All it took was 10 minutes to reverse years of diminishing importance. When U.S. President-elect Donald Trump ignored established diplomatic tradition and accepted Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen's 10-minute phone call congratulating him on his victory, it upset the balance enough to put the island in East Asia back in the regional spotlight and give the rivalry between China and the United States a kick-start. After Washington singled out China and Russia as central challenges to U.S. security and began considering more aggressive trade measures against Beijing, the United States now appears to be paving the way for a change in the status quo with Taiwan. Twenty years after the last military skirmish across the Taiwan Strait, Taipei seems destined to again acquire supreme geopolitical significance.
Since European colonialists arrived in the 17th century, Taiwan has functioned as a gateway between Asia and the wider Western Pacific thanks to its proximity to China, Japan and the Southeast Asian landmass. Over the past three centuries, a succession of European, Chinese and Japanese rulers have gained control of the island. In the mid-1940s, Taiwan became a theater in the Chinese civil war; in the second half of the 20th century, it became central to a contest for power among China, the United States and Japan. Now, after two decades of dormancy, tension appears to be flaring up between Washington and Beijing once more. After the United States implemented a National Defense Authorization Act in December 2017 that could permit unprecedented visits by naval vessels between the United States and Taiwan, the U.S. House of Representatives passed two pieces of pro-Taiwan legislation on Jan. 9. The bills were the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages more frequent bilateral visits between U.S. and Taiwanese officials, and another supporting Taipei's inclusion in the World Health Assembly in spite of China's vociferous objections. If the bills ultimately become law, they could overturn the long-standing diplomatic protocol between the United States and China that has underpinned tripartite relations among Beijing, Washington and Taipei for nearly four decades.
A Farewell to Diplomatic Niceties
While similar bills have languished in regulatory purgatory in the past, the current administration has repeatedly signaled that it has no intention of abiding by the diplomatic niceties that it perceives to have undermined U.S. strategic priorities. And Trump's government is somewhat justified in making such arguments — the risks of such action notwithstanding — because the strategic equilibrium between the United States and China, and across the Asia-Pacific as a whole, has changed fundamentally since previous administrations established such protocols. The diplomatic understandings of yesteryear facilitated a rapport between Washington and Beijing because the latter was a weak and isolated power. Today, however, China is a major power that has become a strategic competitor to the United States.
For decades, the United States maintained a deliberate, strategic ambiguity regarding cross-strait relations, essentially promoting a subtle and elaborate piece of diplomatic fiction. Officially, Washington maintained that the government in Beijing was the only legal representative of China and that it understood Beijing’s claim to Taiwan. But despite this "One China" policy, the United States refused to formally acknowledge that Taiwan was part of China, thus allowing Washington to maintain the lines of communication and cooperation with Taipei, while also selling the island weapons. Still, beyond the arms sales that routinely upset Beijing, Washington has largely minimized its contacts with Taipei, thereby preventing any serious disruptions in relations between the United States and China or in the cross-strait balance.
From China's perspective, the issue of Taiwan is nonnegotiable. Any event that alters the island's status quo or pulls it further from the mainland's grasp will guarantee an immediate and firm response from China. Beijing regards Taiwan as the last holdout from the Chinese civil war awaiting national reunification, as well as a critical missing piece to securing China's trade and economic interests in the region. By contrast, if Taiwan allied itself to a strong, anti-Beijing rival, it would become an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" that would challenge the Chinese mainland. At a minimum, Taiwan's current status thwarts Beijing's goals of dominating the near seas.
Staredown on the Strait
Amid its wary observations of Washington’s machinations, China has wasted no time in warning Taipei's pro-independence government, which came to power in 2016, about the costs it could incur if it upset Beijing. China has increased the number of air and naval patrols across the Taiwan Strait in recent months, and in its ongoing effort to isolate Taipei, Beijing recently launched a crackdown on foreign companies that recognize Taiwan as a country. At the same time, it has also poached some of Taipei's remaining diplomatic allies, such as Gambia and Panama, which have switched allegiance to Beijing. Meanwhile, the Holy See, Taiwan's last remaining — and perhaps most important — ally in Europe, has been engaged in a year of dialogue with Beijing to iron out differences over who has authority over China's Catholics. Still, under Tsai's government, Taipei has been looking to counter Beijing by expanding economic relations with countries such as Japan and India, or by returning to its southern-oriented policy of cooperating with Southeast Asia, all while soliciting defense assistance from the United States.
Due to the massive costs inherent in achieving reunification by force, Beijing's resolve to resort to the military option remains unclear. But as the current cross-strait diplomacy and economic relations become increasingly untenable, the window for a peaceful resolution to the current situation is slowly closing. In fact, China has even threatened to forcibly secure unification if U.S. Navy vessels ever arrive at Kaohsiung, the island’s largest port. Caught between the U.S. desire to challenge the cross-strait balance and China's irredentism, Taipei finds itself in the midst of a geopolitical tempest.
Caught between the U.S. desire to challenge the cross-strait balance and China's irredentism, Taipei finds itself in the midst of a geopolitical tempest.
By virtue of its location and relative economic power, Taiwan was once critical to shaping the regional balance. But over the past two decades, its geopolitical significance has receded as greater isolation and dwindling economic clout have left Taipei in the international cold. After the last spike in tension across the straits in the mid-1990s, the big powers and Taipei came to accept a situation based on the maxim of "no unification, no independence and no use of force." Taiwan boasts a vibrant democracy and retains a powerful position in global manufacturing, but its more powerful next-door neighbors, China, Japan and South Korea, have all come to eclipse it. Taiwan possesses a relatively strong military in the region and continues to receive U.S. support in the form of arms sales and defense cooperation. But because it focuses heavily on defense, the island's range of military options against China are also steadily diminishing as the capabilities between the two widen.
As the Sino-U.S. rivalry heightens, so does the island’s geopolitical significance. A potential policy shift by Washington could help Taipei counterbalance Beijing, but that could leave a double-edged sword swinging above the island. The U.S. commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act — which requires the United States to provide defense if China attacks or invades Taiwan — has gone untested for years and is perceived to fall short on security. And a hawkish cross-strait policy could put Taipei squarely in Beijing's crosshairs. With Beijing's increased military capability, territorial assertiveness and diplomatic clout, unclear U.S. policies could test cross-strait relations and put the island in the middle of a big power game in the region — with all the associated risks that entails.