Tensions in Taiwan Strait must not be Allowed to Develop into a Regional/Global Crisis – Part I
Prof Rajaram Panda

The island nation of Taiwan is caught in the cross-fire between the US-China spat and navigating through turbulent waters after Beijing almost violently reacted by firing missiles into the Taiwanese waters in response to the US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s surprise visit to Taiwan. This stoked tensions further. Not to remain quiet and with a view to send a strong message to Beijing that Washington would not abandon Taiwan in any circumstance and defend if the island nation comes under Chinese attack, more foreign delegations queued up to visit Taiwan in defiance of China. Since Pelosi’s visit, groups from the US, Japan and Lithuania arrived in Taiwan, all of them vowing that they would not be bullied by Beijing. Many more are likely to visit Taipei in the coming days and months to express solidarity.

From Japan, a delegation led by Japanese House of Representatives member Keiji Furuya visited Taiwan to convey assurance to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen of Japan’s support to its cause. The series of live fire drills in six regions surrounding Taiwan by China effectively blocked shipping and flights to Taiwan. According to Taiwan Military of National Defence, 13 Chinese naval vessels and 68 PLA aircraft crossed the median line. Taiwan also tracked and reported that Beijing deployed one nuclear-powered submarine during the drills. Taiwan President described these acts as “dangerous” and “irresponsible”. On the other hand, Beijing defended the exercises as a countermeasure to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

The Pelosi effect can be measured in terms of increased diplomatic activities of many foreign countries with Taiwan. No sooner the dust settled down following Pelosi visit, US Senator Marsha Blackburn landed up in Taipei three weeks after Pelosi’s visit and held discussion with foreign ministry officials of Taiwan. The purpose of her visit was to send a message to Beijing that the US “will not be bullied”.[1]

Blackburn was the fourth US delegation to Taiwan since Pelosi’s landmark visit and came days after Indiana governor Eric Holcomb visited Taiwan, soon followed by a cross-party Japanese delegation. These two visits preceded an 11-member delegation from Lithuania that had reached Taiwan for talks. Keiji Furuya from the LDP in Japan had remarked before his arrival in Japan that “China’s military provocations and other erratic behaviour pose a risk to the peace and safety of not only Taiwan, but east Asia as a whole”.

What does these run of foreign dignitaries visiting Taiwan mean in the context of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the region? No doubt, these visits drew condemnations from Beijing but bolstered Taiwan’s confidence that despite having just an over a dozen of diplomatic allies after many switched allegiance to Beijing, it is assured of international support and solidarity against Beijing’s threats to annex it by the use of force. Hereafter, Taiwan would have reason to feel emboldened to defend itself if comes under Chinese attack. Though Taiwan is not likely to remain undeterred by the Chinese military incursions because of its confidence in having global support, there would certainly remains some doubt about whether such help would really be forthcoming if China just indeed launches an attack on Taiwan. This possibility calls for Taiwan’s foreign allies to shed symbolic assurances and come up with substantive acts of support to ensure Taiwan’s security. This being said, it would be against Beijing’s interests if it overlooks the substantive effects of the assurances as actual intervention; if Taiwan is attacked it could be detrimental to China’s interests and also for the region.

There is an economic dimension to this argument. Taiwan runs a large trade surplus with China. While Taiwan is self-governed and de facto independent, it has never formally declared independence from the mainland but Beijing fears that it would under Tsai. Beijing does not feel confident that Taiwan would continue to adhere to “one country, two systems” formula. Trade between Taiwan and China grew to more than $100 billion more than a decade ago. Taiwan is an economic success but the island nation remains economically dependent on China. Despite the tensions, Taiwan must be worried that partner dependency and commodity concentration could prove troublesome for Taiwan if its ties with mainland China deteriorate as a result of political backlash.[2]

Does it mean that Taiwan has the ability to defend itself and diversify its economic ties away from China? As it transpires, there is no clear indication that Taiwan is doing that or capable of doing that. This being said, the support that Taiwan is getting from other countries could embolden it to pursue a robust response to Beijing’s coercive policy of intimidation. In the meantime, while one cannot expect any change in the Chinese perception that the foreign delegations are violating the “One China” policy, the debate whether such visits are needlessly exacerbating tensions shall continue. As per available information, more parliamentarians from UK, Germany, Denmark, Canada and Australia are planning to visit Taiwan, thereby adding to tensions, though would please Taiwan. A parliamentary “friendship group” is planning to visit Taiwan in October 2022, ignoring renewed threats from Beijing. The truism, however, is that the symbolism attached to such visits also signals the anti-China stances of the parliamentarians of countries choosing to visit Taiwan. The possibility of addressing their domestic constituencies behind such visits cannot be discounted either. At the time of writing this article, news appeared that a delegation of five French lawmakers and another group from the US Congress were to visit Taiwan in the second week of September even when Beijing continues to fume.[3] The French delegation is the first visit by high-level Europeans following a string of trips by US officials and lawmakers.

China fumes when the US talks about expanding bilateral trade talks and weapons sales. Daniel Kritenbrink, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, has gone on record to say that the US assistance would help Taiwan in building its resilience and supply chains, including weapon sales. The US feels it has an obligation to aid Taiwan militarily so that it is prepared to defend itself from possible Chinese attack.

Endnotes :

[1]Helen Davidson, “The Pelosi effect: foreign delegations queue up to Taiwan in defiance of China”, The Guardian, 27 August 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/aug/27/the-pelosi-effect-foreign-delegations-queue-up-to-visit-taiwan-in-defiance-of-china
[3] “Amid China fury, French and US lawmakers to visit Taiwan”, The Times of India, 7 September 2022

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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