Written by Sidney Pycroft
Chinese President Xi Jinping, seen here in 2014, recently sent 25 military planes over Taiwan.
China-Taiwan relations have been on a knife-edge for a long time. China has been growing more and more aggressive in its rhetoric and, more recently, has started military actions. Where did this come from and where does it end?
US-Taiwan relations were revolutionised under the Trump administration. A snowball was set in motion the moment Trump broke with 37-year policy and spoke directly with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in December 2016 upon her election victory. They congratulated each other although the White House said it signalled no policy shift and China declared it a Taiwanese “petty trick”.
Throughout Trump’s presidency, US-China relations got more heated and verbally confrontational as America began to shift its far-east policy and China grew more concerned about Taiwanese aspirations for official independence, which its views as a breakaway province.
Recent trends began in 2000 when Chen Shui-bian was elected Taiwan’s president, alarming China as he had openly backed “independence” so, when re-elected in 2004, China passed an “anti-secession” law declaring it could use “non-peaceful means” against Taiwan if it ever attempted to “secede”.
Whilst his successor aimed for better relations, Tsai Ing-wen’s 2016 election and 2020 re-election was a win for the DPP which favours eventual official independence. In 2018 China began to pressure companies to list Taiwan as Chinese on their websites and threatened to block their Chinese operations if not. Recent developments have come as Hong Kong has been subjugated and top officials either capitulated to Beijing pressure or were replaced by CCP loyalists.
Trump’s signing of the TAIPEI Act aimed to strengthen Washington-Taipei ties: then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lifted all government rules prohibiting interactions between American and Taiwanese diplomats. All on top of Trump’s series of official visits angering China.
With the progress under Trump, Taiwan was obviously and rightly worried about what Biden would mean for them as Trump had become incredibly popular in Taiwan for his willingness to break with decades-old tradition and openly support them. Tsai Ing-wen took to Facebook at the time of the US election to reassure her people that “whatever the outcome of the general election, these transactions will not change and we will continue to deepen Taiwan-US relations on these basis.”
Upon Biden’s eventual win Taiwan began to seek assurances they would not be abandoned, Foreign Policy predicted Biden would continue support but drawback from the vocality of Trump which had made him popular on the island nation.
Biden has not said much, his Secretary of State Antony Blinken meanwhile has kept up Pompeo’s legacy. First by agreeing that China is committing genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and second by continuing support for Taiwan against Chinese threats.
Throughout 2020 China kept ratcheting up the pressure on Taiwan with a defence ministry spokesperson warning “those who play with fire are bound to get burned.” Li Zuocheng, Chief of the Joint Staff Department, said in May: “If the possibility for peaceful reunification is lost, the people’s armed forces will, with the whole nation, including the people of Taiwan, take all necessary steps to resolutely smash any separatist plots or actions.”
In January 2021 the CCP warned Taiwan attempts to seek independence “means war”. In April, the Taiwanese defence ministry said 25 Chinese military aircraft flew over its defence zone over a handful of southern islands far off the main island. The largest incursion in a year, not long after Blinken had warned of an “increasingly aggressive China”.
Beijing is being caught between rumours Tsai Ing-wen is leaning towards steps for official independence, even as she says they are already independent, and Blinken’s American imperialist neo-con overtures and the genie cannot be put back in the bottle now.
So where does this end? The interesting difference between Trump and Biden’s responses to China-Taiwan relations was that Trump revolutionised policy and spoke the big game yet did little physically, or even indicate such a possibility, but shifted the narrative. We now have Blinken, an overt neo-con and warmonger, who talks the game too but has a history of following it with brash action.
He was Obama’s Deputy Secretary of State among other roles, supported the Iraq invasion and the bombing of Libya and Syria, and worked with then-Senator Biden to support the Iraq invasion along the lines of “a vote for tough diplomacy”. And we know the disastrous consequences of the American empire in all these cases.
It appears China-Taiwan relations will continue to sour so long as Taiwan merely exists, as they pose an existential threat to the story of the CCP’s regime. US-China relations over Taiwan is an open question, although I expect further aggressive stances. Knowing that the GOP still has a few neo-cons that Trump did not oust in his time and that Biden, Blinken, and plenty of Democrats in Congress all have a history of neo-con interventionism, action could well follow rhetoric in some form. Gone are the days of only inflammatory rhetoric from Trump, we could see actual altercations follow as neo-cons reassert their project after 4 years in the wilderness.
As Salon explains, Biden’s foreign policy team is stuffed with them, inciting opposition from the progressive left and the Trumpian and libertarian right. The paradoxical coexistence of both US overtures to and condemnation of China will continue, straining relations further, and if Blinken takes the force option Taiwan could be facing its fabled doomsday scenario. However, there is hope this may not come to pass as it would require overseas invasion, China cannot just muscle across the land as in Hong Kong or Xinjiang. So, Taiwan may be blessed by geography for a little while longer.
Photo source - Flickr (Global Panorama, Michael Temer)