Taiwan Confrontation - Introduction
The US has for years maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” under which it provides key military support to Taiwan, but does not explicitly promise to come to the island’s aid in the event of a Chinese attack. The US is in the process of constantly clarifying its one-China policy. Some Americans want the US to abandon the strategic ambiguity policy and replace it with "strategic clarity." In April 2001, then US president George W. Bush said the US would do "whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself" in the event of an attack by the Chinese mainland.
US President Joe Biden said 21 October 2021 that the US is committed to defending Taiwan if it is attacked. Biden said the US did not want a new Cold War but expressed concern about whether China was “going to engage in activities that will put them in a position where they may make a serious mistake." Biden was asked at a town hall event hosted by CNN whether the US would come to the defense of Taiwan, which China claims as its own. Biden said “I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back, we are not going to change any of our views.” Asked whether the US would come to Taiwan's defense if it were attacked, he replied: “Yes, we have a commitment to do that”, in what appeared to be a break with a longstanding US policy on Taiwan.
"China, Russia, and the rest of the world knows we're the most powerful military in the history of the world," Biden said, as he jumped to the defense of the US' credentials. "What you do have to worry about is whether or not they're going to engage in activities that would put them in a position where they may make a serious mistake," Biden said. After the interview, a high-level official told the press that US policy toward Taiwan island had not changed.
While Washington is required by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, it had long followed a policy of "strategic ambiguity" on whether it would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack. The White House later clarified there was no change in policy, reiterating a similar statement in August 2021. "The US defense relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act," a White House spokesperson said. "The president was not announcing any change in our policy and there is no change in our policy."
Biden said 19 August 2021, when asked about US commitment to its allies in the Asia Pacific in the wake of the decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Biden appeared to suggest the US would defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China. “They are … entities we’ve made agreements with based on not a civil war they’re having on that island or in South Korea, but on an agreement where they have a unity government that, in fact, is trying to keep bad guys from doing bad things to them,” he said. “We have made, kept every commitment. We made a sacred commitment to article 5 that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.” The White House soon put out the fire, indicating that US policy on the Taiwan Straits had not changed. US academic circles and mainstream public opinion mostly believed that Biden' reply was "a slip of the tongue."
Steven M. Goldstein, director of the Taiwan Studies Workshop at Harvard University, believes that the administration’s recent remarks are not representative of a policy change – but that they do signal increasing toughness towards Beijing. “I think that Biden’s statement that the US would defend Taiwan, and certainly Blinken’s statement, are pushing the envelope as a signal to the Chinese – even as the Chinese are themselves pushing the envelope with these flights into Taiwan’s defence identification zone,” Goldstein said. “The US is getting close to the red line as a way of showing a toughening policy.”
“Strategic ambiguity remains … but the framework for how strategic ambiguity has been implemented is experiencing changes, because the context in which the three players are interacting with each other has substantially shifted,” said Dean P. Chen, associate professor of Political Science at Ramapo College of New Jersey and author of, “US Taiwan Strait Policy: The Origins of Strategic Ambiguity”. This shift in the framework for strategic ambiguity, said Chen, began with the Trump administration, which lifted rules forbidding senior-level contact between US and Taiwanese officials and increased arms sales to the island as well as ramped up US military activity in the surrounding area. Despite their differences, Biden has not strayed far from Trump’s Taiwan policy. “Officials from both administrations agree that Beijing is a disruptor of this relationship,” Chen said.
“The danger of the Taiwan issue is that it has become an uncompromisable, immoveable controversy, in which all the actors have to learn to persist in an unsatisfactory manner,” said Goldstein. “However, as sincere as I believe the Chinese are in saying that they will not allow Taiwan to be lost, I think the Chinese are equally conscious that a conflict would be a disaster for the Communist Party’s plans.”
At Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin's regular Press Conference on October 22, 2021, he said "Taiwan is an inalienable part of China's territory. The Taiwan question is purely China's internal affairs that allow no foreign interference. On issues that bear on China's sovereignty, territorial integrity and other core interests, no one shall expect China to make any compromise or trade-offs. No one should underestimate the resolve, the will and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Do not stand on the opposite side of the 1.4 billion people. We urge the US to earnestly abide by the one-China principle and stipulations in the three China-US joint communiques, be prudent with its words and actions on the Taiwan question, and avoid sending wrong signals to the "Taiwan independence" separatist forces, lest it should seriously damage China-US relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait."
