwan as its own territory, to be annexed by force if it deems necessary. It demands that Taiwan recognise the 1992 consensus that it says recognized Taiwan and the mainland as part of a single Chinese nation, though defined separately as the People’s Republic of China or the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name.
Things between Taiwan and China seem to be coming to a head since Tsai’s landslide election victory in January, which signalled strong public support for her tough stance against Beijing.
She wasted no time in warning communist-ruled China, which views Taiwan as a renegade province, not to try to use threats of force against the self-governed island.
How would one describe the relationship between the United States and China?
To steal a phrase from Facebook: “It’s complicated”.
Since Bill Clinton took office in the 1990s, critics have accused the United States of going soft on China in hopes of accessing their large market.
From granting of most-favoured status to China’s admission into the World Trade Organisation to Beijing now being the second-largest holder of US debt (behind Japan) the countries have indeed come a long way as George W Busy and Barack Obama followed Clinton.
After Donald Trump taking office in 2016, the relationship saw peaks and valleys before completely nose-diving since the coronavirus pandemic, which Trump has derisively dubbed the ‘Wuhan Flu’.
Attitudes within the United States’ Congress and military also seem to be changing.
As per this Voice of America piece, an increasing number of military analysts and members of Congress are now arguing that the United States needs to revisit its policy for Taiwan’s defence.
“It might actually make war even more likely, emboldening Xi Jinping and the CCP to undertake military action against the island by deluding themselves into thinking the U.S. might remain on the sidelines,” Michael Hunzeke, a professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, told VOA in an email.
For once, it seems the Trump administration may be ahead of the curve.
China’s response to United States’ manoeuvrings will be watched closely.
With inputs from agencies