The ongoing trade war between the two leading world powers is just one aspect of the global confrontation between the USA and China. Another aspect, and one which will certainly increase in importance, is the Taiwan problem. After all, it seems highly likely that the issue of Taiwan will soon play a central role in the Sino-American stand-off.
Naturally, the struggle for influence is continuing in a number of regions: on the Korean peninsula, in South-East Asia, in the waters of the Indian Ocean, and in Africa, Latin America and Europe. And the echoes of this struggle can easily be observed in other major world powers, including Russia, India and even Japan. Despite the fact that the latter is, as readers are aware, a military and political ally of the USA.
And yet, as we have said, the fiercest dispute between the USA and China relates to their dealings with Taiwan: and it is this issue that threatens to have the most serious consequences for the world as a whole.
China’s longing for “the errant province of Taiwan” to “return to the bosom of her Mother Country” is far too strong to be explained by any rational (political, military/ strategic or economic) motive. The ideal of “One China” has for centuries been fundamental to the way the Chinese see their country and its place in the wider world. This ideal is behind the uncompromising refusal by Beijing’s political classes to show the slightest flexibility or variation in their approach to dealing with the Taiwanese problem.
For Washington, the ability to control Taiwan is becoming increasingly important for one reason alone, and that reason has to do with the realities of the new Great Game, which is dominated by the USA’s confrontation with Beijing, already referred to above. Taiwan has an extremely important strategic location, and if its main geo-political opponent were to gain control over the island then that would seriously limit China’s ability to maneuver in its own coastal waters, let alone further afield in the Pacific Ocean.
At the very height of the Cold War, when the USSR was the USA’s main rival, Washington was forced to make considerable compromises in relation to Taiwan in an effort to get China on its side. Nevertheless, the USA did not give up all its power over the island: ever since it broke off its official diplomatic relations with Taipei in 1979, Washington has used political and economic resources to maintain its influence.
The end of the Cold War was followed by a decade and a half of global “strategic non-alignment”, and during this period the Taiwan problem was fairly low down on the list of major global concerns. It was only in the mid-2000s that China began to be seen as a realistic candidate for supremacy in the new global order. And that shift is the reason for the USA’s interest in restoring and developing its relations with Taiwan.
That process is now speeding up, this time taking months, rather than years. In our last article about this process we focused on the events held in Washington to mark the 40th anniversary of the Act of the US Congress (passed on April 10, 1979) which established the legal basis for US relations with Taiwan. We also noted that the US Congress is currently considering a new draft law aimed at uniting all the previous laws and presidential decrees relating to Taiwan in a single instrument.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Washington’s recent initiatives relating to Taiwan is the (quasi) international quality, like that of one state to another, of Washington’s relationship with Taipei. That would explain the rapid development, and increasingly official quality, of contacts between senior officials from both countries.
Those contacts first became possible after Congress passed the relevant law, at the beginning of 2018, but it was not until recently that the two sides started taking advantage of the new opportunities. Tsai Ing-wen, the President of Taiwan, has made a number of trips to the USA, but each time as a stopover en route to another destination.
However, since mid-May this year, phrases like “sort of” and “for the time being” no longer apply to the USA’s relations with Taiwan. For one thing, David Lee, Taiwan’s foreign Minister, visited the USA on May 13-18 this year, and, moreover, during his trip he had talks with the US National Security Advisor John Bolton.
The trip, and the meetings, were reported by, among others, Reuters, which cited an announcement by Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry. The reaction of China’s Foreign Ministry was, predictably, highly critical. It commented that this was the first contact between high-ranking politicians from the USA and Taiwan since 1979.
The meetings are clearly a milestone in the process, mentioned above, of normalizing relations between the USA and Taiwan and putting them on a “one state talking to another” basis, and in the ongoing transformation of the status quo in the Asia-Pacific region. Taking everything into consideration, the current trend offers few grounds for optimism.
It is worth noting that, in US political circles, John Bolton is clearly among the “hawks”, who have absolutely no intention of compromising when it comes to relations with the USA’s main geopolitical opponent. On the other hand, it is quite possible that the current US President is merely concerned about “imbalances” in the areas of trade and the economy, and that he does not share the Washington hawks’ almost hysterical fears about the “yellow peril”.
Nevertheless, if relations between the two leading world powers continue to deteriorate it is quite possible that those powers may try and force Russia to make a choice – a situation that Russia should try to avoid at all costs.
In the opinion of this author, when, in the near future, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping makes his planned visit to Russia, the message he comes away with should be along the following lines: “Under no circumstances (e.g. in return for promises to lift sanctions, offers of investment and new technology, or offers to compromise over Ukraine) will Russia take part in any anti-Chinese maneuvers. That includes the Taiwanese question.”
But that certainly does not mean that Russia should be drawn into a confrontation with the so-called West (something that ceased to exist a long time ago). Far from it: Russia needs to participate, openly and directly, in a process that has already started: “bringing Europe back” after its “abduction” some 50 – 60 years ago, when the continent was stripped of its own values, and a set of totally different and completely bogus values were grafted on in their place.
Vladimir Terehov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific Region has written this article exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”