China will not hesitate to use force to take over Taiwan if the island formally declares its independence from the mainland, Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian said at a news briefing in Beijing on July 24.
“If there are people who dare to split Taiwan from the country, China’s military will be ready to go to war to firmly safeguard national sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity,” the defense official said.
To be sure, it was hardly the first time that China has issued such an invasion threat. But Wu’s statement came at a delicate juncture, with Hongkongers demonstrating against what they see as China’s attempts to undermine their city’s special autonomy and what Beijing perceives as other rising threats to its economic and strategic interests.
Beijing’s official policy for the reunification of the “motherland” – one country, two systems – is obviously not working in Hong Kong. Chinese state media, on July 10, went as far as to accuse the US of having a hidden hand in Hong Kong’s escalating protests.
That came two days after the US State Department announced a US$2.2 billion arms sales to Taiwan, a massive deal that aims specifically at neutralizing China’s threat to “re-unite” Taiwan by 2020 and thus has the potential to bring the US and China into near-term open conflict over the island’s future.
Combined with increasing US-China tensions in the South China Sea, where Beijing has established a strong and rising military presence on several disputed features and islands, and the ongoing US-China trade war, great power antagonism is arguably now at its highest level in the region since the last Cold War.
But America and China’s opposed positions on Taiwan have perhaps the greatest potential to tilt towards actual armed conflict. That’s in part because Taiwan is home to 24 million people in a democratic society that does not favor any “reunification” with the mainland.
But just as importantly is the island’s position in Washington’s decades-long “island-chain strategy”, which originally aimed at surrounding China and the then Soviet Union by sea but since the latter’s collapse in 1991 now centers on China.
In line with Washington’s more hawkish policies towards Beijing, US-Taiwan relations are drawing closer and becoming more obvious, despite Washington’s official policy of acknowledging Beijing’s “one China” policy, under which Taiwan is not a separate country but rather part of China.
Earlier this month, Taiwan’s democratically elected president Tsai Ing-wen stopped over in the US, first in New York and then Denver, before traveling on to Haiti, St Lucia, St Kitts and Neves, and St Vincent and the Grenadines, Caribbean countries which are among the 17 worldwide which maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan rather than China.
Not surprisingly, China responded angrily to Tsai’s US layovers. “China opposes official exchange between the US and Taiwan,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on July 12. Washington should not allow Tsai to transit and must “stop the official exchange with Taiwan.”
But China is hardly in a position to stop revived and warming US-Taiwan – or for that matter US arms sales to Taiwan. America’s support for the island’s autonomy is grounded in history, law and shared democratic philosophies.
When Washington decided to recognize Beijing over Taipei in 1979, it also passed the Taiwan Relations Act, under which Washington would continue to be represented in Taipei by an outfit known as the American Institute, which despite its innocuous name is a de facto embassy.
More significantly, the Act also said “the United States should make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity that may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability as determined by the President and the Congress.”
Leveraging the agitation and crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong, Tsai said on July 18 in St Lucia, the last stop on her state visit to Taiwan’s Caribbean allies, that her administration will consider granting Hong Kong dissidents asylum “based on humanitarian concerns.”
Since democratic reforms were first introduced in Taiwan in the 1980s, the island has become one of the Asia’s most vibrant democracies – a card the island can and does play against the authoritarian-ruled mainland to challenge Beijing’s positions and policies.
The crux of the matter is that there are, diplomatically speaking, two Chinas: the Republic of China, which was established in 1912 and ruled over the mainland until the Mao Zedong’s communists won the civil war and established the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
The old Republic of China survived only in Taiwan, with a new capital at Taipei, and on some smaller islands near the mainland.
It continued to represent the whole country, China, in the United Nations and its Security Council until 1971, when it was replaced by the People’s Republic of China. In 1979, the US switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
The outside world had no problem maintaining diplomatic relations with East as well as West Germany, when that country was divided, or with North and South Korea today. But Beijing has made it clear that it would never accept any such arrangement with Taiwan, which it officially considers a renegade province.
