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Understanding the Precarious Situation in the Taiwan Strait: How Should Taiwan Handle Itself?

US Sailor looking out while traversing the Taiwan Strait.
US Sailor looking out while traversing the Taiwan Strait.

While there has been a dramatic rise in the competition between the United States and China. The status quo of peace in the Taiwan Strait can still be maintained. Beijing’s preferred policy option is still “peaceful reunification and one country, two systems”. This includes its “One China” policy and resistance to Taiwan’s independence. 

These foundations have basically maintained the current state of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. However, while China’s global competitiveness continues to grow, the international political wrestling map shows a trend of “bipolar competition between the US and China.” International scholars and experts generally do not have much confidence in the stability of the Taiwan Strait.

The crux of the current security issue in the Taiwan Strait lies in the lack of mutual trust. Whether it is the US, China, or both sides, the foundation of mutual trust is weak. This is the most serious potential crisis in the security of the Taiwan Strait. Due to the lack of a dialogue mechanism between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, China has interpreted the US’s diplomatic and arms sales support to Taiwan as “sending a wrong signal to the Taiwan independence forces.” 

The United States interprets China’s active military development and frequent military activities in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait as China’s attempt to change the status quo of the Taiwan Strait and even the Asia-Pacific in the short term. These suspicions make the United States, China, and Taiwan believe that the current stable situation in the Taiwan Strait is likely to deteriorate in the foreseeable future.

In an environment full of suspicion, it is easy to misinterpret each other’s intentions, leading to policy deviations and quickly spiraling out of control. Which will lead to the realization of the “self-fulfilling prophecy” that “the Taiwan Strait will end in war.” The situation is simultaneously in an “unstable and stable” state.

In the future, the great power competition between the United States and China will not stop. As long as Taiwan takes the stance of choosing sides, it means that the cross-strait relationship between the Taiwan Strait will be dominated by the cross-strait relationship between the Pacific Ocean. That is, the fate of Taiwan will be determined by the outcome of the wrestling between the two powers. 

Under such circumstances, Taiwan’s security issue cannot be considered only from the two sides of the Taiwan Strait but must be considered within the framework of the confrontation between the United States and China. Only in this way can we see the whole picture and make correct judgments. Politically, and even more so in security.

Taiwan military holds its annual Hanguang Military Exercise
Taiwan military holds its annual Hanguang Military Exercise. Source

Beijing’s position

At this stage, both sides of the Taiwan Strait and the United States have their own calculations on the Taiwan issue. Based on China’s position and thinking, it can be roughly summarized into the following five points:

  1. The CCP regards the Taiwan issue as a “core interest” and has no room for concessions. This is because it is related to the integrity and determination of the CCP leaders to safeguard national dignity and national interests. If their attitude is weak, it will directly shake the foundation of their rule.
  2. “Anti-independence and reunification” is still the keynote of China’s stance on Taiwan. Anti-independence is based on the principle of “one China”, and until it has complete military reunification capabilities, anti-independence will still take precedence over promoting reunification.
  3. To avoid a premature showdown, the CCP has “strategic patience” with both the United States and Taiwan. The CCP hopes to have the ability to invade Taiwan by 2027, but it will not take the initiative to take military aggression plans before Taiwan declares its de jure independence. The main reason is that Beijing believes that the future trends of both sides of the strait must be in the hands of a constantly developing and powerful China. 
  4. Beijing believes that during the 30-year period from 2021 to 2050, the US and China’s military power will gradually tilt towards China, and the possibility of peaceful reunification of Taiwan will also increase. Therefore, China wants to delay the strategic showdown with the United States and avoid a premature confrontation. However, the premise of China’s “strategic patience” is that the United States does not deliberately step on the red line drawn by China on the Taiwan issue.
  5. The CCP’s military modernization has certain goals and timetables, but whether the goal of military modernization is achieved is not absolutely related to whether it will launch military operations against Taiwan. For example, Taiwan’s independence is a red line that mainland China believes cannot be crossed. If China believes that Taiwan has officially declared independence, the PLA would attempt to unify by force, even if it did not have the capability to do so.

In a nutshell, as long as Taiwan does not step on the red line of Taiwan’s independence, China will only conduct military reunification on the premise of “certain success” due to various factors such as internal power stability. What does this mean? This involves three factors: the CCP’s ability to attack with all-out force, Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities, and the determination of the United States to intervene.