President Xi Jinping explained to President Trump in 2017, the Taiwan question "is the most important, most sensitive core issue in China-US relations, and concerns the political basis of the China-US relationship." Taiwan has always been the most important issue in Sino-American relations - a point made clear to Henry Kissinger when the two sides first met in Beijing in 1972.
After the fall of Kabul, Global Times opined in an unsigned [ie, the official view of the CCP] "Many people cannot help but recall how the Vietnam War ended in 1975: The US abandoned its allies in South Vietnam; Saigon was taken over; then the US evacuated almost all its citizens in Saigon. And in 2019, US troops withdrew from northern Syria abruptly and abandoned their allies, the Kurds. Some historians also point out that abandoning allies to protect US interests is an inherent flaw that has been deeply rooted in the US since the founding of the country.
"How Washington abandoned the Kabul regime particularly shocked some in Asia, including the island of Taiwan.... Once a cross-Straits war breaks out while the mainland seizes the island with forces, the US would have to have a much greater determination than it had for Afghanistan, Syria, and Vietnam if it wants to interfere. A military intervention of the US will be a move to change the status quo in the Taiwan Straits, and this will make Washington pay a huge price rather than earn profit.
"But the difference is the deeper hopelessness of a US victory if it gets itself involved in a cross-Straits war. Such a war would mean unthinkable costs for the US, in front of which the so-called special importance of Taiwan is nothing but wishful thinking of the DPP authorities and secessionist forces on the island.... once a war breaks out in the Straits, the island's defense will collapse in hours and the US military won't come to help. As a result, the DPP authorities will quickly surrender, while some high-level officials may flee by plane."
John Culver, career CIA analyst and former National Intelligence officer for East Asia, stated : "I don't think there's a timeline. But at some point in the next decade, there might be.... They want to be able to put a stamp that says they began the process that would lead toward unification but at the same time, they would set the timeline so far out that they were kicking it down the road to be dealt with by their successors. What's different now, of course, is that the factors that kind of created stability over the Taiwan issue over the last 40 years are all weakening.... China no longer has the excuse of being weak and Chinese domestic opinion is increasingly nationalistic. So if there was an incident or provocation, I'm worried that China would feel that this time, unlike in previous episodes, it could not back down and would have to rise to the framing."
By the year 2027, which marks the centennial of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China will build a fully modern military, a goal that is in alignment with the national strength and will fulfill the future national defense need, Chinese analysts said 21 October 2020, after the Communiqué of the fifth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) set the development goal of the PLA in following years. According to the Communiqué of the fifth plenary session of the 19th CPC Central Committee, the country’s national defense capabilities and economic strength should be strengthened at the same time and reach the centennial goal of building a modern military by 2027.
According to the Communiqué, with the aim of building a modern military as the centennial goal by 2027, China’s military will accelerate its integrated development in “mechanization,” “informatization” and “intelligentization,” comprehensively strengthen military training and preparation. By then, the strategic ability to defend national sovereignty, security, and development interests will be largely improved, the Communiqué says.
The plenary session proposed a new "centennial goal." The plenum proposed to speed up the modernization of national defense and the armed forces, and realize the unity of a prosperous country and a strong military. Carry out Xi Jinping’s thought on strengthening the army, implement the military strategy of the new era, adhere to the party’s absolute leadership over the people’s army, insist on building the army through politics, reform and strengthening the army, strengthening the army with science and technology, strengthening the army with talents, governing the army according to law, and accelerating the integration of mechanization, informationization and intelligence Develop, comprehensively strengthen military training and preparations, improve the strategic ability to defend national sovereignty, security, and development interests, and ensure that the goal of the century-old military is achieved in 2027.
