China and Taiwan: a ball to definitely keep an eye on

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for emerging security challenges at NATO

For the past few months I have been analysing a number of crises in and around Europe for my weekly series for Friends of Europe: Keeping an Eye on the Geopolitical Ball. These various crises pose different levels of risk in terms of escalation and possible spillover. The recent clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, with the potential involvement of Turkey and Russia, is but the latest example. Yet there is another current flashpoint, this time on the other side of the world – in the Asia-Pacific region – which has a much greater potential to unleash a global crisis and confrontation. It is the rapidly rising tension between China and Taiwan.

China’s animosity towards its former territory has a long history. It began as soon as Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his Nationalist forces arrived on the island of Formosa (just repossessed from the Japanese) in 1949 after their defeat at the hands of Mao Zedong and his Communist forces. China has always found it impossible to accept the existence of an alternative Chinese state (Taiwan often refers to itself as the Republic of China), particularly one like Taiwan which has become a vibrant democracy and an economic success story. As such, it represents a constant rebuttal to Beijing’s claim that Communist authoritarian rule and a highly regulated society can alone ensure the development and prosperity of the Chinese people.

For instance, Beijing has asserted that its system has proved superior to the democracies in clamping down on the Coronavirus and enabling a rapid return to economic growth. Yet Taiwan has also done remarkably well with a tiny number of COVID-19 deaths, an excellent health service and an effective track and trace system. Taiwan has shown it has learned the lessons of previous health scares, such as SARS or the avian flu to improve its resilience. In doing so, it has given the lie to the assertion that democracies are condemned to be less efficient than the authoritarian regimes.

This issue of legitimacy deriving from performance is one reason why Beijing has consistently announced that it will not indefinitely tolerate the “renegade province” off its eastern seaboard. It has never ruled out the use of force to achieve its objective of reunification and several crises in the past have underscored that it is serious in this respect.

In 1958, Chinese forces shelled Taiwan’s off-shore islands of Quemoy and Matsu, leading the Eisenhower administration in the US to rush naval forces as an inter-position force in the region. A similar scenario played out in the 1990s when the Clinton administration dispatched an aircraft carrier group to the Taiwan Strait to deter China from carrying out missile tests clearly targeted at Taiwan. Given the disproportionate force relationship between China and Taiwan, this US involvement has been a fundamental basis of deterrence, even if Washington has, thus far, not taken on an explicit commitment to defend Taiwan, only assisting it to defend itself.

Beijing hopes to convince Taipei that it has no viable future as an independent state

This US commitment is probably one reason why in recent times China has pursued a more diplomatic and economic track in its pursuit of reunification. Beijing has been pushing countries not to recognise Taiwan as a precondition for doing business with China or to take back that recognition if it were previously granted. Currently only fifteen states still have diplomatic relations with Taipei. By isolating Taiwan in this way, Beijing hopes to convince Taipei that it has no viable future as an independent state.

At the same time China has turned to soft diplomacy by increasing cross-straits trade, economic investments and movement of people both for tourism and business. These increasing contacts have not been designed only to make Taiwan more dependent on the mainland for its trade and economy but also to present a softer face of China, based less on the state and more on the natural affinity of two populations sharing the same culture and language.

In this way, Beijing had hoped that the two societies would grow closer together and give a boost to those political figures in Taipei who advocated closer links to China. For a while, this softer strategy seemed to be working with a pro-China politician occupying the presidency relatively recently and a Chinese Unification Promotion Party and the Kuomintang movement of the old 1940s Nationalists spearheading the anti-independence opposition.

Yet the mood in Taiwan has now veered away from China. President Tsai Ing-wen, in favour of Taiwan steering its own separate course, was recently re-elected to office in a landslide. China’s crackdown on Hong Kong and its imposition of a draconian security law, has convinced many in Taiwan that Beijing would not tolerate a ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement. The more nationalist and assertive narrative developed by China’s President, Xi Jinping, has unsettled many on the island. President Xi has been harsh in his criticism of Taipei and made frequent references to Beijing’s readiness to use force to bring Taiwan into line.

