In U.S.-China clash, Taiwan takes center stage

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On both sides of the Taiwan Strait, governments marked historic anniversaries this weekend with an eye cast toward the other. In a speech Saturday commemorating 110 years since the overthrow of China’s last imperial dynasty, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated his desire to preside over what he has called the inevitable “unification” of Taiwan with China. Those who want to see the island return to mainland control, Xi said, “stand on the right side of history.”

Xi wished for a “peaceful” reunification with Taiwan. Beijing still considers the island part of its own sovereign territory — no matter that it has maintained a form of de facto independence since 1949, when China’s defeated nationalists fled there from the Communist-controlled mainland. In his speech, the Chinese president issued a clear warning to Taiwan’s political leadership: “Those who forget their heritage, betray their country and seek to break up their country will come to no good end,” he said.

That threat received a strong riposte the following day. At Taiwan’s National Day ceremonies, President Tsai Ing-wen said her country would bolster its defensive capabilities “to ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us.” That path, she said, “offers neither a free and democratic way of life for Taiwan, nor sovereignty for our 23 million people.”

Sources of friction are building. Over the past week, China has flown nearly 150 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. These maneuvers prompted a warning from Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng that a possible “misfire” could provoke a ruinous conflict. Chiu also told a parliamentary committee that China could be ready for a full-scale invasion of the island by 2025.

Taiwan is awake to the danger — and, so too, it seems, is the United States. Reporting this past week from the Wall Street Journal pointed to the presence of a small deployment of U.S. troops in Taiwan, serving in a training capacity. The United States may technically recognize Beijing over Taipei, but it is deepening its ties to the island nation. A growing cohort of lawmakers in Washington, meanwhile, want to see the United States abandon decades of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan for a more robust defense commitment.

At the same time, President Biden has tried to cool rising tensions with Beijing. He told the United Nations last month that he did not want to see a new “Cold War” with China. Saber-rattling over Taiwan, and other regional security issues, could also frustrate efforts for climate-related cooperation ahead of a major international summit in Glasgow, Scotland, at the end of the month.

“The revelation threatens to undermine the tentative start of a detente in the years-long diplomatic feud between Washington and Beijing, as well as to set off a spiral of military tension as the United States and its allies counter China’s efforts to gain a military advantage in the broader region,” noted my colleagues.

Taiwan is only formally recognized by a handful of nations and barred full membership to most major international organizations. But it has consolidated its democracy in recent decades and shown itself a responsible international stakeholder. During the pandemic, it quickly became a model for how transparent, democratic governance can effectively curb the spread of a dangerous virus. Under Tsai, the island also offered sanctuary to pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong, an act of solidarity with those staring down the barrel of Xi’s hard-line rule.

Now, Taiwan finds itself “on the front lines of a new clash of ideologies,” Tsai argued in a recent essay for Foreign Affairs. “As countries increasingly recognize the threat that the Chinese Communist Party poses, they should understand the value of working with Taiwan,” she wrote. In this way, she argued, Taiwan’s robust liberal democracy is both “an affront to the narrative and an impediment to the regional ambitions” of Xi and the ruling cadres in Beijing. “They should remember that if Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system,” she continued. “It would signal that in today’s global contest of values, authoritarianism has the upper hand over democracy.”

For years, the conventional wisdom has been that an invasion of Taiwan would be too costly for China. It would, the logic went, exact a miserable toll on the battlefield, disrupt a Chinese economy intertwined with global supply chains and wreck Beijing’s international standing. But dynamics are shifting.

Xi has, to a certain extent, linked his political legacy to Taiwan returning to the Chinese fold. A deepening state-encouraged nationalism in China — and hostility to Western opinion — as well as ongoing trade wars with the United States and its allies may further shift Beijing’s calculus toward provocative action. The Chinese military’s capabilities are inexorably expanding and may have already reached a stage where America’s long-standing presence in the Asia-Pacific is an insufficient deterrent. Military planners in both countries treat a potential showdown over Taiwan as only a matter of time.

Whether the defense of Taiwan should be a red line for the United States is emerging as one of the dominant foreign policy debates in Washington. A new poll from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that — for the first time in nearly four decades of asking — more than half of Americans surveyed favored the use of U.S. troops in defense of Taiwan if China invaded.

Still, that’s a slim majority. “Taiwan’s strategic significance to the United States is not even remotely enough to risk a war with China,” argued Emma Ashford in a written exchange with her Atlantic Council colleague Matthew Kroenig that was published by Foreign Policy (and is worth reading in full). “There are countries in Asia — Japan and South Korea, for example — that are important enough for the United States to commit to defend. But in the case of Taiwan, the imbalance in interests and capabilities is just too high.”

“The United States and its allies have built and defended a rules-based system over the past 75 years that has produced unprecedented peace, prosperity, and freedom globally,” countered Kroenig. “I don’t want to trade that in for a world in which Americans stand by as revisionist autocracies like China gobble up neighbors by military force — or, worse, lose a hegemonic war leading to the end of this order and the rise of a Chinese-led system.”

For now, analysts worry over the growing risk of miscalculations as Washington’s and Beijing’s jockey intensifies. “There’s very little insulation left on the wiring in the relationship,” Danny Russel, a former assistant secretary of state, told the New York Times, “and it’s not hard to imagine getting some crossed wires and that starting a fire.”

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