29.06.2022 Author: Vladimir Terehov

No End to the Chronicles of the Taiwan Issue

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In the new commentary on the most significant developments one way or another related to the Taiwan issue, first of all it is worth re-emphasizing what in the author’s view is the most important thing. Namely, despite the continuing general trend of thickening clouds in the picture reflecting the issue, there are still glimpses of hope. This is one of the reasons why the prospect of a non-catastrophic development of relations between the two centers of global political gravity involved (directly or indirectly) is non-zero. One of these centers is led by the United States, the other by the expressly emerging tandem of China and Russia.

The mixed impression of the above picture is created above all by the contradictory nature of the signals sent in the last few years from Washington to Beijing, which concern not only the Taiwan issue but also bilateral relations in general. The very existence of (relatively) positive signals is substantially due to the extensive and diverse intertwining of US and China economic interests. This is also controversial, but there is a clear interest among large sections of American business in continuing the economic relations with China that began to take shape at the end of the Cold War.

The continuing validity of this factor under the previous US administration was evidenced by, on the one hand, the conclusion of the so-called bilateral “Phase One Agreement” in January 2020. However, the same administration also imposed tariff barriers designed to cause problems primarily for Chinese high-tech companies (accused of “unfair competition”).

The positive signals sent to Beijing, repeatedly initiated since the beginning of this year by the current US Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, have been precisely caused by the need to reduce the level of these tariffs.  These tariffs not only hurt the business of the US companies having industrial and technological ties with those Chinese companies, but also lead to higher prices for basic necessities. This contributes to domestic political tensions in the United States.

A positive message could even be seen in President Joe Biden’s recent trip to South Korea and Japan in the third decade of May, which was undoubtedly anti-China in general. The centerpiece of the event was the announcement of the so-called Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). It was not clear what this was all about, but it was notable that the IPEF did not include Taiwan.

In a way, the final act in a series of such positive actions in relation to China was Joe Biden’s statement on June 18 ( about his intention to discuss the tariff issue with Chinese leader Xi Jinping “soon.” Apparently, the possibility of such a meeting as well as the list of issues to be discussed were at the center of the hours-long talks in Luxembourg on June 13 between Yang Jiechi, who is in charge of the entire field of Chinese foreign policy, and US Presidential National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

It should be recalled that the first meeting between them since the change of the US administration in January 2021 took place in March of that year in Anchorage, Alaska, and was very heated. In fact, it was then that US diplomacy received a resounding public backlash in response to its attempts to adopt the stance of a teacher of “good international tone” when speaking to representatives of other countries.

In both Anchorage and Luxembourg, one of the main issues discussed was the Taiwan issue. It is safe to say that the second of these meetings would not have taken place if the Department of State’s annually updated web pages on US relations with the outside world had kept a gap in the place of previous entries concerning Washington’s non-recognition of the island’s statehood.

The gap in question appeared in early May after another update and was filled again a month later (a week before the Luxembourg meeting) with the previous entry. This did not go unnoticed in the PRC. The statement on May 21 by Premier Li Keqiang on the continuation of China’s “openness policy,” two days after one of the above-mentioned signals from Janet Yellen, also seems noteworthy.

But, once again, there is a clear preponderance of negativity over the positivity in the messages Washington is sending to Beijing. It can be seen in the US political practice, particularly with regard to the Taiwan issue.

Taipei is not included (yet) in the aforementioned IPEF, but negotiations are underway for some sort of a US-Taiwan trade agreement. The area of bilateral defense cooperation is continuously and comprehensively expanding. On June 20, the second negotiations (Monterey Talks) of high-level delegations took place in the US on this topic. From 2021 onwards, such meetings will be held at least once a year with the aim of acquiring so-called “asymmetric capabilities” for Taiwan that should be “agile, inexpensive and effective in dealing with Chinese amphibious operations.”

The US defense budget for 2023, currently being prepared, includes an increased level of financial support for Taiwan’s defense capability development in general. In mid-June, a controversy erupted between Washington and Beijing over the status of the Taiwan Strait.

All this explains Beijing’s continued cautious, rather than reticent, attitude to attempts by the US leadership to indicate some kind of positivity in policy towards China.

In recent Chronicles of the Taiwan issue, Japan’s presence has appeared more and more frequently. It is safe to say that this topic will continue to be discussed as the scale and nature of Tokyo’s involvement in this issue grows steadily. This manifests itself both in relative trivialities and in quite significant actions that cannot be ignored in Beijing.

The former include Tokyo’s attempts to somehow compensate for another unpleasant “mishap” Taipei has had in its trade with Mainland. A year ago, Beijing was dissatisfied with the quality of pineapples purchased from Taiwan. This time, the sea bass supplied by Taiwanese fishermen came under suspicion. Although the Japanese have plenty of seafood of their own, they can also have some of Taiwanese bass if the political need so dictates.

The report of a possible appearance at the Japanese mission (or, in all but name, embassy) in Taipei of a serving Japanese military officer looks much more serious. There have been retired Japanese military personnel in this mission before. But the inclusion of a serving military officer would in fact mean the appearance of a Japanese military attaché on Taiwan territory. Naturally, Beijing could not leave this (potential) prospect without a reaction.

Finally, the author has to address the words uttered by the Speaker of the Taiwanese Parliament on June 12 that he had been informed during his tenure as Minister of Defense that the island’s long-developed Hsiung Feng III could “reach Beijing.” Although the officially declared characteristics of this missile look very modest (a range of about 150 km), it is important to keep in mind that, as a rule and everywhere else, the same name can refer to completely different weapons systems. Therefore, one should not “right from the start” refer to these words as a “political bluff,” given that Taiwan’s industry in general (and its defense industry in particular) is among the most advanced in the world.

To sum up, a US-China summit would be appropriate now to at least de-escalate tensions in bilateral relations.

But the unfolding situation in general, and with regard to the Taiwan issue in particular, is not yet very conducive to such a summit.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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