There is nothing potentially more explosive in China-US relations than Taiwan. The Economist magazine, in a May issue, featured on the cover “The most dangerous place on Earth”, referring to the island. The title is exaggerated, but the situation has since worsened.
What happened? Why did Taiwan become this flashing red light on the radar? Since the 1970s, there has been a delicate balance between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan. This balance —now threatened— is made up of ambiguities and contradictions. It was negotiated when the US recognized China under the Communist Party, to the detriment of Taiwan. In short:
The US accepts that there is “one China” of which Taiwan is a part. They recognize that the government of the People’s Republic of China is the country’s legitimate representative. Despite this, Washington rejects the political reunification of China, except by peaceful means. As part of the deal, Deng Xiaoping grudgingly agreed to the US continuing to sell arms to Taiwan.
Shortly after the normalization of China-US relations, the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act. There is no formal commitment by the US to militarily defend the island in the event of a Beijing-led invasion, but the law leaves that possibility open. This is called strategic ambiguity.
Now Joe Biden — deliberately or not — casts doubt on US policy toward Taiwan. In an interview in October, he was asked whether the US would commit to defending the island in an eventual attack. “Yes,” he replied clearly. Biden had also said in August that the US would defend Taiwan because it had pledged to do so.
But that commitment doesn’t exist, there isn’t a military alliance, a treaty that compels the US to act. Instead, uncertainty always reigned. Had Biden’s reaction been a calculated move—or a mere carelessness with words? Continuing to sell arms to Taiwan is one thing. Committing to defending it militarily is another.
A formal defense commitment would strengthen pro-independence voices in Taiwan, stoking tempers. After the interviews, the White House was quick to clarify that the US position on the island remains unchanged.
Washington’s political calculation, however, may be changing. In the face of China’s rising military might and its more assertive speech on reunification, the US acts as if Beijing’s patience is running out. Meanwhile, they sell guns.
Chinese leaders, in turn, raise the tone and show strength. The actions and reactions of the two nuclear powers feed back into each other. China prefers not to test American ambiguity with an attack. Many in China think the US would feel compelled to defend Taiwan, because the omission would be seen as emblematic of American decline.
Allies Japan and South Korea, for example, would adjust their calculations. For Washington, a conflict would be expensive — but running away from it in the face of Chinese aggression, ditto.
Many others think that the US would not risk conflict, but that the best thing for Beijing would still be to pursue peaceful reunification. Given China’s weight, reality would tend to take over — even if, over time, Taiwanese people may feel more Taiwanese than Chinese and are skeptical about “one country, two systems” arrangements, as in the case of Hong Kong.
However, in the event that Taipei declares independence or Washington supports that position, Beijing will not hesitate to use force. The imperfect arrangement that prevented a military confrontation for decades is being put to the test. Thus, Taiwan becomes the main stage of the geopolitical rivalry of the 21st century.
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