Economic Statecraft
Taiwan: Is the Threat of a Military Conflict Between the US and China Real?

Despite the desire of the United States to shake up the situation in the Taiwan Strait, creating additional internal problems for China, Biden has not yet managed to achieve a strategic advantage in relations with China. Beijing is clearly aware of all possible risks and is taking the necessary actions to minimise them. Therefore, one should hardly expect China to allow itself to be drawn into an armed confrontation with Taiwan, writes Yury Kulintsev, Deputy Director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies (IFES) Russian Academy of Sciences.

The relationship between the world’s two largest economies has been gradually deteriorating over the past five years. With the coming to power of Donald Trump, a “trade war” with China began, and sanctions began to be imposed on Chinese IT giants. Later, the US accused China of spreading the coronavirus infection, and finally, changes were made to the conceptual documents defining the foreign policy of the White House, after which it became clear that Washington had singled out Beijing as one of its main geopolitical threats in the international arena.

At the same time, the issue of Taiwan remained low on the agenda of US-China relations. If we recall the telephone conversation in which the leader of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, congratulated Donald Trump on his victory in the presidential election, this episode caused a huge wave of indignation in Beijing, which was expressed by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Trump’s statements a few weeks later and announcement in early 2017 of a possible revision of the “one China” policy in general jeopardised the further development of bilateral relations. At the time, Trump’s actions were attributed to his lack of political experience. Tensions were relieved for some time after Trump’s telephone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in which the US position to adhere to the “one China” principle was confirmed.

However, Washington continued to play the “Taiwan card”. In March 2018, the United States adopted the “Taiwan Travel Act”, which, at the legislative level, allowed the White House administration to legitimise official visits and meetings of high-ranking officials in the absence of diplomatic relations between the parties. As a result, in May 2019, it became possible to hold a meeting in Washington between US National Security Adviser Bolton and David Lee, who was the Secretary General of the Council of National security of the Republic of China (Taiwan). In May 2020, then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added fuel to the fire, congratulating the “President of Taiwan” Tsai Ing-wen with her inauguration. This was followed by the first-ever visit to Taiwan by US Secretary of Health Alex Azar in August 2020, and US Deputy Secretary of State Keith Krach flew to Taipei in September 2020.

The reaction of Beijing, which never tired of making diplomatic protests, led to a series of large-scale military exercises, during which PLA Air Force aircraft crossed the so-called delimiting (conditionally middle) line of the Taiwan Strait, thus falling into the identification zone of the island’s air defence systems. In addition, Beijing announced the introduction of sanctions against the American companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which were involved in the supplying of weapons to Taipei.

Representatives of Taiwan itself continued to take a clearly pro-American position. Moreover, in October 2020, the Kuomintang party took the initiative in the Taiwanese parliament in attempting to restore full-fledged diplomatic relations with Washington. However, the initiative has not yet been implemented. It is possible that Beijing’s protest played a role, in which they recalled the law “On the Prevention of Secession” adopted in 2005 in the PRC, which allows the use of “non-peaceful” measures in the event of a Taiwanese declaration of independence or another event that threatens to push through with the inevitable separation of the island from China.

Thus, we can say that by the fall of 2020, the situation in the Taiwan Strait had the preconditions of an armed confrontation.

The administration of Joe Biden continues to use the “Taiwan issue” to inflame the situation both inside China and on its periphery. By sending higher and higher-level officials to Taiwan, the United States is forcing the PRC to react, and gradually dragging Beijing into a conflict that, on the eve of the autumn CCP congress, is neither necessary nor beneficial.

China is well aware of US tactics. It’s no wonder that in April 2022, when the visit to Taiwan of the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the US Congress Pelosi was announced, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called it a “malicious provocation”.

Pelosi’s April visit was cancelled due to the coronavirus, which did not prevent her from visiting Taiwan on August 2. She became the highest-ranking US official to visit the island in the past 25 years. The last time a politician of this level visited the island was in 1997, when Pelosi’s predecessor, Republican Newt Gingrich, visited Taiwan.

There is no doubt that the visit will worsen Sino-US relations. Washington hasn’t ruled out that as a tough response, Beijing may decide, for example, to announce the creation of a no-fly zone over Taiwan, which in turn could lead to a sharp escalation of the conflict between China and the United States, which could lead to military clashes. Here it is necessary to recall that Washington also has military obligations with respect to Taipei — under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the United States has assumed the responsibility of ensuring the security of the island.

At the same time, we should understand that the consequences of an armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait will cause much more damage to the global economy than the current consequences of the conflict in Ukraine, the negative impact of which is already being experienced by the economies of the United States and European countries.

According to official statements from Washington, it can be concluded that the White House has not yet developed a unified position on the extent to which a provocation involving Taiwan can be played out, or after which of the steps Beijing would be ready to pursue more belligerent action. In particular, the representative of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Dave Butler said the Pentagon is warning decision makers in Washington about the possible risks of Pelosi’s trip to Taipei. At the same time, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, noted that the US intends to continue its policy of “strategic uncertainty”, which, in his opinion, helps maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

The policy of “strategic ambiguity” does not provide a clear answer as to whether the US would defend Taiwan in the event of a PRC military operation. Former US Secretary of Defense Esper, who visited Taipei in July 2022 as head of an American non-governmental delegation, criticised this policy. Esper noted that the “one China” policy has already become obsolete and called on the Taiwanese to demonstrate their readiness to resist Beijing.

It was around this time, on July 8, 2022, that China announced military exercises, which included multi-purpose joint combat readiness patrols and combat exercises in the sea and airspace around the island of Taiwan. Taiwan also held military exercises on July 25 which involved all types of troops, as well as with the participation of reservists. At the same time, a four-day anti-aircraft exercise for the civilian population was held, in which residents of large cities in Taiwan, after receiving an alert via text message, had to leave the streets and spend 30 minutes in shelters, close their curtains and turn off their lights.

On July 27, 2022, the United States, for its part, sent the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan and its strike group from Singapore to the South China Sea, explaining the need for their stay there as a continuation of “usual planned patrol activities in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” On August 2, in parallel with Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the People’s Liberation Army of China began military drills in areas encircling Taiwan.

Thus, by August 2022, the escalation of tensions between China and the United States peaked once again. However, on the initiative of the American side, on July 28, 2022, a telephone conversation took place between the leaders of the two countries, which was designed to relieve tension and defuse the situation, as well as maintain the stability of relations, despite the aggravation of the situation around Taiwan.

During the conversation, which lasted more than two hours, Xi Jinping reminded Joe Biden of the “One China” principle, which is the cornerstone of China’s diplomatic relations, and noted that Beijing strongly opposes “Taiwan independence” and the interference of external forces. The position of the Chinese government and the Chinese people on the Taiwan issue was also announced, which remains consistent and assumes that more than 1.4 billion Chinese will defend China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Biden also assured that “the United States opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine stability and peace around the Taiwan Strait.”

Despite the desire of the United States to shake up the situation in the Taiwan Strait, creating additional internal problems for China, Biden has not yet managed to achieve a strategic advantage in relations with China. Beijing is clearly aware of all possible risks and is taking the necessary actions to minimise them. Therefore, one should hardly expect China to allow itself to be drawn into an armed confrontation with Taiwan. Also, it should not be forgotten that in addition to the ability to use force to defend its interests, Beijing has a number of alternative tools at its disposal. These include the use of financial, logistical, and trade and economic restrictions to put pressure on both American companies working with mainland China, and on Taiwanese companies, many of which have offices or operate in the southern provinces of China.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.