Chinese pressure sparks debate on Taiwan’s resilience

China’s expanding military provocations toward Taiwan have elevated concern among the United States and its allies that Beijing could be on the verge of using force against the island democracy China considers an integral part of its sovereign territory.

The pressure on Taiwan, coupled with other aggressive actions by the authoritarian communist government in China, have also triggered debate over the extent to which the Chinese aggression might backfire by boosting Taiwan‘s strong pro-independence forces and prompting the U.S. and others to deliver more robust support for Taipei.

While the Biden administration has made rhetorical overtures of support for Taiwan, analysts say the U.S. remains as wedded as ever to the so-called “One China” policy, under which Washington refuses to formally recognize Taiwanese independence but helps the island defend itself and leaves ambiguous what the U.S. military would do in a shooting war.

However, some claim Beijing‘s actions over the past year — most notably stepped- up drills and missile testing by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the Taiwan Strait — have backfired, producing a surge of previously unseen support for Taiwan by the United States and by its allies in the Indo-Pacific.

Beijing‘s pressure against Taiwan has triggered counteractions by Washington and the international community, perhaps more than China has anticipated,” said Zoe Leung, the director of Track 2 Diplomacy Programs at the Houston-based George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations.

“Since the beginning of 2021, U.S. Navy [ships] transited the Taiwan Strait seven times in response to PLA show of force,” Ms. Leung told The Washington Times. The increase in visits to Taiwan by current and former U.S. officials over the past two years should also be read as a sign of expanding American support for Taiwan, driven by Washington’s desire to counter China’s aggressive moves.

She said the Biden administration has been working behind the scenes to rally expanded diplomatic support for Taiwan on the international stage.

“Australia, Japan, South Korea, [the] G7, and [the] EU have all identified Taiwan security as increasingly important, as Beijing stepped up efforts to isolate Taiwan in the international arena,” Ms. Leung said. “Japan has signaled it may be forced to intervene in a cross-strait crisis. These developments were unprecedented.”

Ms. Leung and Cameron Waltz, a junior fellow with the Bush Foundation, pushed their argument in a recent commentary published by Foreign Policy under the headline, “Beijing’s Attempts to Intimidate Taiwan Have Backfired; Chinese coercion has strengthened democratic resolve.”

“The United States is now at its closest with Taiwan since it de-recognized the Republic of China in 1979,” the two wrote. The Biden administration has responded to China’s increased military activity in the Taiwan Strait by “normalizing U.S. warship transits near Taiwan, coupled with sales of advanced weapons to Taipei to boost its ability to asymmetrically deny a Chinese invasion.”

Not everyone agrees, and say China‘s increasingly overt threats to Taiwan‘s independence are a deeply worrying sign.

“This idea that Beijing’s tactics have helped Taiwan gain more support than it has seen in decades — that’s just false,” said Michael Pillsbury, a longtime adviser on China to successive White House administration’s and currently the head of Chinese strategy at Hudson Institute in Washington.

“There’s certainly increased concern for Taiwan, but the main concern is that China’s going to invade Taiwan,” Mr. Pillsbury said. “Still, I don’t think China’s aggressiveness is having any effect on tangible steps to defend Taiwan or increase deterrence, even if international concern over the prospect of China possibly using force against Taiwan is at the highest level it’s been in decades.”

“Have any other countries started selling arms to Taiwan? No. We’re the only country since 1980 that dares to sell arms to Taiwan. Let’s see Australia try to sell arms to Taiwan. They won’t do it,” Mr. Pillsbury said. Many key U.S. allies — including Australia and Japan — are far  more dependent on China as an import and export market than in the United States.

On the weapons front, the United States has long been the lone exception in selling arms to Taipei. And, the State Department formally approved last week the first Taiwan arms sale of the Biden era — a $750 million deal that includes some 40 self-propelled howitzer armored field artillery vehicles. China‘s nationalist, state-controlled Global Times denounced the sale as a “vicious provocation.”

But Mr. Pillsbury said actual delivery on such deals often gets delayed indefinitely, and he called it a gross overstatement to say the U.S. sells Taiwan “advanced weaponry,” asserting that specific Taiwanese weapons requests often go unmet by Washington.

Mr. Pillsbury also stressed that there has been no change in U.S. adherence to the 1979 “One China” policy, in which Washington recognized China as the sole legal government of the Chinese people and cut off official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which Beijing regards as its territory.

Formal support for Taiwan remains low internationally, he said, noting just 15 countries — mainly tiny ones that trade more with Taipei than Beijing — recognize Taiwanese independence. It’s a list that does not include the U.S., Japan, Australia, India, South Korea or any other major democracy in Asia.

“The meat here is that nothing has changed on specific steps for Taiwan‘s defense. Nothing has changed,” Mr. Pillsbury said. “I’m tired of virtue signaling and false hope and wishful thinking on this issue. [The Taiwanese] can’t even fly their flag inside the United States. Taiwanese Air Force pilots have the Taiwan insignia ripped off their uniforms when they start training [in the U.S.]. Do you have any idea of the level of humiliation the Taiwanese go through?”

Increasingly wary

Ambassador Joe DeTrani, a former CIA official who also has decades of experience analyzing China, said the international community in general has grown increasingly wary of Beijing’s actions on a range of fronts, not just on Taiwan but on trade, the South China Sea, the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and other issues..

Mr. DeTrani pointed to frustration over the Chinese government’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong through the imposition of an aggressive new “national security law” there, and regional unease over China’s aggressive moves in disputed areas of the South China Sea, where Beijing has been constructing military bases on artificial islands.

He also noted unease toward Beijing’s human rights abuses of Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region, and toward the use of so-called “wolf warrior” diplomacy by Chinese officials internationally. The practice, which got its name from the Rambo-style Chinese-action movie “Wolf Warrior,” often sees Chinese officials in Australia, India and Japan sharply denouncing officials and institutions in those nations who criticize China.

“There’s a multitude of issues out there where China’s behavior is turning a lot of countries and people off,” Mr. DeTrani said. “I believe China’s actions — whether it’s the national security law in Hong Kong, the wolf warrior diplomacy mentality, the assertiveness in the South China Sea, the actions in Xinjiang — have backfired and are affecting not only the international view of China and [President Xi Jinping], but also the situation with Taiwan and engendering more concern for the well-being of the people of Taiwan.”

Concern over the fate of Taiwan has also been coursing through the halls of the Pentagon lately.

The Associated Press reported in April that the U.S. military had assessed China is probably accelerating its timetable for capturing control of Taiwan, a move that could trigger a direct  U.S.-China war. Increasing the anxiety, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. John Hyten revealed that recently that the U.S. side had “failed miserably” in a war game simulation of a Chinese attempt to overrun Taiwan.

“An aggressive Red Team that had been studying the United States for the last 20 years just ran rings around us,” Gen. Hyten told an audience at a defense industry event on July 26. “They knew exactly what we’re going to do before we did it.”

The Defense Department has revealed few details about that specific war game, but officials said it delivered a jolt to the U.S. military’s assessment of the balance of power in the Pacific.

Adm. John C. Aquilino, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, downplayed the war game exercise in remarks to the Aspen Security Forum last week, but acknowledged that Beijing’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea and elsewhere have sparked a “sense of urgency” inside the Pentagon.

“Those games have helped us to identify where we have gaps and seams, how we make requests for capabilities and requirements to ensure our competitive advantage is maintained,” Adm. Aquilino said. “I’m confident we still have the finest and strongest military on the earth and that the U.S. is ready for any contingency, should it occur.”

• Ben Wolfgang contributed to this article.

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