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Taiwan: A Thorn In China-US Relations

January 12, 2024 09:08 IST
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Any miscalculation and miscommunication are fraught with the risk of a major catastrophe, warns Rup Narayan Das.

IMAGE: Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Woodside, California, November 15, 2023. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Taiwan, which goes to the polls on Saturday, January 13, continues to be the major factor determining the relations between the USA and China.

The 'non-negotiable' position of the two sides was once again articulated when US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping met at the APEC summit in San Francisco in November.

Biden reiterated the US stance of 'One China policy' while Xi reaffirmed that Taiwan is the 'most and sensitive issue in US-China relations and that Washington should embody its stance of not supporting Taiwan independence in action, stop arming Taiwan, and support China's reunification....'

It is against this backdrop that this article seeks to revisit the chequered history of the triangular relations to put in perspective the 'dynamic equilibrium'; prevailing in the Taiwan Strait.

This 'dynamic equilibrium' explains why Taiwan is not Ukraine nor is it the Middle East.


Evolution of US-China-Taiwan triangular relation

China treats Taiwan, which broke away from the mainland in 1949 after the civil war, as a renegade province and has vowed national reunification with Taiwan.

Taiwan continued to be a member of the United Nations as the Republic of China (ROC) till 1971.

In October 1971, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 2758 in its 26th session which terminated the ROC's membership of the United Nations and its place was given to the People's Republic of China (PRC).

A few months later, in February 1972, US President Richard Nixon visited China in a path-breaking initiative and the two sides signed the historic Shanghai Communique on February 27, 1972, ending decades of hostility.

During the visit, America and China reviewed the long-standing serious disputes between the two countries.

The Chinese reaffirmed the position that the Taiwan question was the critical question obstructing the normalisation of relations.

The Chinese reaffirmed that the People's Republic of China was the sole legal government and that Taiwan was a province of China that had not been returned to the motherland.

Beijing further asserted that the Chinese government firmly opposes any activities which aim at the creation of 'one China, one Taiwan', 'one China, two governments', 'two Chinas', and 'independent Taiwan' or advocate that 'the status of Taiwan remains to be determined'.

The US acknowledged that 'there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China'.

It further reaffirmed "its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves".

With this prospect in mind, it stated the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all US forces and military installations from Taiwan.

In the meantime, it would 'progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes'.

It took about five years on for the US and China to establish diplomatic relations between the two countries on January 1, 1979 during Jimmy Carter's presidency.

The joint communique establishing diplomatic relations between the two sides stated, 'The United States of America recognizes the government of the People's Republic of China as the sole legal government of China.

'Within this context, the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.'

With regard to Taiwan, the joint communique said, 'The government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.'

This can be interpreted to suggest that while the US recognized the People's Republic of China, it simply acknowledges the Chinese position with regard to Taiwan, which can further be extrapolated that the American position need not be identical, even if it may be similar, to the Chinese position on Taiwan.

This is the difference between China's 'One China' principle and America's 'One China Policy'.

IMAGE: Then US president Richard M Nixon, then Chinese premier Zhou En-Lai, then US secretary of state William Rogers and then US national security adviser Henry Kissinger have tea during the intermission of a performance of the ballet, The Red Detachment of Women in Beijing, February 22, 1972. Photograph: Richard Nixon Presidential Library/Handout via Reuters

Three months after establishing diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China, the US enacted the enabling Taiwan Relations Act in April 1979 which further amplified the general principles having a bearing on the triangular USA-China-Taiwan relations.

The Act reiterated US commitments to Taiwan with more clarity.

It clarified that 'the United States' decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China rests upon the expectations that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.'

It further said that any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycott, or embargoes, a threat to peace and security of the Western Pacific are matters of concern to the United States.

The Act also committed to providing Taiwan with arms of a defensive character, and to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social or economic systems of the people of Taiwan.

The Act envisaged that the President and Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles and services based solely upon their judgement of the needs of Taiwan.

Such determination of Taiwan's defence needs shall include review by the United States military authorities in connection with the recommendations to the President and Congress.

China does not recognise the Taiwan Relations Act and considers it as a domestic legislation enacted by the US and that China is under no obligation to take cognisance.

The involvement of the US in Taiwan, including in the Taiwan Strait, goes back to the early 1950s when the Republic of China (Taiwan) was proclaimed in 1949.

In 1954, the United States of America and the Republic of China signed a mutual Defence Treaty whose primary objective was to protect Taiwan against invasion by the mainland.

