Follow Us:

The Taiwan Test

The Chinese have unashamedly used their size and relevance on the global stage to diminish the legitimacy of Taiwan. Taiwan is no longer a member of the United Nations, it participates in Olympics as ‘Chinese Taipei’ and only fifteen states recognise Taiwan as the Republic of China (not even India or the United States). The bulldozing of the narrative to suit the Chinese agenda is manifest in its ‘One China’ policy.

Bhopinder Singh | New Delhi |

At the height of the bloody Indo-Chinese border tensions last year, the United States’ then-President, the rather voluble Donald Trump had tweeted, “We have informed both India and China that the United States is ready, willing and
able to mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute. Thank you!”. With much-bandied Namaste Trump/Howdy Modi bonhomie under its belt, the best the American President could offer then was a rather perfunctory ‘mediate’ or ‘arbitrate’, knowing fully well the ineffectualness and meaninglessness of his words, considering the dynamics involving a full-fledged fracas with the Chinese.

Indeed, certain weaponry and military wares for the Indian Armed Forces from the United States were fast-tracked, but that was pure ‘commerce’ at play with no additional/substantial leeway or support from the United States, other than extending the type of military wherewithal that was already being sourced earlier.

While green shoots of the ‘natural allies’ in terms of strategic convergence through Quad (Quadrilateral Talks between United States, India, Australia, and Japan) or imbibing ‘Indo-Pacific’ sensibilities were afoot, clearly, the Indo-US alliance was nowhere close to a military alliance like NATO, which automatically warranted intervening on behalf of members.

Another historical flashpoint of Chinese intimidation and belligerence is Taiwan. Barely 180 kms across the restive Taiwan Straits is the expansionist Chinese mainland, still unable to occupy or reconcile to the independence of Taiwan or the Republic of China (ROC), since the retreating General Chiang Kai-shek led Nationalist Government (Kuomintang) established its ‘wartime capital’ in Taipei in 1949. For decades, the Taiwanese have stoically rebuffed the Chinese offer of ‘one country, two systems’ ~wisely so, if the practical workings of this Chinese formula in Hong Kong are anything to go by.

However, the Chinese have unashamedly used their size and relevance on the global stage to diminish the legitimacy of Taiwan e.g., Taiwan is no longer a member of the United Nations, it participates in Olympics as ‘Chinese Taipei’ and only fifteen states recognise Taiwan as the Republic of China (not even India or the United States). The bulldozing of the narrative to suit the Chinese agenda is manifest in its ‘One China’ policy that forces other nations to choose between the official Chinese or Taiwanese positions as a precondition of engagement.

Not recognising the geographical sovereignty by either side of the Taiwan Straits has led to the jointly preferred term of ‘cross-strait relations’ to describe the bilateral relationship, instead of using sovereign denominations. Today, age-old tensions besetting the two geographical entities has been credibly described as the ‘worst in 40 years.’

A record number of Chinese fighter jets have violated Taiwanese airspace provocatively and the show of the Chinese Navy with live-fire exercises in the Taiwan Straits continues relentlessly. Taiwan’s Defence Minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, has already warned of the chances of accidental strikes or misfires and even alluded to China potentially mounting a full-fledged invasion of Taiwan by 2025.

President Xi Jingping’s loaded words, “the historical task of reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled and will definitely be fulfilled” have threatened a completely different possibility to his interpretation of ‘peaceful unification’. The ante has been commensurately upped with Taiwan’s decidedly anti-Chinese President, Tsai Ing-wen, moving the island’s politics, sentiments, and fervour towards a formal declaration of independence.

Amidst this ratcheting of words across the Straits, the ‘strategic ambiguity’ of the United States’ standard position in the potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, is evolving. Put simply, the usual tactic of affording Taiwan access to US military hardware (as already mandated under the Taiwan Relations Act) may simply not be enough.

Taiwan’s 300,000 active troops will not be able to withstand the largest armed force in the world i.e., Chinese PLA, which has over 2 million active-duty military personnel, or the sophistication of the arsenal to withstand a Chinese assault. Only an assured military intervention by the United States on behalf of Taiwan can deter the Chinese meaningfully. Herein, US President Joe Biden’s recent comments that United States had a, ‘sacred commitment’ to defend NATO allies and that it is the ‘same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan’, comes across as a welcome breath of strategic clarity and intent.

The so-called ‘strategic ambiguity’ that had historically defined the US stand has seemingly been put to rest, with the latest assertion, ‘futureproofing’ necessities. The definitive emergence of China as the focal threat in the 21st Century for the US has forced a certain relook of stances, and herein, Taiwan will be the litmus test of deterrence and credibility, for both the United States and the Chinese.

The recent inking of AUKUS (trilateral security pact between Australia, United Kingdom and United States) towards security concerns in the Indo-Pacific region, is unquestionably aimed at China. Taiwan was quick to latch on to the developments, as Foreign Minister Jospeh Wu stated, “We are pleased to see that United States and the UK and Australia are working closer with each other to acquire more advanced defence articles so that we can defend Indo- Pacific”.

Clearly, the earlier inhibitions, suppositions, and ambiguity in countering Chinese expansionism is getting perceived to be wholly inadequate and in dire need for sharpening counter-claws.

Joe Biden’s stated aversion towards starting yet another version of the cold war, this time with China, notwithstanding, the realisation that empty words or ‘strategic ambiguity’ may not suffice any more in dealing with China, is unmistakable. Already the ostensible carrot (more like a ‘debt-trap’) of Chinese investments through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is getting conceptually bettered by the alternative Build Back Better global infrastructure of the rival ‘Free World’ bloc.

Realisation has started dawning that making the cost of adventurism/expansionism prohibitive for the Chinese is the only way forward, and that requires a strategic recalibration, sharpening and weaponising of countermeasures to checkmate China.

Taiwan is sure to escalate into a major battle of wits, and in a surprisingly fleet-footed means for once, the ‘Free World’ has rebounded and committed itself towards a position and stand that China understands, respects and above all, still fears.

(The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd) and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)