Parlous times: U.S.-China faceoff imperils Taiwan

October 06, 2020 08:55
Photo: Reuters

Mounting tension in the deteriorating China-United States relationship led recently to an unprecedented two-day military maneuver involving dozens of Chinese military aircraft crossing the median line in the Taiwan Strait, precipitating fears of an imminent assault on Taiwan.

The simulated attack, involving 37 warplanes, included more than 30 sophisticated fighter jets, two heavy bombers and an antisubmarine aircraft. It occurred during the visit of a senior American official, Under Secretary of State Keith Krach, who was in Taipei to attend a memorial service for the late president Lee Teng-hui and to confer with Taiwan officials, including President Tsai Ing-wen.

Although Washington and Beijing are quarreling over trade, technology and the coronavirus, the most sensitive issue by far remains Taiwan, which China claims but which the United States has vowed to help defend through providing arms and, possibly, other actions.

China assured the United States in the 1970s that it would seek unification through peaceful means but refused to disavow the use of force. Washington “acknowledged” Beijing’s position that “there is but one China and Taiwan is a part of China.”

Four decades later, neither side has shifted. The United States still insists on a peaceful resolution. Most people in Taiwan, now fully democratic, feel no urge to unite with the mainland.

China still says that it wants peaceful unification, but in 2005 it passed a law to give itself the right to “employ non-peaceful means … to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

While Chairman Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China, said in the 1970s that he could wait 100 years for unification with Taiwan, the current leader, Xi Jinping, said in 2013, months after he became president, that the issue “cannot be passed on from generation¬ to generation.”

Beijing is angered by what it considers to be American violations of the “one China” policy, which the United States endorsed when the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1979. Aside from visits to Taiwan by senior American officials, China is particularly angered by the sale of increasingly sophisticated weaponry to Taiwan, which it considers a violation of a communique signed by the two countries in 1982.

In that accord, the Chinese government stated a “fundamental policy of striving for peaceful reunification of the motherland” while the United States government said that “it intends gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan, leading, over a period of time, to a final resolution.”

A few weeks ago, a senior State Department official, David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, gave a talk in which he cited a recently declassified memo issued by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 explaining the U.S. position on arms sales to Taiwan.

In it, Reagan wrote: “The U.S. willingness to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan is conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of the Taiwan-PRC differences. In addition, it is essential that the quality and quantity of the arms provided Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC.”

The memo, declassified last year, clearly links U.S. arms sales to the threat China poses to Taiwan; thus, U.S. arms sales could be increased rather than reduced, depending on Chinese actions.

Stilwell also explained that while Beijing “asserts sovereignty over Taiwan,” the United States, in its one-China policy, “takes no position on sovereignty over Taiwan.”

Actually, linkage of China’s peaceful intent to American policy dates back to 1979, when the two countries established diplomatic relations.

The Taiwan Relations Act, passed by the United States Congress to provide a legal framework for people-to-people relations with Taiwan in the absence of formal ties, linked American relations with the mainland to Beijing’s treatment of Taiwan.

“The United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means,” it states.

That is to say, if China should use “non-peaceful means” to take over Taiwan, it would remove the ground for Washington’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing in the first place.

Interestingly, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of Beijing’s nationalistic Global Times newspaper, approached the issue from the Chinese end. He tweeted September 24 that if United States forces return to Taiwan – effectively reversing the abrogation of the mutual defense treaty in 1979 – then the People’s Liberation Army “will definitely start a just war to safeguard China's territorial integrity.”

Thus, if either China or the United States acts in such a way as to nullify the other side’s expectations, then there may be a diplomatic break, or even a war.

This is no time to rock the boat.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.