Taiwan becomes a football between the United States and China

| Updated: Jan 31, 2017 18:58 IST

Hong Kong [China], Jan.31 (ANI): Taiwan is very much in danger of becoming caught in a major power play between the United States of America and China, especially considering President Donald trump's reckless approach on foreign policy. For the whole of the People's Republic of China's (PRC) statehood, Taiwan has been a sensitive issue, an irritating thorn in its proud side. Indeed, the existence of Taiwan has remained one of the world's longest-running and intractable conundrums of the Cold War era that no side can solve unilaterally. Then President-elect Trump incensed China by receiving a congratulatory telephone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen on 2 December. He then questioned the USA's acceptance of the 'One China' policy, which goes back to the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1979 and which is the very foundation of bilateral relations. An unrepentant Trump told Fox News afterwards, "I fully understand the 'One China' policy, but I don't know why we have to be bound by a 'One China' policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade." Such feckless comments simply illustrate that Trump has little understanding of the extreme sensitivity of the issue, and how inflammatory his actions and words have been to Beijing. This policy has served Washington and Beijing well for 37 years, and for one egotistical man to attempt to undermine it is an act of caprice rather than wisdom. By the same token, Washington provides security reassurance to Taiwan through the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. As Wendell Minnick, an American journalist residing in Taipei, wrote in a story for UK defense publisher Shephard Media, "Taiwan fears becoming the golden peanut between two rogue elephants..." He continued, "Statements and actions by President Donald Trump and his inner circle have created confliction inside Taipei's defence community. These include Trump's support for Taiwan's defence, openly calling into question the legitimacy of the US government's 'One China' policy, and the prearranged congratulatory phone call from Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen to newly elected Trump." Minnick noted that Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense was "particularly unnerved" by speculative media reports that the USA might request the right to use Taiwan military bases for future contingency operations. "Turning Taiwan.into a political football between two military goliaths made many MND officials nervous," he observed. Numerous communication channels between Taiwan and China have been established over the years, and the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou initiated an unprecedented warming of ties. Indeed, Ma and President Xi Jinping even met in Singapore in November 2015. While China expostulates the "peaceful development of cross-Strait relations", it refuses to accept the de facto existence of Taiwan as a state, and it is seeking reunification along the 'one country, two systems' model adopted in Hong Kong and Macau. However, China's mishandling of Hong Kong and its removal of the velvet glove to expose its iron fist gives Taipei much pause for thought. Beijing has long attempted to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, and it scored yet another coup when Sao Tome and Principe transferred allegiance from Taiwan to the PRC last December. Taipei now enjoys diplomatic relations with only 21 countries, most of them in Central America, the Caribbean and Oceania. China will continue to use every means available to it to isolate Taiwan. It will thus offer financial and diplomatic incentives to Taiwan's existing diplomatic allies to wean them away from Taipei's sphere of influence and into its own. Indeed, Beijing will not be content until Taipei has not a single ally left. This kind of bullying was evident when China seizednine Singapore Army Terrex 8x8 armored fighting vehicles in the port of Hong Kong. Although claiming plausible deniability for any role in this action by the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department, most commentators agree that it was meant to serve notice to Singapore that it should stop military training in Taiwan, something that has occurred since the 1970s. Bonnie S. Glaser, senior advisor for Asia, wrote in a report for the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), "Cross-Strait ties, which improved considerably under Ma Ying-jeou's presidency (May 2008 - May 2016), have deteriorated since Tsai Ing-wen came to power last May. Dissatisfied with Tsai's unwillingness to rule out Taiwan independence and state that the two sides of the Strait belong to 'one China', Beijing has gradually but conspicuously imposed pressure on the new Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government." As is typical of China's propaganda machine, it will continually assert that Taipei, rather than Beijing, has changed the status quo. There are high levels of mistrust and suspicion on both sides. For example, Taiwan fears that the PRC will strangle its autonomy and impose reunification at all costs, while Beijing fears the DPP is pursuing a separatist agenda. There is a difficult balancing act going on, since both the PRC and Taiwan are trying to manage relations with each other and with the USA simultaneously. With Trump acting as the unpredictable joker, this job has just got trickier for both sides. If Trump introduces radical changes to American policy, this could trigger a serious reaction from Beijing that would further tilt the uneasy balance of power. At the same time, while cross-Strait relations remain high on the agenda for both Taipei and Beijing, they are not the utmost priority on either side right now. Tsai is concerned about Taiwan's lackluster economy, while Xi is eyeing the 19th Party Congress this fall as an opportunity to consolidate his already immense power. Glaser commented, "Neither president has much room to maneuver domestically when it comes to cross-Strait relations.Xi cannot afford to look weak on the sensitive issue of Taiwan if he hopes to maintain, much less strengthen, his grip on power." This is a positive, however, since neither president wishes to increase tensions