Analysis: Taiwan Becomes Meat In US-China Sandwich

Taiwan should be ready for a rough ride as its importance in China-US bilateral ties grows. Outgoing President Donald Trump upped the stakes yet again when his administration lifted restrictions on US officials visiting the democratically ruled East Asian island.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on 9 January that the USA would attempt to appease Beijing no longer through internal restrictions on official ties with Taipei. “Today I am announcing that I am lifting all of these self-imposed restrictions. Executive branch agencies should consider all ‘contact guidelines’ regarding relations with Taiwan previously issued by the Department of State under authorities delegated to the Secretary of State to be null and void.”

Pompeo added in his statement: “The United States government maintains relationships with unofficial partners around the world, and Taiwan is no exception. Our two democracies share common values of individual freedom, the rule of law and a respect for human dignity. Today’s statement recognizes that the US-Taiwan relationship need not, and should not, be shackled by self-imposed restrictions of our permanent bureaucracy.”

Some commentators might see this as a cynical final fling by Trump and Pompeo, designed to cause a thorn in the Sino-US relationship for incoming president Joe Biden. Others might see it as an astute political move by Pompeo to appeal to American voters after he departs office this month.

However, it is somewhat consistent with Trump’s approach to Taiwan and China. Remember his hosting a congratulatory phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen in December 2016? That first ever direct contact between American and Taiwanese leaders since 1979 threw Beijing into a frenzied state, just as this latest State Department action has done.

Chinese media immediately raised a cacophony of criticism. Xinhua said the move was “seeking to maliciously inflict a long-lasting scar on China-US ties.” The broadcaster CGTN called it “a cowardly act of sabotage” for the incoming US administration.

As another example, the tabloid Global Times described it as “breaking the bottom line of China-US ties,” and the “Trump administration’s last-ditch effort on Taiwan is like hanging a sword over bilateral ties with China which will put Taiwan in imminent danger”.

The same op-ed continued that, “given the few days left for the Trump administration, Beijing should take countermeasures mainly with diplomatic means supplemented by military solutions as a tit-for-tat response to the very antagonistic move”. Suggested modes are exercises by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and flights around Taiwan or over the Taiwan Strait.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft is scheduled to visit Taiwan this week. This follows earlier visits by the US Health Secretary Alex Azar, and Keith Krach, the State Department’s undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and environment.

Taiwan eagerly welcomed the lifting of America’s self-imposed restrictions. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu tweeted: “I’m grateful to @SecPompeo & @StateDept for lifting restrictions unnecessarily limiting our engagements these past years. I’m also thankful for strong bipartisan support in Congress for the #Taiwan Assurance Act, which advocates a review of prior guidelines. The closer partnership between #Taiwan & the #US is firmly based on our shared values, common interests & unshakeable belief in freedom & democracy. We’ll continue working in the months & years ahead to ensure Taiwan is & continues to be a force for good in the world.”

Randall Schriver, Chairman of the Project 2049 Institute in the USA, which has a keen interest in Taiwan-US ties, was pleased with this policy move. He issued a statement saying: “As President-elect Biden assumes office on January 20, his administration will inherit a posture in US-Taiwan relations removed of unhelpful limitations and difficult political decisions. His administration will be empowered to chart a new course in US policy with tremendous possibilities. For the first time in 40 years, the United States is free to enact policy wholly in our best interest.”

Schriver, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs under Trump’s administration, concluded, “We encourage the incoming Biden administration to build upon this important moment to support a more peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”

There is therefore no escaping the fact that Taiwan will be critical in the China-USA relationship. The status of Taiwan is the most important strategic consideration for Chairman Xi Jinping, and he would dearly love to absorb – peacefully or forcibly – the democratic nation into communist-controlled China. It was something Mao Zedong failed to achieve, as Chiang Kai-shek retreated to the final bastion of Taiwan in December 1949 and slipped the communist noose.

Beijing and Washington already have enormous contentions, including strategic and military competition, and an unresolved trade war. Biden will undoubtedly tread more cautiously than Trump did, and many fear that the Democratic president will take the USA back into the China-appeasing years of Barack Obama.

Biden was vice president for eight years under Obama, a period in which he did nothing to counter Chinese influence. Instead, the watchword at that time was to “de-escalate” tensions and to nobble the US military. At that time, it appeared Taiwan was an unwanted fly in the ointment to the Obama administration in terms of Sino-US ties. From 2009-17, Washington DC did nothing to prevent China from intimidating its neighbors, or from building military bases in international waters of the South China Sea.

