13 September 2021   Leave a comment

The Chinese media outlet, Global Times, which often reflects the official position of the Chinese Communist Party, has published an editorial entitled “PLA jets will eventually patrol over Taiwan: Global Times editorial“. The editorial comes as part of an escalating war of words and actions between the US and China over the status of Taiwan. Taiwan has historically been considered part of China but after the Chinese Communist Party took control of the mainland in 1949 (on October 1, 1949 which means that an important anniversary is coming up), the Nationalist government of China fled to the island and declared its independence as the Republic of China to differentiate itself from the communist controlled People’s Republic of China. From that time until 1972, the US recognized Taiwan as the legitimate government of the people of China and Taiwan held the UN Security Council seat reserved for China.

In 1972, the US and China signed what is known as the Shanghai Communique. The agreement was to put off the question of the status of Taiwan until at some point in the future. The Public Broadcasting System characterized the essential parts of the agreement:

“The U.S. declared its ‘interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves,’ and affirmed a total U.S. military withdrawal from the island as an ‘ultimate objective.’ The U.S. also agreed to ‘progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes,’ thereby giving China a stake in the abatement of the Vietnam War.

“For its part, the PRC firmly rejected any ‘two Chinas’ formulation, declaring unequivocally that ‘the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government of China’ and ‘Taiwan is a province of China.’ The U.S., in deft phrasing, acknowledged ‘that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China,’ but neatly avoided the question of who should govern this ‘one China”.

In 1978, US President Carter, “severed US relations with the government on Taiwan and established formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.” That should have been the end of the matter.

But many in the US believed that Taiwan deserved support in order to show that the US condemned Communist rule in China and also because Taiwan became an important economic partner to the US and the world. Indeed, Taiwan is home to one of the most important semiconducting corporations in the world, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). In addition, Taiwan is one of the most important purchaser of US weaponry, buying $5 billion of arms from the US in 2020.

China’s rhetoric on Taiwan has become increasingly more strident as China has become more powerful. For example, the precipitating event for the Global Times editorial was a seemingly innocuous decision by the US to rename Taiwan’s mission office to the US from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) to the Taiwan Representative Office. The Council on Foreign Relations published a short essay highlighting the significance of the change:

“If the Biden administration allows Taiwan to rebrand TECRO as the Taiwan Representative Office, it would undermine the logic of the unofficial nature of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. Removing the reference to economic and cultural ties and adding the word ‘Taiwan’ would implicitly upgrade the status of the office to something more akin to an embassy. Such a decision would also strengthen the hand of those in Taipei who advocate additional moves to make the relationship more official, such as allowing Taiwan’s president to visit Washington, DC.

“Some will argue that renaming the office will not start a war with China, so the United States should go ahead with the move. But that is not a sufficient way to measure whether the United States should undertake a given policy. Instead, the United States should keep in mind whether a policy sends mixed messages to Taiwan regarding the U.S. position on Taiwan independence and emboldens those on Taiwan who advocate for independence. It also should consider whether a proposed policy is intellectually consistent with the U.S. One-China policy and sends the proper signals to its own bureaucracy. The fact that TECRO is such a unique name forces those in the U.S. government who do not routinely work on U.S.-Taiwan relations to ask why it is different and what is unique about U.S.-Taiwan ties. This has a useful disciplining effect on the government.”

Similarly, China condemned the recent decision of Lithuania to open diplomatic ties with Taiwan, leading to an impasse which threatens to embroil the entire European Union.

The willingness of China to break its agreement with Great Britain over the status of human rights in Hong Kong (the “two Systems Agreement” of 1997 which was supposed to be in force until 2047) suggests that China is feeling less constrained by other powers. Its continued military build-up in the South China Sea, which is flatly inconsistent with established international law on maritime matters, is another example of its growing confidence. Finally, after four years of former President Trump’s efforts to put “America First”, there is a clear fraying of US alliance ties and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is interpreted by some as a weakening of US will to defend allies. Clearly, Taiwan is worried about its ties with the US and it has dramatically increased its defense budget.

It is difficult for me to speculate about how this matter will develop. I think that Chinese President Xi would like to resolve the issue in China’s favor before 1 October 2022 and there is little question that Xi has consolidated his position as the Chinese leader to an incredible degree. But I have no idea how US President Biden regards the Chinese position on Taiwan. More than likely, the Afghanistan withdrawal makes it difficult for President Biden to back down if challenged by China.

The US position on Taiwan is tenuous since it has already conceded that Taiwan is part of China–it is politically very difficult for states to support territories that break away from a central government. The US Navy remains a formidable force, but it would be fighting in China’s backyard. The best course of action for the US would be to keep a low profile and to highlight the advantages to China of maintaining open markets for the advanced technology developed in Taiwan. The US should not think seriously about using military force to support an independent Taiwan.

Posted September 13, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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