Taiwan and China agreed on "one China, two systems" as the basis for cross-Strait cooperation - "the 1992 Consensus". According to “the 92 consensus,” both sides of the Taiwan Strait acknowledge that there is only one China in the world and both the mainland and Taiwan are part of that China. The United States "opposed any unilateral change in the Taiwan Strait status quo". The United States "dual deterrence" warned China not to use force against Taiwan, and it warned Taiwan not to provoke Beijing into using force. The US reassured Taipei it would not sacrifice its interests for good relations with China, and it reassured Beijing that it did not support Taiwan independence. The US wanted Taiwan to stop publicly rejecting the one China principle. But President Tsai-Ing wen, first elected 2016 as the candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), consistently refused this demand. In 2011, when Tsai was running for DPP chair, she declared "There is no 1992 Consensus".
A September 2020 poll by Taiwan Thinktank found that only two percent of respondents identified as “Chinese”, while 62.6 percent considered themselves Taiwanese, and the rest identified as both. A rising number also support Taiwan’s “independence” from the Republic of China, reneging on any claims to mainland Asia. They also reject Beijing’s offer of “one country, two systems” – sceptical about Beijing’s promises of semi-autonomy after the crackdown in Hong Kong.
JIA Qingguo wrote "Beijing has been under increasing domestic political pressure to take tougher actions to defend China’s territorial integrity. The question of Taiwan has been one of the most sensitive issues in China. To almost everyone in China, the island is China’s province and a symbol of China’s century-long humiliation before 1949. Any effort to split that province away from China constitutes unacceptable insult and offense to the Chinese people and therefore must be countered against. Accordingly, Beijing is willing to accept the cost of war if necessary to prevent anyone from snatching the island province away—no matter whether it is the DPP or Washington.... as China’s defense capabilities grow, more people feel that it is time to think about the possibility of using force to address the problem of Taiwan separatism once and for all.... most people in Taiwan are rational and do not endorse independence at the risk of war with the Chinese mainland. It is possible that as more people realize that war is a real possibility, they will put enough pressure on the DPP authorities to make the necessary accommodations with Beijing....
"The cost of a military takeover remains prohibitive. It involves not only the direct cost of a military takeover of the island province, but also the cost of fighting a full-scale war with the US and maybe its allies, and almost inevitable international economic sanctions and a drastic deterioration of China’s international environment. Thus, Beijing is unlikely to consider the military option unless it feels cornered by provocations from Taipei and Washington.... Beijing’s growing military power can further enhance its belief that time is on its side and encourage it to adhere to its long-standing policy of peaceful unification."
Peter Beinart noted "the “one China” fiction helped Beijing imagine that peaceful reunification remained possible. Which gave it an excuse not to invade.... deterrence alone won’t work: China cares more. In 2017, mainland Chinese said that Taiwan topped their list of “concerns about the U.S.-China relationship.” Among Americans, by contrast, Taiwan didn’t make the top seven."
China's military probing has been going on for years — an unending stress test for the democratic island it claims as its territory. But in 2020, the threat took on a new intensity. Over and over again, Taiwan scrambled fighters to intercept Chinese warplanes flying towards or even into Taiwan's airspace. With China cracking down on freedoms in Hong Kong, accused of sweeping repression against the Uighurs in Xinjiang, expanding in the South China Sea, and clashing with India in the Himalayas, Taiwan was next.
President Xi Jinping framed the matter in a high-profile speech in 2019: "We do not promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to use all necessary measures." The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) held joint maritime and aerial exercises and combat-readiness patrols in the Taiwan Straits starting 18 September 2020. The mainland military spokespersons used three different expressions in describing the operations, namely real combat-oriented exercises, combat-readiness patrols and joint aerial and maritime drills, which showed the exercises this time are multidimensional. The real combat-oriented, joint aerial and maritime drills mean that the PLA is practicing in key areas of a real battle, while the combat-readiness patrols are operations aimed at preparing for combat anytime if anomalies occur on the island.
According to computer simulations run and published by the Chinese mainland's Naval and Merchant Ships magazine in May, as well as many other military analysts, the PLA could launch intensive waves of missile and rocket attacks that would neutralize most of Taiwan's air defense capabilities and airfields within five minutes after the operation starts, and PLA warplanes would then seize air superiority and sweep enemies, with PLA warships, including two aircraft carriers, also engaging in naval battles. General air and sea superiorities are expected to be gained in about two hours, with most stationary ground military facilities destroyed. Two PLA aircraft carriers would then group up to the east of the island and prepare to counter foreign intervention, and after 24 hours of continuous suppressive attacks, amphibious landing forces would start the landing operation that would eventually see the entire island under control, according to the simulations.
