Unfortunately, but this author’s presentiment regarding the situation around Taiwan seems to come true. It is very likely that in the chain of “underwater volcanoes” stretching from the Korean peninsula to the eastern entrance to the Strait of Malacca and undermining the whole system of relations between the two leading world powers (the US and China) from time to time, the Taiwan political “volcano” is awakening.
Apparently, it will become the most dangerous one in this chain, and its activation is most noticeable amidst stabilization and some decrease in the tension on the Korean Peninsula, where a prospect of a war with the use of the nuclear weapon was looming last year.
However, the period of “de-escalation” might be short. The generalized “Korean problem” includes too many uncertainty factors, of which only one is related to the missile and nuclear program of the DPRK. The main factor is predetermined by the evolution of the relations system between the major players on the Korean Peninsula (and in the world), i.e. between the USA and China.
We regret to acknowledge the degradation of almost all parts of the American-Chinese relations system in the recent months. The media pays particular attention to the sharp decline in the trade and economic component. The military and political component is on the verge of a dive mainly because of the situation around Taiwan, let us repeat.
It can be confidently asserted that the impetus for this was the approval by President D. Trump of the law HR535-Taiwan Travel Act (TTA) on March 16, previously unanimously adopted by both chambers of the US Congress. Upon the adoption of TTA, the procedure of various contacts between the officials from the administration of the USA and Taiwan of any level (that earlier have been brought “behind the curtain”) will acquire the legal and official character.
Thus, the adoption of this law is an important interim step to turn the US-Taiwan contacts into the format of interstate relations. Washington may try to use the new quality of the US-Taiwan relations as a resource of impact on China.
In particular, there are media leaks stating that the new National Security Advisor of the US President John Bolton may become the first among the highest American officials to use TTA (allegedly, in June 2018). It should be noted that one of the most important positions in the American administration is held by a politician who proved himself as a “hawk of hawks” in respect of China, first of all.
However, the list of pro-Taiwan political appointees in the American government departments of the last months goes beyond J. Bolton. The important positions in the Ministry of Defense and the State Department were taken by Randal Shriver and Alex Wong respectively.
All the three are mentioned in the article published by the Economist on April 5 under a notable title “Taiwan is again becoming a flashpoint between China and America”. The article’s author recalls that in the past, each of them somehow questioned the need for even formal respect of the “one China” principle by Washington, which Beijing regards as a critically important condition for maintaining official relations with the United States.
It should be said that prior to taking the office, John Bolton pledged not to go beyond the limits of the foreign policy of the current American President. How will this policy be changing? Meanwhile, the American carrier attack groups are more and more often seen in the South-China Sea to the south of Taiwan. One of them headed by Theodor Roosevelt aircraft carrier conducted military exercises in the South-China Sea (of clearly anti-Chinese orientation) in cooperation with the Philippines Navy ships on April 10.
Apparently, Beijing does not intend to wait for a clear answer to the above-raised question from its major geopolitical opponent. Immediately after the TTA adoption, China’s Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry raised stern protests. In particular, the official representative of the Defense Ministry declared that “Taiwan is a part of China and issues regarding Taiwan are completely internal affairs of China”.
However, the protests were not the only reaction; unambiguous military demonstrations started in mid-April. The greatest one among them was the naval parade held on April 12 in the northern part of the South-China Sea, which adjoins to Taiwan. 48 new vessels (including amphibious vessels) headed by Liaoning aircraft carrier, 76 aircraft, and 10 thousand sailors participated in it.
The country’s leader Xi Jinping appeared in the military outer garment at the event for the second time after his entry to power in 2013. He announced from the board of the aircraft carrier that the construction of the world’s strongest fleet “has never been so necessary as today”. The comments of the Chinese experts highlight that the scale of China’s naval forces parade will make “adversaries think twice before attempting to harm China’s core national interests”.
On April 16, the military exercises with shooting took place in the Taiwan Strait under simulated combat conditions. On September 19, the combined arms team of the Chinese Air Forces, which included bombers and escort fighters conducted an operation “Island patrol”.
The official Chinese commentaries underline the moderate scale of similar exercises. They rather demonstrate Beijing’s continued commitment to the peaceful ways of solving the problem of joining the “rebel island”, but also contain a warning to “groups of supporters of independence” in Taiwan.
The latter include not only the ruling Democratic Progressive Party headed by the acting President Tsai Ing-wen who also supports (though not as openly as before) the independence of Taiwan but the so-called Formosa Alliance created in early April by a number of major politicians.
The most prominent of them is Chen Shui-bian, the former leader of the Democratic Progressive Party, who was the President of Taiwan in 2000-2008 and sentenced (together with his wife) in 2008 to life imprisonment on charges of corruption and released in 2015 for the reasons of “health problems”. Let us remind that the making of Tsai as a politician took place in the DPP during the period when Chen Shui-bian ruled the party.
Formosa Alliance stands for holding a referendum in Taiwan, at which the citizens should support or oppose the state independence of the island.
This author has no doubts about two moments in a case of holding such a referendum: the positive reaction to the raised question and further development of the regional disaster (perhaps, before the referendum).
Meanwhile, the last demonstrations by Beijing give the islanders reason to talk again about “besieging of Taiwan with secret missions” of Air Forces bombers and Naval Forces vessels of China and to assert its military might. In particular, it is reported that Tsai Ing-wen will visit and inspect Patriot Air Defense system batteries that will be used during the next annual military exercises of Taiwan Armed Forces in June 2018.
In conclusion, let us note once again the fundamental differences in Beijing’s approaches to the situations around “the rebel island” and the Korean Peninsula. Despite the importance of the problem of control over the second one, the PRC treats both Koreas as independent states and do not claim ownership of their territories.
These differences determine the extreme danger of attempts to throw in the Taiwan card while playing with China. Let us remind that China’s Armed Forces are called Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The liberation of the Chinese territory started 70 years ago is not considered as completed as the control over Taiwan (in one form or another) is not established.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”