It was under this treaty that the US navy was enabled to patrol the Taiwan Strait.

However, the US navy abruptly ended its patrol of the Taiwan Strait in November 1969.

The latter decision was first conveyed to Pakistani leaders, who were asked to quietly inform the Chinese.

However, the Pakistanis were instructed to describe the termination of the patrol as a goodwill gesture to remove an irritant.

The move was not to be construed as a change in the US commitment to Taiwan.

IMAGE: A Taiwan air force Mirage 2000-5 aircraft prepares to land at Hsinchu air base in Hsinchu, Taiwan. Photograph: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

The strategically critical Taiwan Strait had earlier faced the crisis three times.

The first Taiwan Crisis occurred in 1958 after the outbreak of the Korean War when then US President Harry S Truman dispatched the 7th Fleet which saved Taiwan from total obliteration.

The Second Taiwan Crisis was a conflict that took place between China and Taiwan in which China shelled the islands of Kinmen and Matsu along the east coast of mainland China to liberate Taiwan from the ruling nationalist party KMT, and to probe the extent of the US defence of Taiwan.

A naval battle also took place around Donding island when the Taiwan navy repelled an amphibious landing by China.

It was feared that the conflict brought the US and China to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe.

The third time the Strait witnessed the crisis was in 1995-1996.

China fired missiles in 1995 to protest then Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui's visit to the US to participate in a reunion event at Cornell University.

The US demonstrated its security commitment to Taiwan when then US President Bill Clinton sent the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait.

It was the first time that a US aircraft carrier had made the transit since Nixon withdrew the Seventh Fleet to assuage Mao Zedong and pave his visit to Beijing.

However, Washington diluted the message after Beijing's complaint, saying it was a mere weather diversion, compounding strategic ambiguity.

In March 1996, just before Taiwan's first presidential elections, China fired missiles again.

That time, Clinton sent two aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz and the USS Independence.

As they approached the Strait, Beijing said they would face 'a sea of fire'.

The deployment of the USS Nimitz and the USS Independence to the waters near Taiwan quickly defused the 1996 Taiwan Crisis and allowed Taiwan's first presidential election to proceed smoothly.

In May 1996, then US secretary of state Warren Christopher defended the US deployment of naval force to the region near Taiwan by reiterating that the US 'One China policy is predicated on the PRC's pursuit of peaceful resolution of issues between Taipei and Beijing.'

IMAGE: Then US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi visits the parliament in Taipei, Taiwan, August 3, 2022. Photograph: Ann Wang/Reuters

Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis: Nancy Pelosi's visit, August 2022

After heightened suspense, Nancy Pelosi, the then speaker of the US House of Representatives, visited Taiwan on August 2-3, 2022.

The 19-hour visit drew international media attention and exacerbated the already strained relations between Taiwan and China.

The visit, which was vehemently criticised by China, triggered what can be dubbed as the fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis.

Tensions in the Strait rose to its highest level after Pelosi's visit.

Beijing reacted furiously, staging days of air and sea exercises around Taiwan.

Taipei condemned the drills and missile tests as preparation for an invasion.

Contestation of jurisdiction on the Taiwan Strait

Although Nancy Pelosi's visit triggered turbulence in the Taiwan Strait, the tension in the Strait was building up earlier after the US and Taiwan announced growing trade ties between them in June 2022.

China carried out a multi-service joint combat readiness patrol near Taiwan.

After then Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe traded barbs with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, China's then foreign minister declared on 13th June that the Taiwan Strait is not international waters, but 'China's internal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, and exclusive economic zone, in that order.'

The US State Department responded that the Strait is an 'international waterway' and deployed anti-submarine aircraft over the Strait to prove its point.

China promptly sent 29 fighter jets into Taiwan's Air Defence Identification Zone on June 22, 2022.

The Taiwan Strait has thus emerged as yet another theatre of confrontation between the US and China.

Any miscalculation and miscommunication are fraught with the risk of a major catastrophe, unless restraint is observed.

It is an irony that a tiny island nation that has nurtured democracy so zealously after the end of military dictatorship in 1987 is precariously protecting democracy against overt and covert attempts by China.

It is the collective responsibility of democratic countries, including India, to ensure that democracy is not endangered in Taiwan.

Let the people of Taiwan decide their future and unless a solution is found to the 'non-negotiable issue', the 'dynamic equilibrium' should be allowed to prevail the status quo in Taiwan.

Rup Narayan Das, a Delhi-based China scholar, was a Taiwan Fellow in 2022. The views expressed in this column are personal.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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