What Can We Make of the US-China Tension Over Taiwan?
By Anwar A. Khan*
HAVANA TIMES – The visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan gripped the entire world in the early days of August as the public followed the crisis it spawned literally live. The official Beijing spewed threats of dire reprisals against Washington in retaliation for the visit erupting in an unprecedented military brouhaha around the island. Defiantly, the US proceeded with the visit while also beefing up its military presence in the region having emphasized that it was not interfering with China’s sovereignty but only acting “in support of democracy in the region.”
Mainland China’s jumpiness and the US administration’s strikingly unyielding stance can be attributed to Taiwan’s unique significance for China and its future. The Taiwanese are not what one may call “typical secessionists”. Its international recognition status notwithstanding, the Taipei regime enjoys a high degree of legitimacy, something both Beijing and its opponents are well aware of. Should China become destabilized, the trump card of Taiwan will inevitably be played in an attempt to fragment and destroy the country.
China is quite adamant to make sure that no country in the world recognizes Taiwan’s independence and establishes diplomatic contacts with the breakaway island. Beijing views the Taiwanese as particularly dangerous separatists who must be returned to the fold of their mainland motherland. Upon close examination, however, Taiwan that its inhabitants refer to as the Republic of China, may not be entirely that “separatist.”
Following its defeat in China’s civil war fought between the Communists and the Kuomintang regime headed up by the nationalist Chiang Kai-shek, his government fled to the island of Taiwan. The exiled government managed to hold on to power, retain the name of their old country and maintain nominal continuity of the government that can be traced back to the original Republic of China. Admittedly, the fact that it was the government in Taipei that had held China’s spot in UN organizations including its Security Council by virtue of being a victor in World War Two, is certainly an oddity, but an oddity that stems precisely from the Taiwanese regime’s high degree of legitimacy.
In the early 1970s, the immense and wealthy mainland China made peace with the United States and launched a successful campaign to delegitimize Taiwan in the eyes of the international community. By using a combination of political pressure and financial leverage, Beijing ultimately succeeded in “getting justice served.”
At the moment, the overwhelming majority of countries (including the US and countries of the West) recognize only People’s Republic of China’s as a legitimate Chinese state. The reality, however, is that the problem with Taiwan’s high legitimacy isn’t going anywhere despite that! And it can only be addressed either by way of the island’s voluntary reunification with mainland China (perhaps with a special status and while maintaining a separate economic system) or by it being occupied by China’s People’s Liberation Army putting an end to the regime of successors to the Kuomintang.
But for as long as Taiwan’s current regime continues to exist, there remains a possibility that the US might try to pursue yet another probable scenario. The US could try to use this artificially engineered crisis around Taiwan while taking advantage of Beijing seeming unwillingness to go all out (since the island’s 200,000-strong military is a formidable opponent even without counting any possible US assistance) against China. Coupled with the ongoing economic crisis, this could deal China a painful blow and result in domestic unrest as has happened on many an occasion in China’s long history.
Should this happen, Taiwan’s Kuomintang regime with its nearly centennial uninterrupted history could become a source of legitimacy for those provinces of China that will have broken away from Beijing (if that is what this new potential domestic unrest leads to). Beijing is well aware of such an eventuality and this explains its intransigence where it comes to its position on the “island’s separatists.” But again, the same can be as clearly seen from Washington, Tokyo, Seoul, or Canberra. And that is why, nobody is going to abandon Taiwan. On the contrary, it will be increasingly used as a battering ram against People’s Republic of China.
But after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s unwarranted visit to Taiwan on last Tuesday, the world is now bracing for China’s operose response.
President Xi Jinping told US leader Joe Biden during a phone call last week that “whoever plays with fire will get burnt” in reference to Taiwan, which China regards as its territory. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian then said on last Monday the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “won’t sit idly by” if Pelosi becomes the highest-ranking American official to visit Taiwan in 25 years.
The bellicose rhetoric and growing animosity in both countries add to pressure on Xi to take a strong response, particularly as he prepares for a twice-a-decade party meeting later this year at which he is expected to secure a third term in office.
While the US scrapped its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan in 1979, China must weigh the possibility America’s military would get drawn in. Biden said in last May that Washington would defend Taiwan in any attack from China, although the White House clarified he meant the US would provide military weapons in line with existing agreements.
“The big constraint on both sides is still the risk of a war that would just be too costly from either side’s perspective,” Andrew Gilholm, director of analysis for China and North Asia at Control Risks, said on Bloomberg TV.
China will have to respond militarily “in a way that’s a clear escalation from previous shows of force”, said Amanda Hsiao, a senior analyst at Crisis Group based in Taiwan.
Taiwan has been heartened by continued US support offered by the Biden administration, which has repeatedly talked of its “rock-solid” commitment to the island.
*The writer is an independent political analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh who writes on politics, political and human-centered figures, current and international affairs