The Trump administration is now taking a hard stance towards mainland China. While the current spotlight is on Sino-US economic frictions and specifically the trade war, the Trump administration is adding leverage on another issue: the Taiwan situation.
For the past several decades, Washington has tried to avoid direct confrontation with mainland China on Taiwan issues, even though the U.S. has been very inclined towards supporting Taiwan in its efforts for sovereignty, both politically and economically. In 2018, the Trump administration gave the Taiwan issue a stronger push, eliciting greater tension while causing great dissatisfaction with the Chinese government. In April, the State department endorsed the plan for U.S. defense companies to sell technology, weapons and intelligence for Taiwan submarine programs.
It is a big move: by increasing the U.S. military involvement on Taiwan maritime issues, America is publicly endorsing Taiwan’s military sovereignty, which has been the most controversial topic in Beijing-Taiwan diplomatic relationship. The central government in Beijing (PRC) has claimed that it governs Taiwan, and that Taiwan will always be an integral part of China under the “One China” policy; however, Taiwanese people see themselves as “Taiwanese,” instead of “Chinese.” Under this dispute, Trump’s action is a public challenge that will make Beijing rethink whether Taiwan is seen as a legitimate government by Americans and the west, considering the attention and caution China’s carrying through under the “One China” principle. Will this mark another divergence in how two great powers will interact and play out in world politics? The answer is very likely yes, both geopolitically and diplomatically.
China, historically, has been adopting a narrow perspective of geopolitics, limiting its diplomatic relationships to bordering countries and regions; however, around the turn of 21st century as China recognizes its bordering territory, Beijing is now moving towards a more diverse, cohesive plan on culture, military and marine powers: China is now taking an expansionist approach. “The One Belt One Road Initiative” is one of the many examples that China is trying to build mutual bonds with its bordering countries, increasing the economic and logistical dependence on trades and diplomacy. Xi insisted that China is fully committed to the idea of “economic connectivity and the common development for win-win relationships” through expanding economy infrastructure into nearby regions.
Economically through this “One Belt One Road” initiative, China has been very successful in maintaining a peaceful foreign relationship; however, when it comes to military and maritime power, Beijing is encountering more challenges while taking a very serious, assertive approach. This is where Taiwan comes into the play: even though Taiwan and mainland China indeed have been trade partners under mutually beneficial policy, Taiwan government does not recognize itself as part of China under Beijing control due to the very different and diverse historical and political background. In Taiwan’s perspective, the geopolitics dynamics between Taiwan and China is more than economic bonds, because Taiwan apparently prioritizes the differentiated political power in the realm of geopolitics. However, China is not buying this argument. Taiwan is situated in such a way that it serves as a great air and naval military base that can both separate South China Sea and the East China Sea, providing a very secure and sustained inland military and political scene for “One China.” Beijing believes that Taiwan should be part of China, both economically and militarily as the central government is building up a formidable navy to secure Chinese access on military advantages over South China Sea regions and inevitably, Taiwan. So, in any possible way, China does not want Taiwan to possess too much military or maritime power because it denotes a potential threat to military troops in mainland China; additionally, as Taiwan becomes stronger socio-economically and politically, mainland China fears that Taiwan will bring in its own political beliefs as on democracy, shaking up Beijing’s dictatorship and the intertwined, nasty history between China and Taiwan.
Therefore, we see that one of the greatest fears for Chinese foreign policy is the Taiwan issue. But now, as the U.S. increased a tremendous number of military spare parts, personnel and equipment to Taiwan maritime and air force, this situation is going in the opposite direction of China’s wish.
After the U.S. exported military support and unveiled a new $250 million compound for the American Institute in Taiwan in June 2018, China is more alarmed than ever. One month later, on July 8, the head of the Chinese government’s Taiwan Affairs Office publicly denounced this practice, and said that China “cannot accept” this kind of partnership between Taiwan and U.S. Beijing believes that the increased involvement for America to meddle with Taiwan situation is an intrusion for the “One China” policy. Unlike the trade war, in which China takes a mild stance and poise itself as willing to negotiate, China is calling America and Taiwan out on this issue, demanding America to take a fair and immediate retreat from Taiwan.
However, Trump is not taking the “retreat.” Trump administration has shown an increasing willingness and commitment to Asia in general. From the denuclearization meeting with North Korea to increasing diplomacy with India, Japan and other East Asia regions, we can see a steady trajectory of U.S. leadership and involvement in Asia. With building economic bonds with Asian developing countries, the U.S. is trying to build mutually respectful and sustained diplomatic relationships, with the potential threat of encircling China. And specifically for Taiwan, President Trump claims Taiwan being “the most vibrant economies” in East Asia with the prospect of bringing democracy into mainland China. This approach in diplomacy is not new, but the level of aggressiveness and determination has reached the highest level under the action calls of Trump. Considering the current trade war and law suits on intellectual property U.S. filed on China, it is almost impossible to untie Taiwan from the Sino-US relationship, as we see U.S. is treating Taiwan as a crucial leverage for the America to stand against China.
China and the U.S.: these two great powers are by no means on the same page on the Taiwan issue. China wants Taiwan to be its backup on military and air force, serving as a buffer zone between China and other great powers. However, the U.S. wants Taiwan to declare its democracy, sovereignty, and independence both economically and militarily by showing increased support and sponsorship. As China and U.S. continue to call each other out, we can foresee the potential consequence of a rising military, physical conflicts near the East Asia region, with a looming prospect for how geopolitics will play out in the Taiwan region.
Shirley Wang is a Tufts undergraduate majoring in international relations and art history, and an intern at Massachusetts Peace Action.