Main battle forces of the PLA are always ready to join combat, and Chinese observers noted that the September 2020 drills showed the US forces will not have time to come to Taiwan's aid, and the military on the island would not be able to stand up to the PLA's lightning quick, thundering powerful attacks, if a reunification-by-force operation is to occur.
Three possible scenarios include: gradually chipping away at Taiwan's stability via military and hybrid means; a sudden, Crimea-style annexation of outlying islands; and finally a full-scale invasion. An invasion would involve enormous risks not just to Taiwan, but to the whole world. The US would face the dilemma of whether to intervene — potentially sparking a war between two superpowers.
Some military observers said that by normalizing large-scale exercises, the PLA can assemble troops near Taiwan and launch a sudden attack during the exercises. But others said that while the PLA had that capability, it will likely not use this method, but rather give an ultimatum to the Taiwan secessionists before doing it. If the secessionists insist on their obduracy, then the PLA could turn the exercises into real actions and reunify the island. Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu warned 19 September 2020 that China was ramping up its military pressure and that the threat of a military intervention against Taiwan had "intensified". Wu said that after China's crackdown in Hong Kong, "Taiwan might be next". Wu pointed to recent military drills by China as evidence that Beijing was eager to fulfill the commitment of President Xi Jinping to "reunify" China by taking control of Taiwan. He said Taiwan was beefing up its military in order to respond to the threat and welcomed US moves to warn China against using military force. He also said that the potential for an accidental war with China was escalating. Wu hailed the recent visit by United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar to Taiwan – the highest-level visit on the island by a US official since 1979 – as a watershed moment.
Foreign Minister Wu hoped that the world will pay attention to the profound threat emanating from China. "The threat is very real and therefore Taiwan's preparation is also very serious... We are trying to deal with the military threat, day in and day out" he said 19 September 2020 "They are trying to export the authoritarian international order while democracies are following the rule-based international order," he said. "If China succeeds in taking Taiwan over — I think the rest of the world, especially for democracies, is going to feel the heat. China is expanding outward. Taiwan happens to be on the front line."
Michael Morell, former Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and retired Admiral James Winnefeld warned in August 2020 that Chinese leader Xi Jinping will "bring Taiwan back into China" in mid-January 2021. In the article published by the private, non-profit U.S. Naval Institute Morell and Winnefeld paint a worst-case scenario for an operation that would unfold quickly, "beginning on the evening of 18 January," prior to the U.S. presidential inauguration. China would carry out cyberattacks to cripple the country by disabling the national power grid and other important utilities. This will be followed by a swift sea and air blockade, with several People's Liberation Army (PLA) submarines joining in the action. The the blockade will pave the way for the landing of PLA amphibious forces.
Meanwhile, China would send stern warnings not to intervene to the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Australia, and other Taiwanese allies. On the second day, global stock markets will crash due to the turmoil. World leaders wouldd make statements condemning the attack, but bogged down by multiple issues, Washington will be unable to react. On the third day after the attack, Morell and Winnefeld believe it will be too late for Washington to reverse the damage. Xi would then whitewash the invasion by telling the world that the "Chinese Dream" has been fulfilled and "welcome the people of Taiwan home."
Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou on 10 August 2020 said the U.S. will not come to Taiwan's aid in the case of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Ma stated that China’s strategy of striking Taiwan is to "let the first battle be the last," suggesting that the communist nation aims to launch a quick war so that Taiwan does not have time to wait for American military support. The president should prevent war from happening, Ma remarked, referring to President Tsai Ing-wen’s comment to foreign media that if Taiwan is attacked by China, Beijing will "pay a great price." She also said that after the nation endures the first wave of attacks, she hopes countries around the world will come to assist it. Ma said he was worried because the nation’s military is aware of China’s strategy. Once war has begun, it will be over in a very short period of time, he predicted, giving Taiwan no chance to wait for the U.S. military. The former two-term president added that in fact, there is no way the U.S. would even come to the rescue in such a situation. Ma stated: "Whoever is president should not tell our compatriots how many days [the nation] can last in a war but rather tell our compatriots that he or she can prevent war from happening."
