Between Duelling Giants: China, the US and the Issue over Taiwan - By Frederik Wrist
On January 23, a mere three days after the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States, the State Department issued a stark statement directed at the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for its military incursions into Taiwanese airspace on the same day. The message was unequivocal: “We will stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values in the Indo-Pacific region — and that includes deepening our ties with democratic Taiwan”, and concluding that America’s commitment to the island republic is “rock-solid”. While Beijing may have hoped that the new administration would return to a more neutral stance on Taiwan as traditionally espoused by Washington, the statement makes clear that the new administration shares the Trump administration’s assessment of China as a strategic competitor. But what role will Taiwan play in the regional balance of power between the two duelling giants?
A Tale of Two Dragons, and an Eagle
The relationship between the U.S. and China has been characterised by animosity since Mao Zedong’s announcement of the PRC in October 1949. The first major confrontation between the two happened on the Korean Peninsula, when China intervened on the North Korean side in late 1950, leading to three years of war against the U.S-led U.N. coalition. The PRC inserted itself into the Cold War struggle as the partner of its communist partners in the Soviet Union.
However, every coin has two sides, and U.S.-China relations have also featured periods of extraordinary cooperation. The Sino-Soviet split of the 1960’s, culminating in a months-long border conflict in 1969, gave way to President Richard Nixon’s “opening to China” - turning the Asian giant into a de facto U.S. ally and competitor with the Soviet Union. Under Deng Xiaoping, China gradually opened its economy to the international market with waves of partial liberalisation and reforms. The prevailing assumption within U.S. policy-making circles, ebullient with the euphoria of the post-Cold War triumph of liberalism, was that China’s economic liberalisation would spill over into the realm of politics, leading to a democratic state along Western lines.
History, however, is not an exact science, and with the ascension of Xi Jinping to the presidency and position of General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since 2012, the liberalising tendencies of yesteryears have been replaced with increased authoritarianism, anti-democratic repression, and an increasingly assertive foreign policy.
Despite this vacillation in the relationship, one point has remained constant throughout the years – the contentious nature of Taiwan. When the PRC was established in 1949, the nationalist leadership of General Chiang Kai-Shek, which had been the official government of all China before its defeat in the civil war, fled to Taiwan, establishing a new government and turning the island into a fortress against the communist forces.
Both the PRC and Taiwan consider themselves the legitimate government of all of China, while denouncing the other. Taiwan remained the official representative of China in the U.N. until 1979, when America’s official recognition shifted from Taiwan to the PRC as the actual government of China as part of the rapprochement between the U.S. and China, leading other states to follow suit. Despite being an obvious blow to Taiwan’s international stature, U.S. policy never intended to abandon Taiwan to communist control. In the same year, the Taiwan Relations Act was voted into law by Congress, effectively compelling the U.S. to provide Taiwan with the defensive means to protect its sovereignty while adopting a broad conception of U.S. interests in the Western Pacific. As the wording goes:
“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 and that any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” are considered a threat “to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”
This commitment was reaffirmed by the Reagan administration in 1982 in the “Six Assurances” to Taiwan, confirming that the U.S. would not renege on the Taiwan Relations Act.
At the same time, the U.S. has recognised Beijing’s “One China” policy, which states that the PRC and Taiwan are not to be treated separately, but as a single country, albeit with two different political systems until peaceful reunification can be obtained.
This has left Taiwan in an international limbo in regard to its official status. Only a handful of minor countries, mainly in Central America, recognise Taiwan as an official country. However, according to Ryan Hass of the Brookings Institution, since 1979, “a dense architecture of dialogues developed to support communication between Washington and Taipei on a broadening array of issues”, solidifying ties between the two countries without antagonising Beijing. To this end, communication has moved through unofficial channels, mainly the American Institute in Taipei.
However, it seems that the status quo has been irrevocably upset with the Trump administration in charge in Washington, and Xi Jinping in power in Beijing.
Trump started with a broadside to Beijing even before taking office, by making a direct phone call to Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, dispensing with decades of protocol. During its four years in office, the administration approved arms sales to the island for over $18 billion compared to $14 billion over the eight years of Obama’s tenure. Finally, with just 11 days left in office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that all self-imposed restrictions on contacts between U.S. officials and their Taiwanese counterparts were nullified, delivering the final one-two to Beijing’s jaw.
For its part, the PRC under Xi Jinping has not been too polite to go against convention neither. Since 2012, as part of Xi’s overall strategy to achieve “the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, Beijing has ramped up its military modernisation efforts with an explicit focus on building a “world class” military by 2049 capable of defeating adversaries in “informationised local wars”. Being the case that the Chinese’ strategic priority is Taiwan, and that the only military power of fighting high-intensity wars with China is the U.S., it is not too outlandish to infer that Beijing is either focused on preventing American forces from coming to Taiwan’s aid, or outright defeating them in a future conflict. Officials from the Chinese military have also stated unequivocally on several occasions that China will use force if necessary to achieve Xi’s goal of incorporating Taiwan into the PRC by 2049 at the latest, marking the hundredth anniversary of the PRC.
Subjugating Taiwan under PRC authority is a crucial goal, not simply for the symbolic value of redeeming the Chinese nation after what is called the “hundred years of humiliation” at the hands of Western colonial powers and Japan, but also for preserving the integrity of the political system of communist party rule in mainland China. With the collapse of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong under heavy Chinese repression, Taiwan constitutes the only example of the viability of democracy in a Chinese context, a fact that runs counter to Beijing’s claim that only communist party rule can bring prosperity and security to the Chinese people and in the process elevating China to its historic position of the Middle Kingdom, the central power in Asia. As a Reuters report on Taiwan clarified in December last year:
“For Xi, democratic Taiwan is now the last outpost of resistance to his dream of a unified and rejuvenated China that can displace the United States as the major power in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Needless to say, Taiwan is the most sensitive point of geopolitical contention between the U.S. and the PRC, and it is this tangled historical legacy that the new Biden administration is inheriting.
