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Two US warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait on April 28 as the Pentagon increases the frequency of naval activity in the strategic waterway despite opposition from China. The move risks further raising tensions between the United States, Taiwan and China, and it could lead to a disastrous war. The three parties are on a collision course, and unless something dramatic changes, armed conflict is virtually inevitable. Although there is still time to avert a calamity, time is running out.

Washington analysts continue to see an attempted People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invasion of Taiwan as prohibitively risky for China, but the threat is real and must be taken seriously. The question is, will the US go to war with China for Taiwan, and consequently face catastrophic consequences? The answer is no. It is easier to use allies to duel it out. These actions are on display globally as you see many countries are being drawn into the US effort to contain China’s growing influence. And they are taking some hard knocks for it.

The US is trying to figure out how to safeguard its interests in the Indo-Pacific against Chinese hegemony. Taiwan is a small player in this expansive game, and therefore a very convenient card to play. With China’s power increasing by the day, Taiwan is ultimately better off reaching a political rapprochement with China instead of relying on the US being ready to defend it.

When you consider all of Washington’s security partnerships around the world, the one with Taiwan seems unique. The danger of a new cross-strait crisis is increasing as a result of developments in the United States, China, and Taiwan. The US has several preventive options to try to avoid another crisis. These options include helping Taiwan to confront Beijing’s comprehensive campaign to exert control over Taiwanese politics and society, which is steadily eroding a decades-old status quo that has maintained a shaky peace.

The complicated trilateral relationship has been heating up. On April 15, China flexed its muscles by sending warplanes to circumnavigate Taiwan. Just two weeks earlier, two Chinese J-11 fighter jets crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which separates China and Taiwan, for the first time since 1999. The incursion came days after two US navy ships traversed the strait. The risk of a serious crisis between China and Taiwan is growing. Political trends in Taiwan, domestic politics in China, and changing US policy toward the Indo-Pacific are increasing the risk of a cross-strait crisis in the coming months.

The United States should take steps to help avoid and, if necessary, mitigate a confrontation

The United States should take steps to help avoid and, if necessary, mitigate a confrontation. The relationship between the US and Taiwan was sustained by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and Six Assurances, alongside the Three Joint Communiqués. These laws and assurances are not, in fact, contradictory, but give Washington room to maneuver and shift between Taipei and Beijing. Taken together, a number of acts in recent years – notably the National Defense Authorization Acts, the Taiwan Travel Act, the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, and the Taiwan Assurance Act – have put the US-Taiwan relationship on a firmer footing, pushing it toward a more normal relationship.

The United States stresses that maintaining the status quo will not allow China to commit armed forces or allow Taiwan to move toward independence. Successive US administrations, for various reasons of national interest, have taken different approaches to addressing cross-strait issues. However, the Trump government’s “deal-style diplomacy” has made the future of cross-strait relations difficult to predict.

The Trump government has been playing the Taiwan card based on US national interests, but from Taipei’s standpoint, Taiwan’s national interests might be put at tremendous risk. President Tsai Ing-wen’s government cannot be ignorant of this logic, but because of its Taiwan independence ideology and the selfish workings of “the interests of political parties are higher than the national interests,” it thus endlessly, in rhetoric and policies, ratcheted up the anti-China rhetoric. In recent months, such operations have become especially obvious. Tsai has frequently manipulated cross-strait relations as a bargaining chip in her bid for re-election, leaving Taiwan to move into a perilous situation.

However, US-Taiwan relations have entered a new era. First, it is Beijing that will not tolerate Tsai returning to the 1992 Consensus, and this year Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech has thrown out the “two-system solution” more directly, shaking Taiwan. Tactically, Beijing has repeatedly declared in the past that it will not give up the settlement of the Taiwan issue by force, thereby constraining Taiwan independence, and is now constantly intimidating Taiwan with its increasingly powerful military force.

There has also been a shift in attitude in Washington. The Trump administration has continued to subvert the traditional American diplomatic strategy, and its cross-Strait policy is no exception. There are even advocates in Congress for a more comprehensive bill to replace the Taiwan Relations Act to provide better protection for Taiwan. As a result, Taiwan and the United States began to strengthen security cooperation, thus allowing political relations to strengthen. But the good relationship between Washington and Taipei is only a momentary phenomenon within Trump’s tenure, so how long it can last remains to be seen.

The main factor behind the gradual tightening of China’s policy toward Taiwan is, of course, a fear of Washington’s cross-Strait policy. If the United States only treats Taiwan as a bargaining chip, there may be room for trading in the US-China negotiations, but Beijing’s real concern is that if Washington gradually steps on the red line of the “one China principle,” it will directly hit Beijing’s sensitive nerves.

Tensions between the US and China, including economic and trade frictions, can be alleviated. What is really tricky is the Taiwan issue, which has been brought up regularly in US-China talks in the past and is the most difficult challenge facing Beijing. As a result, China has come out against Taiwan and also warned the United States not to interfere.

At present, the new trilateral relationship is indeed manifested in three aspects: the strategic competition between the United States and China is becoming more and more fierce; the Tsai government is intensifying its resistance to China in the name of national security in the light of next year’s presidential election; and the vicious circle formed by these will mean Taiwan is sandwiched in the meantime and could become the front line of a conflict.

Through the enactment of the TRA and the Six Assurances, alongside the Three Joint Communiqués, the US provided 23 million people with specific security guarantees, allowing Taiwan to develop in a stable and prosperous manner. As far as Taiwan is concerned, it cannot afford to lose the US, but Taipei cannot forever blindly consider China a foe. If the two sides of the strait remain in confrontation, then much time has been wasted over the past 40 years. Due to the fluctuations in cross-Strait relations, finding the best way to protect the people’s welfare is a tremendous challenge for Taiwan.

Increasingly, that security partnership will be tested by the continuing modernization of the PLA. What Taiwan does to ensure its security is also a critical variable. Still, Washington should probably pull out the dual-deterrence playbook and consider issuing an appropriate mix of warnings and reassurances to Beijing and Taipei, in the knowledge that China’s military power will only grow in the years ahead.

What would the US do if Beijing decided to take Taiwan by force? Studies show only a minority of Americans would favor US soldiers fighting to defend Taiwan, but a decision by Washington not to intervene in a Taiwan Strait conflict would represent a dramatic shift in US strategy. In reality, China’s appetite for Taiwan will only grow and the United States must help Taiwan resist Chinese dominance. But time is running out fast for the Trump administration to show the 23 million people inhabiting the island that Washington supports Taiwan’s sovereignty and democratic system, and the security of the Taiwan Strait.

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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