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The US Navy sailed two ships through the Taiwan Strait on January 24, according to the US Pacific Fleet, which oversees operations in the area. China flew various military aircraft close to Taiwan on January 22, one week after the island held its first large-scale live-fire drills of 2019 to deter a potential invasion by the People’s Liberation Army.

As the United States battles it out with China over trade and the mood in Washington sours toward Beijing, there is a growing fear that Taiwan will end up suffering the consequences. A recent speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping has been widely interpreted as opening the door to an eventual war. Will the conflict of the so-called “1992 Consensus” be the spark that ignites a broader regional war? And how would the US react if Taiwan was being aggressed upon?

There are a few significant flashpoints in the world that would trigger a catastrophic conflict and there has been a lot of saber-rattling across the Taiwan Strait. Xi’s recent speech reiterated that China wants reunification and he is willing to resort to “all necessary means” to ensure that it happens. China carried out live-fire military drills and more maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait last year and the United States also sent a pair of military ships through the Strait. In other words, it’s time to start paying attention to the Taiwan Strait.

Xi’s recent speech reiterated that China wants reunification and he is willing to resort to ‘all necessary means’ to ensure that it happens

Ever since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen repudiated the “1992 Consensus,” Beijing has signaled its displeasure with her attitude and has been stepping up its pressure on Taiwan, indicating that the threat of conflict has intensified. Given the current tensions in the Taiwan Strait, even seemingly benign and regular actions can be interpreted by rival states as potentially malicious. It’s time to worry about Taiwan’s immediate future again.

Taiwan is sandwiched between the United States and China, so it is in an extremely awkward position. If it fails to handle it well, Taiwan’s economy could fall into a bottomless pit. The US plays the Taiwan card with Beijing, but may at any time let Taiwan become an “abandoned chess piece” in a geopolitical game. The United States has to date not made any economic commitments to Taiwan, so making the right decisions in the “1992 Consensus” conflict is seriously testing Tsai’s wisdom.

Trump’s turbulence is obvious in that he did not follow the norms and precedents of the past. Trump made decisions alone and acted alone, behaving emotionally. Because Trump frequently flip-flops in his rhetoric, his capriciousness could be an unbearable burden for smaller allies such as Taiwan, while the political calculations of big powers often leave smaller allies as victims. Although the US has recently passed a number of bills and new measures friendly to Taiwan, the symbols are still greater than the substance. Taipei should not suddenly assume that the US policy toward Taiwan will change greatly and adopt policies in a rash manner. Trump’s attitude about the Syria withdrawal merits consideration in Taipei.

Nevertheless, currently in the US-China wrangling, neither side is going to yield; at this time, if the Taiwan issue is introduced, it will, I am afraid, intensify the conflict. Taipei must not misjudge the situation and become the focus of Beijing pressure caused by external forces, creating substantive harm.

Regardless of whether or not Trump really plays the Taiwan card, all sides must behave with extreme caution and not make rash moves against the other side of the Taiwan Strait. The US, China and Taiwan must break out of the spiral of hostility and return to the track of strategic communication as well as risk control and management as soon as possible.

The situation in the Taiwan Strait is treacherous and there is no way Taiwan can defend itself without US intervention in the event of armed conflict across the Strait. Trump needs to make clear to China that the United States will stand by its friend and ally and that it would be best if China would accept Taiwan as a friendly neighbor.

Beijing’s continuing threats to take back Taiwan forcibly are a major source of instability in the East Asia region. Xi has given Taipei a clear indication of Beijing’s position on reunification and has ordered his country’s military to get ready for a battle. How would the US react to aggression by China toward Taiwan? It’s time to worry about Taiwan’s immediate future again.


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Kent Wang

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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