In a phone call on July 28, Chinese President Xi Jinping told U.S. President Joe Biden “that those who play with fire will perish by it”, referring to the Taiwan question. “The fact and status quo that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one and the same China” was “crystal clear”, he said, adding that China “firmly opposes separatist moves toward ‘Taiwan independence’ and interference by external forces”.
His comments underlined how Taiwan has become the latest flashpoint in already tense U.S.-China relations, with Beijing reacting angrily to a planned visit to Taiwan by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. If it goes ahead in the coming week when Ms. Pelosi will be travelling to Asia, it would mark the highest-level visit from the U.S. to the island since 1997.
Coupled with recent comments from President Biden suggesting that the U.S. had made a “commitment” to involve itself military if China attacked Taiwan — comments that the White House later walked back, subsequently clarifying there was no change in the long-standing U.S. approach of “strategic ambiguity” that leaves this question unanswered — Ms. Pelosi’s planned visit only confirmed views in Beijing that the U.S. was increasingly diluting its “One China Policy”.
Mr. Biden sought to dispel those perceptions in the phone call, and “reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to our One China Policy” and “underscored that the United States policy has not changed.” He did, at the same time, also express U.S. opposition “to unilateral changes to the status quo by either side”.
Indeed, if China has grievances with recent U.S. moves, both Washington and Taipei have viewed China’s increasing military activity, such as frequent aerial intrusions into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), and continued diplomatic pressure to isolate Taiwan internationally, which has seen the number of countries that maintain relations with Taiwan dwindle with many switching recognition to China, as destabilising cross-strait ties.
The comments from the two leaders, in a nutshell, captured the curious current dynamics over Taiwan. All three parties — China, the U.S. and Taiwan — say they broadly favour the current status quo. The problem is, each now views the other as trying to shift the status quo, with these already growing suspicions brought to the fore by the visit of Ms. Pelosi.
At the heart of the tensions is Taiwan’s unique position in this current status quo. Since the Kuomintang’s (KMT) Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island after losing the civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949, Taiwan has been entirely self-ruled, evolving from a military dictatorship to a thriving democracy. Cross-strait ties grew when the KMT was in office, with a landmark economic cooperation agreement and an unprecedented meeting between Mr. Xi and then President Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore in 2015.
After the KMT lost the election to the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, who has spoken more forcefully about preserving Taiwan’s status and was re-elected in 2020 with an even greater share of the vote, tensions with Beijing have risen. China has accused her of pursuing outright independence, although Ms. Tsai has made clear on numerous occasions that she only supports the status quo, a view, incidentally, shared by most people in Taiwan according to recent surveys.
For her part, President Tsai — China rejects the title of “President”, viewing Taiwan as a “province” — has accused China of trying to, step by step, change the status quo by isolating Taiwan internationally and carrying out more aggressive military drills, such as the ADIZ intrusions.
If Biden administration officials and the U.S. military have said they didn’t view the Pelosi visit as being helpful in the current climate, the U.S. has sought to convey to China that the President cannot dictate the actions of the Speaker of the House, a different branch of government. Chinese analysts have pooh-poohed that argument, particularly because both the President and the Speaker hail from the same party, although the visit does appear to be driven more by Ms. Pelosi’s inclinations — she has taken a strong stand on Tibet and Hong Kong in her long political career — than a major shift in U.S. policy.
What has added to the tensions is the timing is that the PLA will mark its 95th anniversary on August 1, and more significantly, Mr. Xi will preside over a once-in-five-year Party Congress likely in October. This presents for the Chinese leader a difficult balancing act between not appearing weak domestically at a politically sensitive time, or on the other hand taking steps that might lead to an uncontrolled escalation.
Indeed, the U.S. military has expressed concerns on what steps China could take. China’s response could range from announcing military drills near Taiwan to coincide with the visit, closing the airspace, or even a temporary naval blockade of Taiwan’s ports, moves that would lead to spiralling tensions.
The longer-term question hanging over the latest brewing crisis is Taiwan’s future. A government in Taipei declaring outright independence — something both the KMT and the DPP have so far eschewed — has been seen by Beijing’s analysts as a red line. Chinese analysts have been closely studying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, not only as a warning for the post-invasion challenges that emerge, but in assessing the appetite for U.S. intervention, whether politics in Washington would favour boots on the ground, or if the U.S., as in Ukraine, would limit itself to supplying arms and ammunition.
The U.S., like India and most countries, does not maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan and follows a ‘One China Policy’. This goes back to its establishing of ties with the PRC in the wake of Richard Nixon’s path-breaking 1972 visit. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 does, however, commit Washington to provide Taiwan the means to defend itself. Arms sales to Taiwan have been one of the thorniest issues in U.S.-China relations.
Increasingly drowned out in the China-U.S. geopolitical tussle is the question of what the 23 million people of Taiwan want for themselves. Surveys show growing numbers favour maintaining the status quo, and despite close familial ties with the mainland for many, fewer and fewer support the idea of unification. Ms. Tsai, last year, said Taiwan would “resist annexation”. “We call for maintaining the status quo, and we will do our utmost to prevent the status quo from being unilaterally altered,” she said, adding that “resolving cross-strait differences requires the two sides of the strait to engage in dialogue on the basis of parity.”
She also highlighted Taiwan’s importance in supply chains underscored by the global need for semiconductor chips, as well as its geopolitical importance. She referred specifically to the Quad — the India, Australia, U.S., Japan grouping — among those paying attention to the security situation in the Strait, saying that “the G7, NATO, EU, and Quad have all highlighted the importance of peace and security in the Taiwan Strait”.
Yet whether any of those parties would be inclined to involve themselves directly in a conflict is another question. For China, what it calls “reunification” remains the holy grail for the Chinese Communist Party and some analysts have speculated that Mr. Xi would see it as his lasting legacy. Mr. Xi, 69, will begin a third five-year term this year and could remain at the helm for another decade, or longer.
Few Chinese analysts expect a military venture in the near future but the Party has repeatedly made clear it would not rule out the use of force. China’s official White Paper on Taiwan declares it “is under no obligation to commit itself to rule out the use of force”, a position that still stands. “This is by no means directed against Taiwan compatriots, but against the scheme to create an ‘independent Taiwan’ and against the foreign forces interfering in the reunification of China, and is intended as a necessary safeguard for the striving for peaceful reunification,” the white paper says. “Resort to force,” it adds, “would only be the last choice made under compelling circumstances.”