The situation in the Taiwan Strait is treacherous and the potential for war between Taiwan and China is likely to grow this year. Should the United States stand idly by as tensions escalate in the strait? Of course not. But time is quickly running out for the United States to show the Taiwanese people that Washington supports the territory’s refusal to embrace Beijing’s “one China principle” of “one country, two systems.”
On April 15, Chinese warplanes – KJ-500 airborne early-warning and control aircraft, at least one Xian H-6K bomber, Shaanxi Y-8 transport aircraft, and Sukhoi Su-30 and Shenyang J-11 fighters – flew around Taiwan. They reportedly headed southeast through the Bashi Channel, skirted the Taiwan Strait and entered the western Pacific for training exercises. China’s H-6K bombers had rehearsed for an attack. It was believed to be the first time Chinese military aircraft had been seen flying around Taiwan in about a year.
Tensions have been elevated in recent weeks by a series of military-related incidents and the overall deterioration in relations between the United States, Taiwan, and China. The US wants Taiwan to remain peaceful and democratic for its 23 million people, and serve as a role model in the Indo-Pacific, as well as an example of Washington’s strategic credibility and dependability. The US’s principled dedication to freedom of choice is laudable, but it should take it further.
Tensions have been elevated in recent weeks by a series of military-related incidents
Tensions in the strait are escalating. Last month, two Chinese fighters deliberately crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait for the first time in almost two decades, entering Taiwanese airspace. Taiwan scrambled jets in response. The incident spurred Taipei to urge Washington to expedite Taiwan’s request to sell it 66 F-16V fighter aircraft and other weaponry that would greatly enhance the island’s air capabilities, strengthen military morale and show the world America’s commitment to Taiwan’s defense.
The crossover came a week after the US on March 24-25 sailed the USS Curtis Wilbur and a coast guard cutter through the Taiwan Strait, the third such voyage by American warships this year. The US has sent vessels through the Taiwan Strait almost once a month since October. The USS Stethem and a cargo ship passed through in February. The USS McCampbell and a fleet replenishment oiler sailed there in January. The USS Stockdale and another replenishment oiler sailed the strait in November, preceded by the USS Curtis Wilbur and USS Antietam in October.
China has up to 1,500 ballistic missiles based in Fujian province, directly across the narrow strait from Taiwan. Beijing would likely start with a naval and air blockade of Taiwan, with coordinated massive missile strikes on key island infrastructures. At the same time, China would launch cyber-strikes on Taiwan’s computer, early-warning, and communications networks. The Taiwanese military is woefully under-manned, unable to supply a bare minimum of soldiers to defend the island and is drastically short of all kinds of weaponry and armaments needed to defend itself against China.
By no means am I calling for an armed conflict, but there are risks to a strategy that strengthens US ties to Taiwan. If Washington continues to support Taiwan, it must simultaneously find ways to convince Beijing that the US does not seek to prevent an accommodation between Taipei and Beijing. President Donald Trump must not secretly promote independence or block progress in cross-strait relations. Rather, White House policy should aim to sustain a political rapprochement in which Taiwan and China can reach a long-term modus vivendi by themselves.
Let me make it clear that China is a threat in the Taiwan Strait. The threat is not new and it is one that Washington is not prepared for. It is vital that the United States recognizes this and works to contain mainland aggression. There is no doubt that the American people are tired of risk, war, and foreigners with problems, but they also believe in democracy and freedom.
Washington played a pivotal role in building Taiwan’s democratic system, celebrating it as a role model for the Indo-Pacific. China may be economically capitalist as much as communist, but politically it remains a communist autocracy. The contrast is stark, and the need for Washington to remain engaged with Taipei is clear, but this is not enough.
The course of cross-strait relations does not lead inexorably in any one direction. Taiwan’s options remain open. To prevent the Chinese from even thinking that Washington is going to abandon its commitment, the US should step up its engagement with Taiwan. Without Washington’s support, Taiwan would almost certainly be compelled, in some form, to accommodate China’s unification agenda, possibly laying to rest one of Asia’s most successful forays into democracy.
Cross-strait tensions have profound implications for the United States, Taiwan’s closest partner. America has long recognized that the defense of Taiwan is integral to its own security. Navigating between Taipei and Beijing has long been a challenge for Washington and it is getting harder. America must not idly stand by as the Taiwan Strait is treacherous, and must insist on the peaceful resolution of cross-strait disputes.