In recent weeks China has tested its massive arsenal of long-range missiles pointed at Taiwan. It has practised amphibious beach landings on Hainan island and its fighter jets have repeatedly crossed the median line between China and Taiwan in the strait. It has also launched a propaganda campaign on TV and the social media portraying heroic invasions of Taiwan backed up by nationalist rhetoric. One clip even showed Chinese forces invading the US island of Guam and seizing Anderson Air Force Base.

This is a situation rife with the potential for miscalculation, surprise and shocks

This may just be posturing and another round of pressure on Taipei not to declare formal independence. Yet it comes at a time of worsening US-China relations, when Beijing sees the US in turmoil and decline, gripped by COVID-19 and civil unrest, polarised in the run-up to the presidential election. Some commentators have even speculated that President Xi wants the recovery of Taiwan to be the crowning achievement of his years of rule and his legacy.

Thus, this is a situation rife with the potential for miscalculation, surprise and shocks. What should the EU and its member states, as well as the wider international community be doing?

The US position is clear. It is to help Taiwan improve its defences according to the ‘Porcupine Strategy’: to deter an attack by making Taiwan as difficult to invade as possible. The US has long been Taiwan’s main supplier of arms and military equipment, and a recently-approved package by Congress includes new aircraft upgrades, coastal defence artillery and surveillance and reconnaissance technologies. China has protested vigorously but its hostile stance is only driving Taiwan to spend more on arms.

US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien has stressed that it is Taiwan’s responsibility to provide for its own defence and increase its arms purchases accordingly. Yet the new package inevitably begs the question of whether the US will take on more explicit commitments to help protect Taiwan in the future. Certainly, it is unlikely that European or other countries would seek to complicate their relationship with Beijing by selling arms to Taipei. Yet they could quietly and behind the scenes share their experience in dealing with cyber-attacks and hybrid warfare and building societal resilience with Taipei. Resilience to political interference is also an important factor in deterrence.

The US has recently sent more senior government officials to visit Taipei, although not yet the Secretaries of State or Defence. Beijing would consider this to be unduly provocative. Again, European and other countries might not want to follow this course. Yet as in the case of China abrogating its treaty commitments not to change the status of Hong Kong for 50 years, the international community should stress that it is watching and engaged and will not countenance the unprovoked use of force to dictate political outcomes.

Security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region are of a different dimension to those that Europe is currently facing

China likes to portray Taiwan as an element of its bilateral dispute with the US and which involves Washington alone. As its relations with the US have worsened, Beijing has been trying to improve its relations with India despite the recent clashes in the Himalayas. Clearly, China does not like to be isolated in the wider international community. A common stance of Europeans and Asians in favour of the adherence to international law and a consensual, not unilateral, resolution of this issue, along with an interim adherence to the current status quo, could send just the right signal.

Finally, the security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region are of a different dimension to those that Europe is currently facing. In addition to the China-Taiwan tensions, we have seen two nuclear-armed powers, India and China, clash in the Himalayas, China build new military bases on artificial islands off the Scarborough Shoal and North Korea roll out new nuclear missiles. The Asia-Pacific lacks the regional security structures that Europe benefits from, although ASEAN has established a Security Forum that has tried to embrace China.

In past days, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has been in Tokyo to rally a new coalition, the Asian ‘Quad’ of the US, Japan, India and Australia. This group will consult on regional security issues and organise joint military exercises. We will see if other Asia-Pacific countries, such as South Korea or Vietnam, will join the group in the near future.

Yet the rapidly emerging new dividing lines and power blocs in the region (with China teaming up with Russia) make it urgent for the EU to define its own strategic interests. How can it use its levers and relationships in the region to promote an open, inclusive security dialogue among all the countries of the Asia-Pacific, perhaps along the lines of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)?  Such a mechanism could agree on a set of confidence-building measures, greater transparency and early warning in military activities and steps to prevent dangerous incidents.

This would strike me as a primary task and priority of a ‘geopolitical Europe’. It would be useful to devise some answers before a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, rather than afterwards.

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