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, wrote on 26 October 2021 "The Tsai Ing-wen authority has said that the island will defend itself "to the very last day" if the Chinese mainland attacks. Most people know they are bluffing.... Taiwan only has 180,000 troops of active forces. Most of these are "strawberry soldiers", which is a term used to describe delicate or spoiled youths who cannot withstand the pressures of being in the military.... If the Taiwan question escalates so that it can only be solved through military means, the sudden surrender of Taiwan authorities who dare not fight is within everyone's expectation. "
The 1992 Consensus
Taiwan's quest for identity and international status continues to vex Beijing-Taipei and Beijing-US relations. The United States does not support Taiwanese independence, but it maintains strong trade ties with the island and is Taipei's biggest weapons supplier. Although it abides by a one-China policy, Washington has pledged to defend Taiwan against aggression from the mainland.
In 1982, during negotiations for the Third United States - China Joint Communiqué on Arms Sales to Taiwan, the Taiwan government presented the United States with six points that it proposed the United States use as guidelines in conducting United States - Taiwan relations. According to former Ambassador John Holdridge, the United States agreed to these points, conveyed this assent to Taiwan, and, in late July 1982, informed the Congress of the agreement. The "Six Assurances" to Taiwan are:
1. The United States would not set a date for termination of arms sales to Taiwan.
2. The United States would not alter the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act.
3. The United States would not consult with China in advance before making decisions about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
4. The United States would not mediate between Taiwan and China.
5. The United States would not alter its position about the sovereignty of Taiwan which was, that the question was one to be decided peacefully by the Chinese themselves, and would not pressure Taiwan to enter into negotiations with China.
6. The United States would not formally recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan.
The 1992 consensus, in which Beijing and Taipei agreed to their own interpretations of the "one China" principle, led to talks, but they eventually broke down. On 30 January 1995, Jiang Zemin, then general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and president of the People's Republic, delivered a speech, entitled "Continue to Promote the Reunification of the Motherland," contained eight major points designed to achieve the unification of mainland China and Taiwan. Taiwan's President, Lee Teng-hui, responded the following year with a six-point proposal in response to Jiang's proposition.
But cross-strait relations worsened after Lee made public his "two states" theory in 1998. And in 1999 Lee Teng-hui redefined ties as "special state-to-state" relations. In 1995, nearly half of Taiwan's residents considered themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese, while as many as 25 per cent thought there were Chinese [by 2004 only 8 per cent of the island's residents regarded themselves as Chinese, while 42 per cent deemed themselves to be Taiwanese]. China suspended talks with Taiwan on eventual reunification in 1999, after Taiwan insisted negotiations be considered state-to-state.
By 2006, time was clearly not on the side of those who supported Taiwan's independence from the mainland. China's growing economic appeal to the island's business community, coupled with outreach to Pan-Blue politicians in 2005, suggested that over time Taiwan would inevitably be absorbed into the mainland. It would be argued that the window of opportunity for Taiwan to irrevocably assert its independence had closed. The "period of maximum danger" of a profound crisis appeared to be the summer of 2008. President Chen Shui-bian had pledged to push for a new constitution for Taiwan before the end of 2008. Pro-indepedence leaders might have calculated that Bejing would take no actions that would detract from the depiction of "peaceful rise" attending the 2008 Olympics, slated to open on 08 August 2008 in Beijing. But this moment came and went un-eventfully.
As of 2014, the prospects for military conflict across the Taiwan strait appeared nearly unthinkable. In the less than two months since President Ma Ying-jeou was inaugurated as the chief executive of Taiwan in May 2008, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government had implemented or proposed numerous measures designed to tie Taiwan's future to the People's Republic of China. Regular weekend direct flights between five cities in China and eight airports in Taiwan had already commenced. Since the election of President Ma Ying-jeou in March 2008, the security situation in the Taiwan Strait has entered a period of relaxing tensions. Both Beijing and Taipei have emphasized enhancing people-to-people contacts and expanding economic ties. However, there had been no meaningful actions on the part of the Mainland to reduce its military presence directly opposite Taiwan.
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