The ever-present threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the island nation Beijing claims as its own, has heightened appreciably over the past few weeks. Across global capitals, diplomatic and security establishments have started gaming the consequences of a possible conflict, even if limited, erupting within the next six months.
It would be a war, if it comes to that, the world can ill-afford. But it is naïve to hope that the fast-deteriorating situation across the Taiwan Strait will miraculously ease; hope, as the saying goes, is not a data point. The fact is that the economic slowdown, domestic turmoil, and lurch to the Left within the People’s Republic of China – with some experts speculating that President Xi Jinping’s leadership is under pressure from a section of the Communist Party – needs to be taken more seriously than it has hitherto been. Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu last week told Australia’s ABC TV: “We are very concerned that China is going to launch a war against Taiwan at some point; the turmoil in China is getting serious and Taiwan could become a target.”
This followed the revelation by US officials that American troops have been present and operating on Taiwanese territory for the past year. A contingent of US Marines is working with Taiwanese naval forces on small-boat training, while a separate special operations group is working with Taiwanese ground forces, the Wall Street Journal reported. Dozens of Chinese jets and other military aircraft have entered Taiwan’s air defence identification zone over the past few days. The fly-bys have prompted warnings from Taiwanese and US officials, with the White House urging Beijing “to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure, and coercion, against Taiwan”. The US has iterated that it would continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining “a sufficient self-defence capability” even as President Joe Biden reaffirmed America’s commitment to the “One China” agreement which recognises Beijing as the sole authority in
China but allows the USA to arm and support the government of Taiwan as well. Fear of a conflict, or even an accidental escalation of tensions, has now been voiced by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. On Sunday, President Tsai underlined that her country wanted the status quo on its political status to be maintained and not follow mainland China’s path which offers “neither a free and democratic way of life for Taiwan, nor sovereignty for our 23 million people”. She acknowledged rising pressure from China and firmly rejected Chinese military coercion, a position which was underlined by a rare demonstration of Taiwan’s defence capabilities at a parade on its National Day. Surveys consistently show that the Taiwanese people overwhelmingly reject unification with China. But with Beijing threatening to come good on its stated policy of bringing its “national territory” under its control using military means if required, the stakes have been raised.
The key player in the emerging scenario remains Washington and how the Biden administration interprets the Taiwan Relations Act, which does not guarantee US military intervention if China attacks Taiwan but does not relinquish it either.