Separation and anxiety
Here, I’m not talking just about trade war possibilities, but real war. Over Taiwan.
Putting Taiwan into its embrace has long been core goal of China’s foreign policy. The island has been estranged from the mainland since 1895 and, notably since 1949 when the Nationalist Chinese losers in the civil war fled there. In 1972, the United States recognized that there is but one China and in 1979, recognized the Communist government in Beijing as its sole ruler. That left the nationalists and Taiwan in a limbo that persists to this day: it is neither a recognized nation-state nor is it, de facto, under the mainland’s thumb.
Every once in a while, the question of Taiwan’s destiny flares up, especially when the island emits separatist yearnings. In 2016, Tai Ingwen, a Taiwanese independent-minded candidate, was elected president after ousting heirs of the old Nationalists. Quickly, China’s now leader-for-life, Xi Jinping, warned Taiwan not to even think about going its own way.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has been making shadow motions about raising Taiwan’s diplomatic profile with the US. After his own election, he took a phone call from Tsai; later, he signed a bill easing visits by US officials with counterparts on Taiwan; he signed off on an agreement to open transfer of some submarine technology to the Taiwanese military; and finally penned an accord with Taiwan to let US naval ships operate in Taiwanese waters.
All this comes against a backdrop of increased Chinese military activity in the South China Sea, some of which seems aimed at making it difficult for the US to defend Taiwan. A few military observers think China is holding specialized military maneuvers in preparation for war. In a recent major speech, Xi warned that any efforts to separate Taiwan from China “are doomed to fail”– though the other day, he softened his tone by reminding Taiwanese business people how much they have to gain money-wise if things are stable.
Enter John Bolton, Trump’s new National Security Advisor. He has suggested the US jettison its adherence to the One China policy. Bolton made the suggestion as his way to counter what he considers China’s aggressive naval moves, including construction of a base on shallow reefs in the South China Sea and claiming exclusive ownership of a large swath of the maritime area.
This is far from the first time in the that a US government has had fundamental conflicts with China over Taiwan. Since the One China policy came into force, China has usually prevailed in reining in US support for drifting from the One China policy. Ronald Reagan campaigned for President as a champion of official ties to Taiwan. He caved in on the issue and signed the so-called August 17, 1982, accord that among other things pledged to gradually reduce military sales to Taiwan.
Shortly after, disturbed by his own concession, Reagan concocted the Six Assurances, which was meant to allay Taiwanese fears of abandonment by pledging to set no limit on arms sales to the island. He also said he would not pressure Taiwan to unify with China and that any resolution of sovereignty ought to be reached peacefully. That has been the core of US policy ever since.
Trump has opened two fronts of conflict with China: along with Taiwan, the issue of trade and tariffs. As with many things Trump, it is hard to know whether his actions represent a policy with staying power, or items that can be reversed with a tweet.
In any event, much has changed since Reagan’s time. China is militarily powerful much more than back then. Moreover, it would not take a full-scale invasion of Taiwan for China to cripple the island–just some sort of low intensity hostility and/or threats of conflict would drive up shipping insurance rates, scare commerce away and harm the island’s economy. For Xi, the risks include a scary standoff that might harm his global outreach, which includes trying to attract high tech ringers to China for work.
It is not clear how the US Administration would handle a situation of high tension that falls short of all-out war. With an ever more overtly nationalistic Xi, a Taiwan government desirous of closing in on statehood and a blustering Trump, the chances for open conflict are certainly on the rise..