The current state of the Taiwan problem has always been a good indicator for assessing the situation, both in the Indo-Pacific region as a whole and in relations between the two leading world powers, the United States and China. Meanwhile, a number of noteworthy recent events, which in one way or another affect this problem, point to its further aggravation.
First of all, let us pay attention to the results of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s visit to the United States on April 16-17 this year and his talks with President Joe Biden. Note, by the way, that the Japanese prime minister was the first foreign guest of the highest rank to be received by the new American president since his inauguration three months earlier. This once again demonstrates the primary importance to the United States of the state of affairs in the IPR, where Japan is the main US military and political ally.
The second sentence of the adopted Joint Statement calls the US-Japanese alliance “the cornerstone of peace and security in the IPR and in the world at large”. Who the sharp corners of this stone are aimed at is demonstrated in the main part of the document, which states that “President Biden and Prime Minister Suga exchanged views on the topic of the impact of China’s actions on stability and prosperity” in the region and in the world at large.
The result of this “exchange” was the conclusion that China’s use of economic and other coercive methods was “inconsistent with a rules-based international order”. The vast area (from the East China Sea to the South China Sea) in which, in the opinion of high-ranking interlocutors, China is particularly notable for the use of such methods is outlined.
Although Taiwan simply belongs to the designated area, it is specifically highlighted in the part of the document where the authors emphasize the importance for them to maintain “stability” here, and call for the resolution of problems “between the banks of the Taiwan Strait” by peaceful means.
Let’s pay attention to the accuracy of the last expression. On the one hand, it does not designate Taiwan as an independent state, which does not give Beijing a formal reason to accuse Washington of departing from respect for the “One China” principle. This principle was a prerequisite for the establishment of US-Chinese diplomatic relations in 1979. At the same time, the thesis about the need to use only peaceful means in resolving the problems in China’s relations with Taiwan is reproduced. This thesis is one of the foundations of the special “Taiwan Act,” adopted by the US Congress in 1979.
In the US itself, this mixture of contradictory starting points is defined as “ambiguity,” allowing Washington to avoid burdening itself with formal obligations in relations with a partner (in this case, Taiwan) and to act “according to circumstances”.
As for the now main opponent in Beijing, of course, it cannot completely ignore the hidden threat contained in the “peaceful means” thesis. For more than forty years, it has been the main obstacle to resolving the Taiwan problem in the only possible format for China, that is, in the form of the “return of the rebellious province to the bosom of the motherland”.
If you ask the experts who prepared the latest US-Japanese Joint Statement why it was necessary once again to warn Beijing to stick to the “peaceful” way of solving its problems in relations with Taiwan, you will probably be pointed to the PLA’s increased military activity in recent months in the waters and airspace around the island.
And if you were to follow the address indicated in this answer, i.e., Beijing, and ask about the reasons for this increase in activities took place, the fingers would be pointed in the opposite direction, namely, at Taipei, “where separatist tendencies are becoming increasingly clear,” and at Washington, which “encourages (no less clear) the said tendencies”.
The inquisitive analyst’s legs will go numb, should he continue to walk in a circle, searching for the truth, through which he will always be chased by the main participants in the Taiwan problem.
Meanwhile, there is a growing impression that Beijing is actually in the right. For it is almost impossible to talk about Washington’s adherence to the “One China” principle that it adopted in 1979. Not only that, but there are also voices that the already mentioned “ambiguity” in US policy toward Taiwan is unnecessary.
Last fall, the suggestion to replace “strategic ambiguity” with “strategic clarity” on this issue was made by such iconic figures from American political science as Richard Haass and Jeffrey Sachs. Comments on their initiative emphasized at the time that it came amid “growing pessimism” in the mood of American politicians about relations with China.
Recall that this was the final stage of the previous US administration, whose course on the Chinese direction from the beginning included two opposing trends: attempts to solve (rather serious) problems in bilateral trade in a more or less mutually beneficial way and increasing pressure on Beijing in the field of politics. In the author’s view, the bearer of the first trend was President Trump himself, and the second — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
This was the background against which the initiative emerged in the fall of 2020 for Washington’s de facto abandonment of the 1979 agreements that laid the foundation for the establishment of formal relations with Beijing. The end point of the (hypothetical) US movement along such a path could be to give a “traditional interstate” format to relations with Taiwan. Which, it should be repeated, is totally unacceptable to the PRC.
Note two important circumstances. First, Washington’s continued official reaffirmation of its respect for the One China principle is already taking on the appearance of a “fig leaf” that barely covers the de facto “traditional interstate” nature of Washington’s relations with Taipei. Suffice it to mention the presence in both capitals of institutions that serve as embassies and are not named as such, the large-scale US arms sales to Taiwan, and the passing of legislation by the US Congress in spring 2018 that allows for official contact between members of the governments.
Second, all this legacy in China policy in general and with regard to Taiwan in particular is something the new US administration has to deal with today. In which administration (as in the previous one) different factions with different views of the surrounding (“post-cold-war”) world and the place of the US in it are emerging.
Mike Pompeo’s ideological successors continue to generate all kinds of initiatives, causing an understandable reaction from Beijing. For example, on April 19, a bipartisan group of congressmen introduced a bill demanding that the PRC be denied the right to represent Taiwan in the international arena (especially at the UN). The island’s news agency reported that Pompeo himself is to visit the island “this year”.
At the same time, the reincarnation of another former Secretary of State, John Kerry, who was assigned by President Biden to do “political climate science,” continues to attract attention in American politics. It appears, however, that the latter may be a cover for a much broader range of political tasks for Kerry.
The NEO has already discussed his meeting in Delhi with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. No less noteworthy was Kerry’s subsequent visit to Shanghai for talks with his Chinese counterpart on the same “climate” issue.
In China, however, in connection with the visit of John Kerry, analogies are drawn with a specific period of bilateral relations 50 years ago, called “ping-pong diplomacy”, when under the guise of some sports events the establishment of US-Chinese relations actually took place.
As for the Taiwan problem itself, the same “ambivalent” message is still coming from the Biden administration. On the one hand, there is a readiness to fully support Taipei, as evidenced by the information about the plans to conclude the first (for the new administration) “arms deal” with the Taiwanese Defense Ministry.
At the same time, the initiative to move to a policy of “strategic clarity” is rejected. That is, the aforementioned “fig leaf” continues to remain in its place for now.
Finally, note that the Taiwan issue is proving to be one of the most painful thorns (among several others) in the IPR’s political body today. And it certainly is in the system of relations between the two leading world powers.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.