and put cross-Strait relations in the foreground. Glaser therefore assessed, "For these reasons, a crisis between the two sides of the Strait can likely be averted." She suggested that Taiwan and China need to exercise "greater flexibility and creativity" as they take steps to reassure and show goodwill to each other. The writersaid, "Taipei and Beijing will both need to enter into a process of incremental trust-building through reciprocal and positive words and deeds. The absence of effective, reliable communication channels hampers the ability of both sides to build trust and increases the potential for miscalculation." Naturally, building congenial relations is difficult when China opposes Taiwan at every turn. China activelyexerts pressure to exclude Taiwan from participating in regional and international organizations. A case in point was Taiwan's absence from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) assembly in Montreal last year. China will continue to bully Taiwan militarily as well, and it needs to be remembered that China has not disavowed the use of force to reunify Taiwan should the island seek independence. China felt impotent during the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crises, and the best it could do was angrily fire ballistic missiles into the strait. Since then the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has worked hard to improve its anti-access/area denial capabilities to discourage the intervention of US military assets such as aircraft carriers during future tensions. Indeed, the unresolved Taiwan issue remains the key driver for PLA capability improvements and to fielding of new weapons like the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile and DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. It is developing those capabilities it needs to subdue Taiwan militarily and to keep the USA at arm's reach.Beijing currently has up to 1,500 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan. Despite its huge military advantage, an amphibious invasion of Taiwan would be highly risky for the PLA. Therefore, other means such as a naval blockade, seizing outlying islands, missile strikes and cyberwarfare would be more likely options for China should it push coercion to the highest level. In the meantime, it is not averse to hammering home threatening messages through means such as the recent PLA Navy (PLAN) task force that essentially circumnavigated Taiwan and entered the South China Sea. The carrier's presence put Taiwan's MND on edge, and it sent up aircraft to track the task force. There are things the USA could do to improve the military competence of Taiwan's armed forces. Examples include allowing the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) to participate in the Red Flag exercise held annually at Nellis Air Force Base. After all, the ROCAF already maintains a training detachment of F-16A/B fighters at Luke Air Force Base. An invitation to attend RIMPAC in Hawaii, the world's largest naval exercise, would also help the ROC Navy. There are also outstanding arms sales to Taiwan that Trump can expedite. These include AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM) to target ground radars from fighter aircraft, selling Quickstrike aircraft-deployed mines, and upgrading SLQ-32 shipboard electronic warfare suites. Taiwan this month started upgrading the first four of 144 F-16A/B Block 20 fighters as part of a USD 3.4 billion program. Earlier, however, the USA refused Taiwan's request to buy 66 new F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighterspurely out of concern over China's reaction. It is rumored that Taiwan will request from the USA 60 Lockheed Martin F-35B short take-off/vertical landing fighters, as well as 150 F-35A fighters, to replace ageing platforms such as the Mirage 2000, Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF) and F-5 Tiger. While such a request has no chance of success, it will certainly enrage Beijing if Taipei dares ask for such advanced weapons. There is an increasingly asymmetric economicrelationship between Taiwan and China too. Indeed,China accounts for nearly 40 percent of Taiwanese exports, whereas the USA buys only 12 percent of its goods. Taiwan's identity has continued to strengthen and evolveindependently of its PRC roots. In 2015, some 60 percent of citizens saw themselves as Taiwanese first and foremost, while 33 percent saw themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese. Just three percent saw themselves as purely Chinese. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)concluded in a report, "Nevertheless, behind its apparent patience, Beijing is doing everything in its power to integrate Taiwan to the mainland and to narrow the island's room for manoeuvre. Beijing has never lost sight of its ultimate objective: reunification. For its part, Taipei wants to consolidate the status quo and improve its international status." The organization suggested that due to China's growing military capabilities, "the long-term durability of Taiwan's de facto independence may be questionable," although the USA guarantees security in the short- to medium-term. There are often two edges to any sword, however, and so IISS commented, "This does not mean.that reunification is inevitable. While the People's Republic is actively influencing Taiwan, Taiwanese democracy is also attracting growing interest on the mainland and has highlighted Taiwan's political resources and soft power. The future of cross-Strait relations depends not only on which political party holds power in Taipei, but more importantly on the future of US-China relations and of the Chinese party-state itself." Of course, this is all the more reason for Beijing to absorb Taiwan sooner rather than later. It is already finding that democratic aspirations in Hong Kong cannot be easily weeded out. The Chinese Communist Party will not want those roots spreading from Taiwan and undermining its own dominance and legitimacy. We must expect a rocky road between Taiwan and China in the coming months, with threats and criticisms regularly emanating from Beijing, especially if Trump chooses to upset the apple cart. However, no major policy change is expected from the PRC, just more acts of coercion and attempts to isolate its "renegade province". (ANI)