Why the Taiwan Straits May Be the Next Flashpoint in East Asia
In recent weeks, news of North and South Korea’s rapprochement, and the impending meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, have dominated headlines. This has taken global attention away from more troubling developments in another part of East Asia – the increasingly frosty cross-strait relationship between Beijing and Taipei.
On 16 March, President Trump signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act allowing U.S. officials to step up formal exchanges with their Taiwanese counterparts, despite vehement protests from Beijing. China views this as an unacceptable formalization of supposedly ‘unofficial’ U.S.-Taiwan ties that contravenes Washington’s ‘one-China’ policy.
Four days later, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) only operational aircraft carrier entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and conducted naval aviation and carrier operation drills. This incident was the third occurrence this year.
On 30 March, Taiwanese Premier William Lai told the Legislative Yuan that he was a “Taiwan independence worker”, stating flatly that Taiwan was a sovereign, independent country – breaching another Chinese red-line where Beijing maintains that Taiwan is a province of China pending reunification.
Taiwan Straits – The Next Major Flashpoint in East Asia?
These worrying incidents perpetuate the trend of a protracted deterioration of cross-strait ties since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen – the leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – came into power in 2016.
If such bruising rhetoric and political posturing continues, the Taiwan issue may well develop into the next major conflict flashpoint in East Asia. Three observations support this analysis.
First, the Taiwan issue is increasingly positioned as a proxy political and ideological battle between the United States and China – because of the Chinese origins of the Taiwanese people, but with strong democratic credentials.
Beijing has always declared Taiwan to be its “core interest”, while Washington remains Taipei’s staunch ally and de facto security guarantor under the Taiwan Relations Act. No other security issue in the Asia-Pacific – North Korea, ASEAN’s maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea, or the Diaoyu/Senkaku sovereignty feud between Japan and China – comes close to threatening the vital interests of the two great powers like Taiwan does.
In fact, China’s Anti-Secession Law legitimizes its use of force to reunify Taiwan with the mainland, should Taiwan move to declare independence or if reunification becomes impossible. If that happens, the United States would be morally and legally compelled to defend Taiwan from coercion, especially in light of the anti-China – and pro-Taiwan – mood in the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government in recent months. Conflict is therefore likely due to the great power politics and their antagonistic interests in Taiwan.
Second, domestic politics in China could contribute to the escalation of conflict across the Taiwan Straits.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its General Secretary Xi Jinping cannot be seen by its people to be weak against ‘foreign aggressors’ when it comes to Taiwan. The CCP’s legitimacy to rule China is contingent on continued economic development and the promise of co-creating a strong, rich and powerful China. Expectations among the Chinese people of achieving the ‘China Dream’ and redressing the ‘century of humiliation’ where China was subjugated by foreign nations – both strategic visions promulgated by Xi – are high.
These dreams of grandeur could come crashing if Beijing is unable to address Taiwan’s increasingly separatist tendencies and effect its reunification with the mainland. Strong nationalistic sentiment among the masses that China should no longer tolerate being a ‘fractured’ state could force the CCP leadership’s hand in responding militarily to future U.S. or Taiwanese provocations.
Third, inflammatory rhetoric from Taiwanese leaders could also precipitate conflict.
With presidential elections coming up in 2020, President Tsai could resort to leveraging the pro-independence platform to shore up domestic political support, particularly among pro-independence youths and Taiwanese dissatisfied with China’s threats to encroach on Taiwan’s sovereignty.
And there is a precedent for this. The last DPP President, Chen Shui-bian, did engage in such a platform during his re-election campaign in 2004, angering Beijing and resulting in forceful efforts by Washington to rein Chen in from the precipice of conflict. Continued provocative rhetoric from Tsai or her fellow DPP brethren could worry Beijing to the extent of military conflict, if it was convinced of Taipei’s intent to move towards independence.
Not a Foregone Conclusion
It is, however, not a foregone conclusion that conflict across the Taiwan Straits is inevitable. Political leaders from all three parties of this triangular relationship can still take steps to cool tensions and de-escalate the cross-strait acrimony before it gets out of hand.
The Trump administration and the U.S. Congress should avoid giving further signals that it intends to normalize bilateral relations with Taipei, or that it is implicitly supportive of Taiwanese independence. In the same vein, Taipei should manage its pro-independence rhetoric and avoid the perception that it is inching toward a declaration of de jure independence.
Reciprocally, Beijing should avoid provocative military actions or statements threatening the use of force that could alarm Washington and Taipei – thereby potentially precipitating the militarization of the Taiwan Straits in anticipation of a Chinese offensive.
The above three ‘avoidances’ – if abided by – will greatly reduce the probability of hostilities erupting in the Taiwan Straits. The onus is on the leaders of all three parties to deftly manage the evolving geopolitics, backtrack from the conflict tipping point, and maintain the peace and stability in East Asia.
Jansen Tham is a 2nd year Masters in Public Policy (MPP) student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.