A Tempest in the Taiwan Straits

With the current foreign policy dialogue being dominated by ISIS and the Middle East, the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” seems like a discarded pipe dream.  While we have seen some ambitions of the strategy announced in 2012 actualized, such as the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, developments of the last three years have mired the United States in the Middle East quagmire. All the while China has continued its patient yet exertive plan to extend their sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific region.  If the United States wants to ensure its continued dominance in that region it must pay careful attention to the critical changes that will occur in 2016 and respond accordingly. One of the primary tasks on that list should be mitigating the looming fallout between China and Taiwan. The coming year will see these two countries reach a new fever pitch in their protracted struggle over Chinese identity and the United States must tread carefully in its relationships with both of them.

Historical Presidential Meeting Fails to Stem the Tide in Taiwan

On November 7, 2015, Taiwanese president Ma Ying-Jeou broke a promise he made during his re-election campaign and met with the leader of mainland China. At a hotel in Singapore, Ma sat down in discussion with Xi Jinping, the president of the People’s Republic of China and the general secretary of the Communist Party of China. No substantial progress was made during the talks, but it did serve an immense public relations purpose. Much attention was paid to the optics and symbolism of the historic meeting. This was the first time that the presidents of the adversaries in the Chinese Civil War had met since the talks between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek in 1945.  

For the two men the meeting was part of broader political strategies that have been cultivated for some time. President Xi continued his plan to project himself as an essential international statesman following his gaudy diplomatic trips to the United States and Great Britain. He also sought to convey a message of assurance to other Pacific nations like the Philippines and Vietnam that have quarreled with China over its aggressions in the South China Sea. However, for President Ma the implications of the meeting were much more complicated. Nearing the end of his final term, he is attempting to make a final push to secure the renewed relations he has made with the mainland despite massive opposition at home. Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT), the same party that once clashed with Mao’s forces in the Civil War, has made it one of their priorities over the last few decades to reconcile with the mainland and improve cooperation. Citing the 1992 Consensus, a semi-official meeting between Beijing and Taipei that affirmed the belief in the “One China principle”, the KMT has justified policies aimed at tying the counties together, such as allowing Chinese tourists to visit Taiwan and starting direct charter flights. Not all of this has gone over well with the people of Taiwan. Public sentiment is extremely conflicted over the concept of reunification and many Taiwanese people are suspicious of what they see as the Chinese Communist Party attempting to influence their politics. The main opposition and pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has seized upon this apprehension; their presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen is polling well above her KMT rival and is projected to easily win the January election.

With defeat impending for his party, Ma seems to be forcing the hand of the DPP with some degree of success. They have already tamped down their independence rhetoric, focusing instead on maintaining the status quo. As for President Xi, his message to Taiwan was clear: China is willing to sit down with Taiwan, but any declaration of independence would raise tensions to dangerous levels. This may have caused the DPP to alter their approach but it has done little to stop the real ticking time bomb of the island nation. The Sunflower Movement, a group of students, young people and social activists, has shaken the political establishment of Taiwan to its core. While primarily framed as anti-China, the Sunflower Movement has organized massive protests around such issues as the stagnant economy, declining wages and a corrupt election culture. The group is vehemently pro-independence and their anger portends a generational clash. A DPP victory could possibly placate them for a while but if the new government fails to deliver on its campaign promises or if China continues to assert influence over Taiwan then the protests will get angrier and more widespread. Considering how China has dealt with the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, this possibility should gravely concern the United States. A China increasing in confidence and assertiveness might not pass up the opportunity to take military action if they see what they view as their rightful territory descend into disorder. Even a strong assertion of independence by the DPP could illicit such a response. Currently, the independent status of Taiwan relies heavily on US support. If such a crisis were to occur the United States would face the daunting prospect of war with China and it is doubtful that its over-extended military and war-weary public would be up for such a fight.

 

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US Arms Sale Goes Through Despite Chinese Protestations

Despite the aforementioned specter looming over Taiwan, the Obama administration authorized a $1.83 billion arms sale to the country on December 16, 2015. It is the first such deal since the $5.8 billion package in 2011. The sale includes two warships, antitank missiles, data link systems and other equipment. The moved stirred an indignant response from the Chinese who threatened to sanction American contractors involved in the sale, which include companies like Boeing and United Technologies that have broad commercial ventures in China. Although past sanctions have failed to materialize, the most recent threats are explicit in such a way as to warrant concern.

The United States maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan through the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 (TRA), which provides a legal framework for their interactions and affirms the US commitment to military assistance. However, the rise of China and the developing tensions between it and Taiwan will see the TRA tested to its absolute limit. Despite significant US military sales, Taiwan’s defense spending has stagnated. Decades of complacency have largely tempered fears of an attack on the island. In the same period that Taiwan’s military budget has remained flat, China’s budget has grown annually by double digits, currently standing at 13 times that of its island neighbor. The KMT has tried to offset this disparity by engaging the mainland and improving cross-strait cooperation, however, an almost assured victory for the DPP and the demands of the Sunflower Movement will surely alter this paradigm. That is why many observers feel the timing of the sale was shrewdly calculated. As Evan S. Medeiros, head of the Asia practice for the Eurasia Group, tells the New York Times, “The timing clearly was calibrated to avoid having to do it after the election. That would have been particularly provocative”.  

The US Approach in 2016

It is undeniable that China has the military capability to intercede in Taiwanese affairs if and when it comes to it. At the moment, the two countries are poised precariously on a knife edge with a burgeoning independence protest movement threatening to derail the KMT’s rapprochement. The United States must wait to see the actions taken by the DPP when they come into power. By completely giving into popular sentiment (a resounding 64.97% of Taiwanese people believe the country is an independent nation according to a recent poll) the new government could very well instigate a Chinese invasion. Tsai Ing-wen has promised to stay true to the DPP’s commitment to democracy and freedom but it remains to be seen just how impactful President Xi’s rather intimidating implications in the cross-strait meeting will be on the calculus of his new Taiwanese counterpart.

If the United States had actually committed to the “Pivot to Asia” it would have already taken steps to mitigate this tension and Xi’s bravado would be been seen as empty rhetoric. Instead the threat across the Taiwan Strait is real and must be confronted. In 2016, the United States should reaffirm its commitment to the TRA while also encouraging Taiwan to increase its military budget. There have been reassuring signs from the DPP, including its proposed defense agenda, which aims to refocus on deterrence and building its indigenous defense industry. If these goals are hoped to be achieved, however, the United States and Taiwan must act quickly. The current arms sales strategy is simply insufficient to deal with the threat of China. A comprehensive strategy must be adopted, one where Taiwan assumes more responsibility militarily and the United States focuses on countering China’s political aggression throughout the region. Yet in the current situation, with the US bogged down in the Middle East and passions and anxiety running high in Taiwan, China just might take an opportunity to seize the fragile American client.


 

Michael Petilli is a freelance writer and editor who focuses on Asian politics, religion, and global development. He has a Bachelor of Science in International Relations and spends his time traveling across the US and around the world making connections and finding solutions.

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