Despite having been in office for less than a month, there are some indications that the Biden administration’s policy towards Taiwan will not differ significantly from the line adopted by the Trump White House.
Firstly, in a move of extraordinary symbolism, Taiwan’s special representative to the U.S. Bi-khim Hsiao, ambassador in all but name, was invited to officially attend the inauguration ceremony of Joe Biden, the first time since the reconfiguration of the bilateral relationship in 1979. In addition, the administration’s top national security and foreign policy officials have clearly stated their support for Taiwan in unprecedentedly strong terms. Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured during his confirmation hearing in Congress, that the American commitment to providing arms to guarantee Taiwan’s defence would remain unchanged, and even stating that he ““would also like to see Taiwan playing a greater role around the world”. Something that obviously goes against the position of the PRC as the only viable “China”. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin also confirmed that the nation’s commitment to Taiwan would remain “rock-solid”.
The phrase “rock-solid” was reiterated in the State Department’s affirmation against Chinese military intimidation, and seems to be illustrative of an underlying assumption of the new administration.
All of this ties into the current strategic environment of increasing great power competition between China and the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific. As David Sacks of the Council on Foreign Relations has written:
“the Biden administration is likely to continue to forge a closer relationship with Taiwan. This reflects a growing sense among U.S. policymakers that as Chinese foreign policy grows more assertive and military deterrence in the Taiwan Strait continues to erode, China could be tempted to try to coerce Taiwan.”
As is clear, the Biden administration’s “rock-solid” support of Taiwan reflects growing trepidation that the loss of Taiwan, in the context of competing with the PRC, would constitute a geopolitical catastrophe for America’s position in the wider region. Taiwan is situated in the middle of what in strategy-making circles is known as the First Island-chain, which forms a belt of islands stretching from Japan in the North, to Indonesia in the South. As all these islands are controlled by U.S. allies, it provides the possibility to block the Chinese navy from the Pacific, in the event of a conflict. If China were to successfully acquire control over Taiwan, this would provide the Chinese navy, currently the largest on the planet, with an outlet to project military power into the broader Pacific.
The implications of this would extend even further if combined with other Chinese acts of expansionism in the region. If control over the South China Sea were consolidated through the existing Chinese network of military installations, China would be able to block the crucial maritime route of the Malacca Strait, through which the vast majority of oil and energy imports to Japan and South Korea, and the broader region, flows. In this scenario, control over Taiwan would allow the Chinese navy and missile forces to bar any U.S. carrier-strike groups and reinforcements from coming to the aid of crucial regional allies.
While the U.S. military still commands the leading heights, China prevailing in a local conflict against American forces is becoming an increasingly real probability. As part of its anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) strategy, the Chinese military has been investing significant resources into missile technology to provide the capability to strike the enemy from long ranges, obviating the need to engage in close combat. Beijing is also developing an array of drone swarm technology, directed-energy weapons, and space-based weapons. A separate military branch, the Rocket Force, has even been established to coordinate and enhance the People’s Liberation Army’s long-range missile strategy. Some analysts also conclude that China might be at the forefront of this technology, even surpassing the U.S., with the most glaring example being the DF-26, nicknamed the “carrier-killer” for its alleged ability to destroy an aircraft carrier. Alarmingly, a study by the University of Sydney concluded that U.S. facilities throughout the region “could be rendered useless by precision strikes in the opening hours of a conflict.”
U.S. officials are aware that the local military balance may be stacked against them and have recently encouraged Taiwan to adopt what former National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, called a “porcupine” strategy, essentially turning the island into an impenetrable fortress and increasing the costs to Chinese forces to increasing deterrence. This is evident in the composition of the latest arms-sales packages to Taiwan. While previous weapons transfers have consisted mostly of expensive platforms such as the F-35 fighter jet, the focus has recently shifted to low-end asymmetric systems meant to bring as much “bang for the buck” as possible. This includes Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Raytheon DeepStrike missiles, and Unarmed Ariel Vehicles (UAV), which can inflict tremendous damage to Chinese amphibious landing forces without having to sacrifice expensive aircraft, frigates, etc. which are hard to replace.
Taiwan itself has not been oblivious to the changing strategic environment, and it has largely been one of the driving forces behind this shift in strategy, announcing its own Overall Defence Concept. This seeks to direct the military’s effort towards capabilities which can survive Chinese military superiority, while at the same time making any Chinese military plans prohibitively costly, hopefully deterring such a scenario in the first place. Taiwan thus recognises that its only way of winning a conventional conflict with its larger neighbour is by stopping it from even delivering the knockout punch. As O’Brien expressed it allegorically:
“Lions generally don’t like to eat porcupines”.
Looking to the Future
While the Biden administration might still be in the process of fleshing out its overall policy position, it has by its actions indicated that Taiwan will be a crucial piece in its policy on dealing with China. While the new administration diverges sharply on the unilateral America First-approach of its predecessor, the one issue on which there seems to be a clear consensus across the American political spectrum is on taking a hardline approach towards China as a strategic competitor. Biden’s team has already made clear that tightening the relationship with Taiwan might be on the cards. As both the U.S. and PRC have significant stakes in play in the Indo-Pacific, Taiwan may become the one geopolitical hotspot that we should all focus on in the years to come.
Frederik Wrist is postgraduate student reading International Relations at the University of Birmingham. His main focus centres around international security, US foreign policy, and military affairs. He previously studied a BA in History at the University of Copenhagen.