Explaining Taiwan: The Balance of Relations between the US and China
Among the many flashpoints currently surrounding China, it seems Taiwan is one of the candidates more susceptible to a rise in tension. Why is that? How has the US used Taiwan over the past 60 years, and why is it so important to China?
On Sunday, October 17th, a US destroyer and a Canadian frigate sailed through the Taiwan Strait, prompting a strongly-worded backlash from China.
In mid-September, the AUKUS defense pact was devised, comprising of the US, UK, and Australia. The pact aimed to counterweight China’s presence in the Indo-Pacific and South China Sea. When combined with US and NATO forces intending to deploy themselves in ally Central Asian nations, the number of potential flashpoints between the US and China becomes crystal clear.
Taiwan is only one of these flashpoints, and possibly one of the more significant ones. The reason for this is history and geography. Geographically speaking, Taiwan is only 180 km away from China (the same distance separating Cuba from the US mainland), making any Western advances towards the former a matter of extreme contention, to say the least, since encroachment on Taiwan and the South China Sea means infringing on China’s geostrategic playground.
History, however, paints a clearer picture of US-China-Taiwan relations and allows us to see how things may unfold in the event of increased tension in the South China Sea region.
1949: ROC vs PRC
Going back to recent history (meaning from the 20th century), one can observe that the main feud between Taiwan’s Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China (the ROC and the PRC) began after China’s communist revolution drove the Kuomintang (KMT), which at the time ruled over the ROC, into Taiwan, where they established an authoritarian rule and claimed to be the true representatives of mainland China. The PRC however, claimed that since Japan’s WW2 surrender, the island of Taiwan should be under its sovereignty.
At the time, the ROC controlled China’s UN Security Council seat. After the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the US held the position that Taiwan’s status (meaning whether it was part of the sovereign territory of China) was “yet to be determined.” Since this was the Cold War, and the Korean War was a theater of operations wherein US and Chinese troops frequently clashed against one another, the PRC’s position viewed the US as a threat to their government.
During that period the US was working hard to contain the growth of Communism in the Asian theater, either through Truman’s containment strategy (which sought to aid allied states against the expansion of communism) or the rollback strategy (which began with the Korean war, whose goal was full-on regime change). At the time, the US used Taiwan’s airbases to fly bombing missions over North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Later on in the 1960s, the two countries were no longer in direct conflict, and there was a need to recognize new geopolitical realities. Normalization, however, and the need to accede to the Chinese market, would require the appeasement of the PRC, which required the US to tackle a number of obstacles in that regard.
The PRC was recognized as the formal representative of China in international circles, and the ROC left the UN by default in 1971. The US finally recognized some of these realities in its normalization agreement with China in December 1978, where it declared the PRC as the government representing China in all international governmental organizations and terminated its relations with the ROC.
This was later known as the One-China Policy. The United States’ position regarding Taiwan however, remained somewhat ambiguous as it still did not recognize it as part of Chinese territory, nor as an independent state. Jimmy Carter’s “human rights” approach to international politics further complicated matters for Taiwan, which was under authoritarian rule, and raised the costs for US support for the ROC.
In August 1982, the Reagan administration, pressured by demands from the PRC, released a joint communiqué, wherein it said: “… the United States Government states that it does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, and that it intends gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan, leading, over a period of time, to a final resolution.”
The United States, however, did not abide by the communiqué, which China saw as the US reneging on its commitments.
Due to its loss of international support, Taiwan’s leaders thought it best to launch a process of democratization in the 1970s in order to echo Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy approach, which did not go smoothly but yielded favorable results down the line. Today’s Taiwan, though a western-style liberal democracy, still contends in its internal politics with parties calling for independence from China, while others call for integration, much like the Hong Kong model of “one country, two systems.”
The KMT is still very much present in Taiwanese political life, and very influential. Its policies have somewhat changed because of geopolitical and domestic realities, as the KMT, as well as other parties, still walk the line between independence and unification; both these hardline views were shown to have been out of favor with voters, who for now have shown to have been in favor of reaping the benefits of an economic relationship with China.
Beijing is wary of US arms sales to Taiwan because they consider them to be an impediment to unification, not to mention the fact that they are in violation of the 1982 communiqué. The US weakly justifies these sales, claiming they constitute no impediment, and it is up to the people of Taiwan to choose whether they want to be part of the PRC or not.
Why is China so wary?
In today's context, Western powers are increasing their naval presence in the Indo-Pacific theater, while also reconfiguring their troop presence on land in Central Asia. The West is currently trying to strengthen its international alliances against the rise of China, and Russia alongside it. Taiwan is key in this regard, as it can play the role of a powerful ally in what China considers an integral part of its national territory. This is a Chinese red line that the West has not crossed, so far, and has shown to be wary of, as this “strategic ambiguity” has proven to work, so why ruin a perfectly good thing?
Tensions have not risen yet. What we are currently witnessing is a strategic repositioning of the West to counter China’s rise: Shoring up alliances in a number of theaters as a counterweight to Chinese (and Russian) influence on one hand, and reassuring and reinforcing its allies on the other. Diplomacy, military shows of might (i.e maneuvers), and a strengthening of alliances (much like AUKUS) are what we can expect to see in the near future.
China has so far chosen to play on its own strengths, meaning the tools of economy, politics, diplomacy, and soft power. The West’s main strength lies in its military power, and that is the most powerful tool at its disposal against China, which explains its attempts at enforcing military alliances. China is winning on all of its fronts, and the West has simply failed to meet China’s challenge but is slowly learning otherwise. Yes, the US has decided to bolster arms sales to Taiwan, but it also passed a bill to boost Taiwan’s technology sector to allow it to compete with China.
As for Taiwan, it is likely that its future may be determined by a number of things, but taking its internal political dynamics into account, success in the near future will be reflected in its ability to successfully maneuver the lines between its relationships with the West and the People's Republic of China, reaping the economic benefits of both, as it has for some time.