China's Taiwan spokesperson

In a nutshell, as long as Taiwan does not step on the red line of Taiwan independence, China will only conduct military reunification on the premise of “certain success” due to various factors such as internal power stability.

Washington’s attitude

The thinking and strategy of the US on the Taiwan issue may be adjusted to some extent due to party politics and different rulers, but the basic policy will remain fairly consistent.

The US’s current position on the Taiwan Strait issue can be seen through official documents and public statements.

First, according to the “Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States” released by the United States in February 2022, the Taiwan-related narrative is:

We will work with our partners inside and outside the region to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, including supporting Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities, and ensuring that Taiwan’s future is determined by peaceful means according to the wishes and best interests of the Taiwanese people. In doing so, our approach remains consistent with our “One China” policy and our long-standing commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiqués, and the Six Assurances.

Second, in December 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an exclusive interview with the media that if the CCP invaded Taiwan, it would be a “potentially disastrous decision”, “We make a firm commitment to Taiwan to ensure that Taiwan has the ability to defend itself.” 

In an interview with the media, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan also reiterated that the United States will adhere to the “One China” policy and the Taiwan Relations Act. Regarding the Taiwan Strait issue, Sullivan said that the United States opposes any unilateral change of the status quo and that it is in the best interest of the United States, Taiwan, and China to “maintain the status quo.” In December 2021, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made a previously unstated argument:

Taiwan is at the center of the first island chain, and it is also at the center of global economic and trade exchanges. It has a key position in the network of allies of the United States. Taiwan’s security is extremely important for the United States to protect the interests of the Indo-Pacific region.

As the head of the Indo-Pacific strategy of the Department of Defense, the significance of Ratner’s speech is that the United States has publicly and clearly stated the importance of Taiwan’s geostrategic position to the United States.

Summarizing the statements made by key US government officials over the years, it can be seen that policies or laws including the “One China” policy, the “Taiwan Relations Act”, the “Three Joint Communiqués”, and the “Six Assurances” are still the basis for the US side to handle the Taiwan Strait issue.

The geostrategic importance of Taiwan has always been an area of concern for the United States. In fact, the United States is indeed worried that once China unifies Taiwan, not only will Chinese territory be pushed forward directly into the Pacific Ocean, but it will also break the first island chain and cut off the United States’ control in the Asia-Pacific region. 

This will raise the challenge to US influence in the Asia-Pacific region to unprecedented levels. Therefore, in the foreseeable future, the United States will spare no effort to prevent China from completing the so-called “sacred cause of reunifying Taiwan.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken

In December 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an exclusive interview with the media that if the CCP invaded Taiwan, it would be a “potentially disastrous decision.” “We have made a firm commitment to Taiwan to ensure that Taiwan has the ability to defend itself”. Source

Taipei’s Thinking

On the Taiwan side, Putin’s astonishing decision to invade Ukraine has made many Taiwanese people who have grown up in a relatively peaceful environment, realize; if Putin can make such a dangerous decision, who can guarantee that Xi Jinping will not? War is incredibly cruel and terrifying. War in the Taiwan Strait will cause millions of people to be killed, injured, and displaced. The economic losses are even more difficult to estimate.

Ideally, war should be launched with caution. Unfortunately, the decision to wage war is not necessarily the result of rational decisions. Because of this, no one can fully grasp the factors that lead to war. The key point is that when facing the threat of war, Taiwan should not idly stand by, but should always prepare for the coming of war.

Lessons From Ukraine

Furthermore, Taiwan cannot rely on help from others. After the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war, various sanctions and condemnations came from all over the world. Militarily, Ukraine was left to defend itself. As the war dragged on, the situation changed and Western powers began to ramp up military production and started transferring significant military support.

While protected by the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan is not in the position to retreat inland as Ukraine did early in the war. Taiwan has been watching the situation in Ukraine and recently purchased 18 more HIMARS from the US. Biden has repeatedly stated that the US would defend Taiwan militarily in the event of a Chinese invasion. But these statements have been walked back by official spokesmen.

In short, what we have learned from the Russian-Ukrainian war is that, whether or not we agree with the phrase “Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow,” Taiwan’s security can neither rely on China’s goodwill nor depend on the friendship of other countries. Taiwan’s security still has to come from within, that is, Taiwan must examine itself. Taiwan must determine whether it has the correct strategy and strength to force China to recalculate the risks of war.