After successfully taking over Hong Kong from Britain in 1997 and Macau from Portugal in 1999, China wants Taiwan to rejoin the mainland on similar terms: local autonomy under Beijing’s supreme sovereignty.
At the same time, there is a strong opinion in Taiwan, including among members of Tsai’s party, the Democratic Progressive Party, that wants to see the Republic of China become not only de facto but also officially the Republic of Taiwan, a totally separate entity from the mainland.
In historical fact, Taiwan has been ruled from the mainland for only four years since 1895. From then until 1945 it was under Japanese rule and became separated from the mainland again when Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalist government relocated to Taiwan in 1949.
Many Taiwanese see no more reason why they should be “reunited” with the mainland than that, for instance, Ireland should be “reunited” with the United Kingdom.
The complexities of China’s modern history, and different interpretations of Taiwan’s status, is a problem facing any country that wants to maintain friendly relations with Beijing, the world’s cash-rich, second-largest economy.
For the US, a close ally of Taiwan during the Cold War, it has been an especially complex balance to strike. Washington cannot afford to abandon a strategically important ally like Taiwan, and it is bound anyway by the Taiwan Relations Act to defend the island from a Chinese attack.
Much to China’s chagrin, the US has been one of Taiwan’s main suppliers of military hardware. The US even expanded military ties with Taiwan after China fired missiles into the strait that separates the mainland from the island in 1995-1996.
Multi-billion dollar US arms sales to Taiwan have over the years shipped air defense and anti-ship missiles, anti-submarine helicopters, Patriot-capability defense systems, radars, mine sweepers, artillery, frigates and F-16 fighters. The fighter deals have also included training for Taiwanese pilots at the US’ Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
Under the Trump administration, the US has supplied Taiwan with weaponry and technologies specifically aimed at deterring China’s invasion threats, including torpedoes, air-to-ground missiles, electronic warfare systems and the maintenance of existing military hardware equipment.
The recently approved sale, meanwhile, includes a pledge to ship 108 M-1A2T Abrams tanks, which have an ammunition date link for “smart” shells with reprogrammable fuses.
The US will also ship Harcules armored vehicles and heavy equipment transporters, 250 Block I-92F shoulder-launched Stinger missiles, and four Block I-92 Stinger fly-to-buy missiles.
All of these advanced weapons are of a defensive nature and their deployment in Taiwan will no doubt give China second throughts about launching an invasion that might humiliatingly fail to take control of the island.
Under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, the US paused sales announcements for two years as relations with China warmed. In sharp contrast, the Trump administration has announced four arms sales packages since 2017, in a direct challenge to Beijing.
Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the US-Taiwan Business Council, said in an official statement on July 8: “These tanks and missiles will provide the Taiwan army with a modern capability to deter and complicate the operational planning of the People’s Liberation Army forces [of China] that coerce and threaten Taiwan.”
If Tsai’s stopovers in the US infuriated Beijing, its reaction to the most recent arms sale has been even harsher. China’s defense ministry stated on July 12 that it “undermines China’s sovereignty and national security” and Beijing made it clear that it would sanction any American companies involved in the arms deal.
The three companies most likely to be affected by Beijing’s sanctions are General Dynamics, which sells Gulfstream jets all over the world, Oshkosh, which has a huge market in China for emergency vehicles, and Raytheon, another company with substantial business in China.
If Beijing makes good on its sanctions threat, it could backfire as many companies and wealthy individuals are dependent on goods provided by the US companies. Gulfstream jets, for instance, are popular with wealthy Chinese businessmen; Oshkosh has long supplied crucial rescue aircraft and firefighting vehicles.
Whatever the outcome of the latest twist in broad US-China relations, the Taiwan issue will continue to rankle. As long as Tsai remains in power, Trump is in the White House and anti-China protesters agitate on the streets of Hong Kong, the potential for a US-China conflict over Taiwan’s future status will dangerously endure.