Chinese H-6K bombers and Su-30 fighters fly above the Taiwan Strait. Photo: PLA

On March 31, two Chinese J-11 fighter jets crossed the Taiwan Strait’s “median line,” stoking a 10-minute standoff with Taiwanese jets in the island’s airspace. The situation in the Taiwan Strait is treacherous and the potential for a war between Taiwan and mainland China is likely to grow this year. The tensions has escalated since Chinese President Xi Jinping warned Taiwan that unification must be the ultimate goal and that efforts to assert full independence for the island could be met by armed force.

Given the fierce competition between the United States and China lately, Taiwanese people are increasingly worried that Taiwan may be used as a bargaining chip in the process. Taiwanese detente with China is clearly in the US interest.

News coming out of Washington in recent days points to several senior US military officers experiencing unprecedented uncertainty and anxiety, with China possibly prepared to engage with the United States militarily over Taiwan. The risk of a serious crisis in the Taiwan Strait is growing. Cross-Strait relations have chilled as a result of the unwillingness of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to embrace the so-called 1992 Consensus. Beijing’s tactics have included conducting military exercises to intimidate Taiwan.

Several broad issues are increasing the risk of a crisis. The first relates to a speech by Xi in January, in which he stated that unification with Taiwan was “a must for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the new era.” As well, there are changing perceptions within China of the regional military dynamics and growing confidence in the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army, potentially leading to the most serious crisis in the cross-Strait relationship in more than two decades. A third factor is that US policy toward Taiwan is changing in a way that China perceives as more antagonistic, especially against the backdrop of deteriorating US-China relations.

US President Donald Trump’s administration has openly declared China to be a geopolitical rival and a revisionist power, and has imposed trade tariffs against many Chinese products. The US Navy has increased the number of “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea to challenge China’s maritime claims and conducted many Taiwan Strait transits since 2018.

A cross-Strait crisis in the run-up to Taiwan’s 2020 elections or shortly after would present serious risks to US interests. If China intensifies pressure on Taiwan ahead of the island’s elections, a number of mitigating options would be available to Washington to help avert and de-escalate a crisis. These options include encouraging Beijing and Taipei to avoid a breakdown in relations by helping to establish bilateral trust, and even to reach a political rapprochement.

Experts caution that any recalibration of Washington’s position vis-à-vis Taipei could trigger heightened tensions across the delicate triangle of ties among the United States, Taiwan and China. Though Taiwan diverges on how best to manage the island’s relationship with China, observers say both Taipei and Beijing must take responsibility for avoiding a crisis.

The increase in the possibility of gunfire on both sides of the Strait increases the necessity and urgency of signing a peace treaty. Such a treaty is central to the stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region and therefore is of vital importance to the United States.

Regardless of the political tensions between the two, their deep and abiding cultural roots have entwined people on both sides of the Strait. Alongside economic concerns, thousands of travelers and migrant businesspeople from Taiwan have brought the two sides closer together. Long after the 1992 Consensus conflict between Taiwan’s Tsai and China’s Xi has dimmed, perhaps Trump can give Taiwan a role in measures to encourage China to accept it as a friendly neighbor and to reaching a peace treaty.

In the face of obstacles that could not be overcome by a peace treaty, the US should reflect on the possibility of achieving it in two stages. Before Beijing and Taipei enter negotiations on a peace agreement, Washington should set up a medium-range stage to end the hostilities between the two sides, then enter the track of peaceful exchanges and mutual trust on both sides of the Strait, and carefully regulate the development of cross-Strait integration into the future.

The two sides of the Strait have long been addicted to the dispute over the 1992 Consensus and other issues, wasting too much time and resources. In order to improve people’s livelihoods, Washington should help to break the barriers and put an end to historical grievances and political differences through practical operations, and allow the two sides to solve problems on their own under their different political systems and life values, so as to seek the integration of peace and stability and future development.

The situation is changing for several reasons, and the danger of a crisis appears to be growing as Taiwan’s 2020 elections approach. It is yet to be seen how influential calls for a peace treaty with China will be from next year’s presidential contestants.

Meanwhile, Washington should aim to strengthen deterrence while working to broker a peace treaty. Rather than waiting for the situation to deteriorate before taking action, it should consider and prepare to implement a treaty to avert a cross-Strait crisis, as well as being better positioned to deal with one effectively if it cannot be avoided.

The United States should encourage China and Taiwan to maintain a stable and constructive relationship. A win-win solution is only in the offing if the United States takes steps to help Taipei and Beijing reach a political rapprochement and mitigate a confrontation and China faces the reality of divided rule and treats Taiwan with parity and dignity.

As a flashpoint for conflict, Taiwan has been on the back burner for decades. The best solution to avert a crisis is for Washington, particularly the Trump administration, to practice some tough coordination to help Taipei and Beijing to reach a political rapprochement seriously and sign a peace treaty to avert a crisis.

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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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