Will Biden be courageous and determined enough to stand up to Chinese pressure and intimidation? Or will he allow nearly 24 million Taiwanese to be enslaved by communism? Those are questions that remain to be answered.

Japan is certainly one country watching with fearful eyes. Were the USA to abandon Taiwan or to reduce its commitment to the island, Tokyo would be in an extremely tough spot. Were China to seize Taiwan, Japan would be bounded by an aggressive and militaristic China to both the south and west. Not only would the First Island Chain be irrevocably snapped, but Japan’s own sea lines of communication – which it relies upon for incoming raw materials and oil, and for exporting its manufactured products – would be almost totally severed.

Japanese Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama said recently that Taiwan’s security was a “red line” for both his country and the USA. In a media interview, he urged Biden to “stay strong”. However, he also warned, “So far, I haven’t yet seen a clear policy or an announcement on Taiwan from Joe Biden. I would like to hear it quickly; then we can also prepare our response on Taiwan in accordance.”

As well as undeniably feeding Xi’s and the Chinese people’s hubris, the fall of Taiwan would give the PLA a naval and aerial springboard deep into the Pacific Ocean. Simultaneously, Japan’s defenses in its southern archipelago would be circumvented, and pressure on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands would prove intolerable. More than that, the estimation of the USA in the eyes of all Asian nations would plummet to depths even lower than they are today.

However, why should it be just the USA that must act to defend and support Taiwan? What about Asia-Pacific countries like Australia, India, Indonesia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam? Even Europe has a role to play, with countries like France and the United Kingdom vocal about upholding the rule of international law in places like the South China Sea.

Too few are willing to stand up, cowed and intimidated by the threats that Beijing issues. Yet Taiwan needs international buttressing – it cannot withstand the might of China if it is left alone.

The violent events of 6 January in the Capitol Building demonstrated that the USA is struck down with cancerous internal malaise. Indeed, Beijing would have been delighted as the wild mob invaded the corridors of power, handing it the perfect propaganda opportunity to promote the benefits of stable Chinese socialism versus the uncertainty of democracy.

Under such conditions, the USA is currently distracted from international obligations and concerns, and Taiwan will surely not figure highly in Biden’s thinking. Xi also knows that democracies around the world are similarly distracted by COVID-19, and that alliances are in tatters after four years of Trump. Sensing this, the risk grows that China will do something aggressive, such as orchestrating a confrontation or seizing one of Taiwan’s offshore islands.

Amidst all this, the State Council has just issued a new white paper entitled China’s International Development Cooperation in the New Era. It concluded, “Confronted by acute global challenges, no country can achieve lasting stability and development without solidarity, cooperation and a partnership featuring peaceful and mutually beneficial cooperation, equality, openness, inclusiveness and shared growth.”

The document finished by saying, “China has entered a new development phase and is about to embark on a quest to fully build itself into a modern socialist country. It always considers its own growth in the context of the common development of all humanity. It closely relates its future to the fortunes of other countries, and binds the interests of the Chinese people to the common interests of all peoples. China will stay true to its original principles regarding international development cooperation. As a builder of world peace, a contributor to global prosperity and a defender of international order, it will continue to cooperate on international development and contribute even more to improving the common wellbeing of humanity and building a global community of shared future.”

These words do not provide any solace whatsoever, for they are mere words laced with Chinese slogans repeated ad nauseam. The fact is that China is predatory, that it puts the communist party’s interests above those of the Chinese people or of anyone else, and that it threatens the very existence of Taiwan. It does not respect others nor international law.

Yielding to China’s inevitable strength is not pragmatism, for Beijing will continue to demand more and more from supplicants. This was all harshly demonstrated in 2020, when India discovered that pandering to China always ends in tears. The PLA scrabbled to occupy more territory along the disputed border, and Beijing has still not retreated. Although the current standoff along the border is costing India manpower, money and intense discomfort that it can ill afford during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the only way that China can be treated. If China is allowed to carry on unmolested, it will take every advantage.

One hopes that Biden learns this painful lesson quickly, although it was sadly one he was blindly insensible to in his eight years as US vice president from 2009-17. (ANI)

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