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Taiwan’s Peace on the Line: the Chinese Threat

The status quo in the Pacific region and the relations between China and Taiwan seem to be crumbling. The situation between the two countries is at its worst in the last 40 years. The Republic of China has adopted a more aggressive policy against what they consider to be its breakaway province. In what have been called “irresponsible provocative actions” by Taiwanese officials, the Chinese government has significantly increased the number of its aircraft in the island’s defence zone. This assertive stance has been backed by China’s President Xi Jinping’s declaration during the 110th anniversary of the revolution that saw the defeat of China's last imperial dynasty in 1911. During this event, the leader has said that “reunification” with Taiwan “must be fulfilled”. As the escalation progresses and fears of the eruption of a war surface, experts look at the United States and attempt to predict whether the superpower will modify its policy of “strategic ambiguity” in the region.

This year, the common practice of Chinese officials to make boisterous declarations against Taiwan during the state’s national day – on October the 1st – has been backed by practical actions. Since the beginning of Autumn, China has greatly increased the aeroplanes incursions in the island’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). On Monday the 4th of October, the Chinese Republic has sent 56 military aeroplanes towards Taiwan in the largest demonstration of force recorded amongst the two states. This event further exacerbates an already tense situation. Indeed, throughout 2021 there have been more than 500 Chinese incursions similar to this one, a considerable increase when compared to a total of 300 in 2020. During the 110th anniversary of the revolution, Xi Jinping has stated the country’s willingness to reunify Taiwan and impose the “one country two systems” policy, similar to the one in Hong Kong. The chief has warned the island that “(T)hose who forget their heritage, betray their motherland and seek to split the country will come to no good”. He added that “(P)eople should not underestimate Chinese people's determination to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The task of complete reunification of China must be achieved, and it will definitely be achieved”. Responding to these assaults, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has affirmed that “Taiwan does not seek military confrontation” but it “will also do whatever it takes to defend its freedom and democratic way of life”.

Although recently President Xi has vowed to achieve the reunification of Taiwan by peaceful means, the country’s actions seem to reflect more closely his declaration from two years ago. Indeed, at the beginning of 2019, the Chinese leader has affirmed that to attain reunification, “(W)e make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means”. The Global Times, the Chinese newspaper controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, has pushed the scenario even further and affirmed that “the war may be triggered at any time”. However, despite the increasingly aggressive stance against Taiwan, experts believe that the possibility of a Chinese full-blown invasion is unlikely. Barbara Kelemen, Asia Associate at the geopolitical and security firm Dragonfly, believes a full-out attack is improbable “because the US has taken several steps to strengthen its relationship with the island”. According to her, “US President Biden’s latest actions seem to indicate that he sees supporting Taiwan as a pillar of a broader geopolitical strategy to counter China’s growing power in Asia, and his stance has been interpreted by Beijing as being increasingly aggressive”.

As a matter of fact, the timing of Chinese incursions towards the island is not casual. Instead, analysts believe that Beijing might have decided to pre-emptively react to the United States interest in the Pacific region. The American “shift to the Pacific” which occurred after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan was confirmed by the creation of the AUKUS alliance and the American commitment to help Australia obtain a nuclear-powered submarine fleet. Chinese authorities might have reacted to what they claimed was an abuse of a “loophole in international law to openly proliferate nuclear weapons” and decided to counteract against a potential expansion of the American interests in the region.

Even though recently they extended their activity in the Pacific area, the United States has maintained throughout the years a policy of “strategic ambiguity” in the face of the Taiwanese issue. This approach aims to achieve a balance by deterring potential Chinese attacks on the island and avoiding any wishful promise that could lead Taiwan to declare independence. For this reason, some experts wonder what would be the American reaction to a potential Chinese direct attack on Taiwan. If Xi Jinping threats become more and more concrete, will the Biden administration take the risk of engaging in a full-out war? Some researchers are pro and some against participating in such a war. For example, the American Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis has affirmed that the United States should refrain from a war against China at all costs because “there is no rational scenario in which the United States could end up in a better, more secure place after a war with China. The best that could be hoped for would be a pyrrhic victory in which we are saddled with becoming the permanent defense force for Taiwan”.

Despite Chiu Kuo-Cheng, Taiwan’s defence minister’s announcement that Beijing will be “fully able” to invade the island by 2025, a number of uncertainties still surround the issue. In particular, one of the main elements resides in China’s and the United States’ resolution for this cause. How far are the two superpowers willing to protect or attack Taiwan?

Written by Cinzia Saro

Cinzia Saro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.

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