Taiwan is fast emerging as a major acid test for the Biden administration’s policy in Asia, one that will likely make the difference between war and peace in the volatile South China Sea.
Chinese fighter jets and nuclear-capable bombers have stepped up intrusions into Taiwanese airspace in recent weeks, prompting Taipei to deploy missile systems and issue stern warnings for the planes to leave.
Beijing’s latest provocation coincided with President Tsai Ing-wen’s appointment of former general Chiu Kuo-chen, a graduate of the United States Army War College, as its new defense minister.
The US-trained Taiwanese defense chief is expected to oversee a steady expansion in military cooperation with the Pentagon while turbocharging Taiwan’s asymmetric and defensive capabilities’ development in light of China’s rising threats.
China has reacted with its usual tough rhetoric to any signs of enhanced US-Taiwan strategic cooperation. On Sunday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned the US against “crossing [red] lines and playing with fire” and that “there is no room for compromise” on the Taiwan issue.
In response, the White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated the US “will stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security and values in the Indo-Pacific region.”
That message jibes with Biden’s announced strategy of building an alliance of like-minded democracies to contain China’s Indo-Pacific ambitions. It also recognizes Taiwan’s strategic importance for America’s naval security posture in the region.
Both sides recognize the potential for a conflict over Taiwan is rising. Former national security adviser and general H R McMaster has warned rising cross-straits tensions represent the “most significant flashpoint” for US-China relations.
He said, “Taiwan is the next big prize” for China following its quashing of democratic protests in Hong Kong and increasing domination of the South China Sea.
Beijing considers the self-governing island, which has enjoyed de facto independence since the end of World War II, as a renegade province that must be reunified with the mainland.
In recent years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has warned that the reincorporation of Taiwan under Beijing’s rule is “inevitable” and should be achieved by “all necessary means” including possible armed invasion.
In a major departure from its predecessors, the Trump administration dramatically increased military as well as diplomatic support to Taiwan, including the deployment of a cabinet secretary and several high-level Pentagon officials to the island.
Trump also relaxed age-old restrictions on official-level exchanges with Taipei, to Beijing’s chagrin.
Despite Beijing’s hopes of a US policy reset, the Biden administration has come under and reacted to bipartisan pressure to maintain robust assistance to Taiwan.
The first sign of continuity with Trump was the unprecedented decision by Biden’s transition team to formally invite its de facto ambassador to Washington, Hsiao Bi-khim, to the presidential inauguration ceremony in January.
The Biden administration has also expanded naval deployments to China’s adjacent waters, including the Taiwan Straits, in a demonstration of its resolve to remain as an anchor of stability in the region.
In February, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain conducted a Taiwan Strait transit dubbed as “routine” and conducted “in accordance with international law,” the US Seventh Fleet said in a statement released online at the time.
“The ship’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The United States military will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” it continued.
The Trump administration conducted 13 freedom of navigation deployments through the Taiwan Strait during its tenure.
Key allies such as France have also followed suit, deploying a nuclear attack submarine to China’s adjacent waters in order to “affirm that international law is the only rule that is valid, whatever the sea where we sail.”
In 2019, France conducted its first-ever patrol in the Taiwan Straits, provoking China’s ire at the time.
Other like-minded powers such as Germany, Britain and Australia are expected to conduct similar operations in the area in the coming months, as the Biden administration seeks to assemble a coalition of deterrence against Chinese naval assertiveness across the Indo-Pacific.
A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think tank, has warned that China’s increasingly aggressive actions against Taiwan could turn into a “dangerous flashpoint” for the Biden administration.
In late February, Taiwan’s air force was forced to scramble for a second straight day as tens of Chinese fighter jets and bombers carried out aggressive drills close to the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands in the South China Sea.
In a single day, as many as nine People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft flew near the disputed areas, followed by 11 other the following day, including two nuclear-capable H-6 bombers, an anti-submarine aircraft and eight fighter jets.
The Chinese aerial drills come on the heels of unprecedented “four seas” naval drills by China over the past year, including the deployment of Chinese aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Straits.
Chinese fighter jets now pierce into the southwestern corner of Taiwan’s air defense zone on a near daily basis, as Beijing steps up its campaign of intimidation against the island in what could be a foretaste of the conflict to come.
During his early-March speech before China’s National People’s Congress, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reiterated the “one China” policy and warned “We will remain highly vigilant against and resolutely deter any separatist activity seeking Taiwan independence.”
Yet, the Chinese leader also made it clear that his country seeks to “promote exchanges, cooperation and integrated development across the Taiwan Strait. Together we can shape a bright future of rejuvenation for our great nation.”
In her New Year address, President Tsai sought to de-escalate tensions by reiterating, “As long as the Beijing authorities are determined to defuse antagonism and improve cross-strait relations, in line with the principles of reciprocity and dignity, we are willing to jointly promote meaningful dialogue.”
Last month, she also appointed a more pragmatic mainland affairs minister, Chiu Tai-san, to prevent unnecessary escalation and explore diplomatic means to restore a measure of stability in cross-strait relations.
One key area of focus is finding a new and mutually acceptable understanding around the so-called “1992 consensus,” whereby both sides agreed that there is “one China” yet disagree as to what shape it should take, allowing Taipei to maintain a semblance of de facto independence until a final formula of reunification is negotiated.
Chiu has made it clear that China’s interpretation of the “one China” policy, namely the reincorporation of Taiwan under a Hong Kong-style “One Country, Two Systems” principle, is “unacceptable to Taiwan’s people.”
As Biden’s top Asia policy coordinator, Kurt Campbell, clarified during a high-level forum in Taiwan last year, the US prefers a “productive and quiet dialogue” between Beijing and Taipei, since this is “in everyone’s best strategic interests.”