By Shyam KC
“There was no flashpoint between the superpowers during the Cold War that was as dangerous as Taiwan will be in a Sino-American security competition” a prominent structural realist, John Mearsheimer had said.Donald Trump now formally becomes the sworn-in president of the United States. Trump’s phonecall with the first women President of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen, during his role as a president-elect, had triggered the huge controversy in regards to the America’s continuous support for ‘One-China Policy.’ Since U.S. diplomatic relations with China in 1979, reports suggest that no President or President-elect of the U.S. had spoken to the Taiwanese leader formally.In an interview Trump had also said “Everything is under negotiation, including One China."Shortly after, Beijing warned saying ‘one China Policy is non-negotiable’. It is significant to contextualize the recent verbal confrontation with the brief overview of tripartite relations between US, China and Taiwan– precisely the story behind the People’s Republic of China (PRC) -mainland China and Republic of China (ROC)-Taiwan, notion of the One-China policy, geostrategic significance of Taiwan, cross-strait relations and future prospects.
PRC and ROC
Aftermath the victory of communist party led by Mao Zedong on the ‘1949 civil war’ over nationalist front led by Chiang Kai-shek– started off the story PRC and ROC. Meanwhile, instead of recognizing communist China even after its victory, the United States continued its support to Taiwan. In the context of cold war politics, the US approach started to shift, following the historic visit of President Richard Nixon to PRC in 1972– considered as the breakthrough of Sino-US relations. The democratic Carter government reached the agreement on ‘mutual recognition’ on December 1978 with PRC by recognizing the PRC as the sole legal government of China– also withdrawing U.S. troops and diplomatic relations from Taiwan. But, facing the greater opposition for granting formal recognition to communist China in the Republican-dominated Congress– the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) was passed by Congress on March, 1979. It was an act which envisioned continuing ‘unofficial relations’ between U.S. and Taiwan. The major gist of the act was the perpetuation and promotion of commercial, cultural, and other relations between the U.S. and ROC, ensuring no use of coercive action to determine the future of Taiwan, U.S. providing Taiwan with ‘arms of a defensive character.’ In order to continue unofficial relations, they established the American Institute in Taiwan and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Boston (TECO-Boston), these institutions function as the de facto embassy.The PRC and the ROC, reached the ‘One China, respective interpretations consensus’ in 1992, famously known as ‘1992 Consensus’ which basically acknowledged the ‘two regime and two regions within One China’ and respecting each other’s jurisdiction under one China.
The Cork in the Bottle
Taiwan is geographically located approximately 100 miles from China to East. Portraying the rarefied geostrategic location of Taiwan, Admiral Ernest King, the Chief of Naval Operations during World War II, termed Taiwan as ‘the cork in the bottle’ of the South China Sea. Also, Taiwan is referred as the ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’by General Douglas MacArthur – projecting its considerable landmass capability to bear immobile aircraft carrier. In the context of ongoing contestations in South China Sea, the imperative of the Taiwan’s geostrategic position has drastically evolved in the greater geopolitical game. Taiwan is in the center of the first island chain– runs from the islands of Japan through Taiwan to the Philippines. In this scenario, Chinese scholar pointed out in the case of separation of Taiwan– mainland China will be locked in the west of first island chain. So, it is not merely the unsettled territorial disputes– seasoned strategists both from China and U.S. understands Taiwan’s geostrategic location is vital for gaining the leverage over another in the context of the crisis.
Trade and Military Relations
In order to expand the cross-strait ties, the then President Ma Ying-jeou, signed the major agreement like the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in June 2010 and Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) in June 2013, among others. While demanding for delaying the ratification of CSSTA, half a million people marched the street and students occupied parliament for 24 days– famously known for ‘the Sunflower Movement’. The protestors believed the ratification of CSSTA will greatly undermine the small and medium-sized industries of Taiwan and will provide the comparative advantage in favor of Beijing and upsurge its influence over Taipei. While in other hand, supports believed CSSTA will boost the economic arena of Taiwan but the fact is that CSSTA is yet to be ratified. Moreover, cross-strait trade is expanding– China became the Taiwan’s largest trading partners in 2013 holding a 22 percent share, which was 12 percent in 2003 and also substantial increment in FDI. In September 2016 the trade volume between Mainland-Taiwan amounted to US$ 16.33 billion. The U.S. State Department data shows that the strong trade relations between U.S. and Taiwan. The U.S is Taiwan’s second-largest trading partner and the Taiwan is the ninth largest trading partner of U.S. Similarly, more than 12,000 Taiwanese workers were employed in the United States, as of 2013.
In the military front, there is the huge gap in defense spending between China and Taiwan –hugely in favor of China. Despite the Beijing’s rift, the United States remains the largest sole exporter of defense equipment’s in Taipei. Trump’s second tweet about the phone call from Tsai reads“Interesting how the US sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call”– explained the defense relations between Taipei and Washington. To put the facts, in the end of 2015, the U.S. approved $1.83 billion in arms sales to Taipei.
Future of Tripartite Trouble
In case Taiwan march towards paving the way for de jure independence, the Anti-Session Law 2005, unequivocally stated under Article 8 that “the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity.” In April 2016, Global Times online published the result of the public poll of mainlanders, that 85% of respondents supporting unification of Taiwan by force and 58% agreed right time to do so in next five years of times− the newspaper faced the heavy criticism for its report.
The United States, while continuing its support for the One-China policy, with the exception of recent developments, is also adopting the ‘dual deterrence strategy’. On one hand deterring China for any coercive diplomatic and military actions against Taiwan, whereas, on the other hand, making cautious to Taiwan not to rise voice for independence blatantly and constantly reiterating for maintaining the status-quo.
But experts doubt about the continuation of status-quo, in the context of economically and militarily rising China. John Mearsheimer, aprominent structural realist, had predicted that, “…there is a reasonable chance American policymakers will eventually conclude thatit makes good strategic sense to abandon Taiwan and to allow China to coerce it into accepting unification.” Whereas other argues abandoning Taiwan will deteriorate the US reliability among its allies and spark the arms race in the region.
In the word of Noam Chomsky, “the most predictable aspect of Trump is unpredictability”. With the unpredictable president in White House, how he further takes on, the unofficial relations with Taiwan will not only shapes the Sino-US relations but also affects the larger geopolitics and security of Asia. TheVice President Mike Pence, the then vice-president-elect, defended the call saying merely the ‘courtesy call’ and assured U.S. will ‘deal with policy’ only after formally taking the office. Contrary to this, it had been also said that, the call was the ‘deliberately calculated strategic policy move’ vis-à-vis Taiwan.If PresidentTrump, formally pursue the policy of breaking status-quo and take measures contrary to its support for One-China Policy, scholars argue will bring the Sino-US relations in turbulence and destabilize the security of the region–depends upon developments in Trump’s formal Taiwan policy and the movefrom China.
This article was originally published in the Nepal Foreign Affairs on 26 January, 2017.
(Shyam K.C is a Director for Research and Development at AIDIA)