It was nominally touted as a routine official visit to discuss the Covid-19 crisis and other health issues.
But when Health Secretary Alex Azar met Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on August 10, it marked the first time a serving, high-ranking US official visited the island since Washington broke off diplomatic relations with Taipei in favor of Beijing in 1979.
The political significance of Azar’s visit was not lost on China, which sees Taiwan as a breakaway province that should be united with the mainland. Shortly before Azar met Tsai, China flew J-11 and J-10 fighter aircraft across the centerline in the narrow strait that separates Taiwan from its giant neighbor.
According to the defense ministry in Taipei, the fighters were tracked down and “driven out” by patrolling Taiwanese aircraft. But the signal was clear in what is emerging as an epicenter flashpoint in the emerging new Cold War pitting the US and like-minded democracies versus China.
Azar, for this part, seized the opportunity to praise Taiwan’s democracy, telling the twice-elected Tsai that the island’s response to Covid-19 “has been among the most successful in the world, and that is a tribute to the open, transparent, democratic nature of Taiwan’s society and culture.”
Beijing, predictably, condemned the visit, calling it a threat to “peace and stability” — and promised an unspecified retaliation.
Without elaborating in detail, Asar said that his trip “demonstrates the robust US-Taiwan partnership on global health security, one of many aspects of our comprehensive friendship.”
He said the US considers “Taiwan to be a vital partner, a democratic success story and a force for good in the world.”
That said, US policy towards Taiwan’s status as a separate country or a Chinese province is somewhat ambiguous. Washington does not challenge the claim that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of it, which is what Beijing refers to as the “One China Principle.” But since 1979 the US has been careful not to endorse it.
Washington’s “One China Policy” means that it has chosen to recognize one Chinese government and that is Beijing’s.
“We still don’t take an official position on whether Taiwan’s part of China. We merely acknowledge that others do,” said a US-based security analyst. “Tricky, but I think that’s what it boils down to. Beijing often willingly confuses our One China Policy for its own One China Principle.”
That ambiguity has made it possible for the US to sell sophisticated weaponry to Taiwan and, through the American Institute in Taipei, maintain close and often cordial relations with the island. Traditionally, the US Congress has always been more pro-Taiwan than the White House, no matter if it’s occupied by a Republican or Democrat.
But Donald Trump represents the first US president to be openly pro-Taiwan, a trend he set in train in a call with Tsai on December 2, 2016, before he was even inaugurated. Since then, there have been a series of unprecedented, high-level meetings between US and Taiwanese officials.
In July, Stanley Kao the head of Taiwan’s unofficial embassy in Washington referred to as a “representative office”, met with David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for the bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
The meeting took place just prior to Kao’s departure from Washington. His successor, Hsiao Bi-khim, also held talks with Stilwell at the US State Department upon her arrival in Washington at the end of July.
After the event, Hsiao wrote in Chinese on her Facebook page that “although we practiced social distancing, we wore, under our masks, smiles of pleasure for the meeting.”
Indeed, there has been a lot to smile about for the Taiwanese under Trump. In May last year, Taiwan’s national security chief David Lee met then White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, the first meeting of the kind since 1979.
In July last year Tsai herself spent four nights in the US in “transit” on her way to and from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Haiti – four states in the West Indies which recognize the Republic of China, the official name of Taiwan.
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang urged the US before Tsai’s visits — two days on her way to the West Indies and two on the way back — to not allow her to “transit, and cautiously and appropriately handle Taiwan related issues to avoid harming Sino-US relations and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
That warning was dutifully ignored in the US. While there Tsai met with congressmen, senators, the governor of Colorado and, for the first time, was permitted by US authorities to hold a press briefing.
Then in February this year, Taiwan Vice President-elect William Lai took part in an invitation-only event in Washington attended by Trump. Because his visit took place before he was sworn in, technically he was there as a private citizen.
But the visit underscored the warming of relations between Washington and Taipei, and the widening gap between Washington and Beijing.
For the first time since 1979, the US is now in effect treating Taiwan as a sovereign nation. But the crucial question remains whether that diplomatic support will translate into the US coming to Taiwan’s military rescue if Beijing as threatened launches an invasion on the island.
“I can’t imagine America not defending Taiwan,” said the US-based analyst. “We have no legal obligation to do so but I’m confident we would in such a scenario.”
Cognizant of the threat, Beijing is rapidly strengthening and modernizing its armed forces, including for its increasingly formidable navy. China’s build-up in the South China Sea should, according to several Western analysts, be viewed in that perspective.
By controlling the southern flank of the waters near Taiwan, China is preparing for an encirclement that would, as its most important components, not be a potentially disastrous Normandy-style invasion. Any invasion attempt would include military pressure as well as cyberattacks aimed at paralyzing Taiwan’s crucial infrastructure.
Some analysts see Beijing’s ultimate “reunifcation” deadline as 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. That would be well after the tenure of President Xi Jinping, who sees himself as the third unifying leader of the Chinese nation and is not expected to step down at the earliest in 2027.
Mao Zedong invaded and annexed Tibet while Deng Xiaoping oversaw negotiations leading to the handover of British Hong Kong and Portuguese Macau. Xi would undoubtedly love be able to present Taiwan on a platter to his comrades-in-arms in Beijing, which means that he could be in a rush to seize Taiwan.
Some analysts believe that could be as early as next year, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Communist Party of China. The Covid-19 crisis, some analysts reckon, has presented an opening for China as the US struggles to contain the epidemic at home.
But with the Trump administration’s cordial and strengthening relations with Taipei, any move by Beijing against the self-governing island will also depend on who is in the White House after the US presidential election in November. Until then, expect US-China relations to deteriorate and Taiwan to enjoy its strongest ties with America in recent memory.