The US-Taiwan relationship is flourishing, and China's isn't happy about it

  • After months of saber-rattling near Taiwan, China in mid-September sent dozens of aircraft across the maritime boundary that both countries have long acknowledged as an unofficial border.
  • After decades of keeping Taiwan at arm's length out of deference to China, the US has in recent years embraced Taipei, and an increasingly assertive China does not like it, writes J. Michael Cole, a senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute.
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Recent Chinese military maneuvers were a stark reminder that the Taiwan Strait remains one of the world's most dangerous flash points.

After months of saber-rattling near Taiwan, China's air force sent dozens of warplanes into Taiwan's air defense identification zone on September 18 and 19, across the median line in the Taiwan Strait that both sides have long tacitly acknowledged as an unofficial border.

Days later, and amid further incursions by Chinese aircraft, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson denied the existence of any "so-called median line," raising concerns of further escalation by Beijing.

Although several factors account for this belligerence, one major cause is the closer relationship that has developed in recent months between Taiwan and the United States.

Since withdrawing its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in 1979, Washington has relied upon the Taiwan Relations Act to govern its unofficial ties with Taipei.

To avoid undermining relations with Beijing, which views Taiwan as a breakaway province, the US has maintained a so-called "One China" policy, acknowledging Beijing's contention that the People's Republic of China is the sole legal government of China.

At the same time, to help Taiwan deter potential Chinese attempts to take it over by force, the US government regularly provides Taiwan with the defensive materiel it needs to counter a Chinese assault.

Much of US policy toward Taiwan occurred under the premise that peaceful engagement with China, and its integration into the world economy, would eventually result in a China that is more liberalized and more open, if not altogether democratic.

This view, which up until recently was the prevalent one in Washington, also had a constraining effect on US willingness to engage Taiwan. There were long periods, particularly under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, during which Washington either refrained from selling arms to Taiwan or substantially reduced their delivery.

Growing Chinese assertiveness during the latter years under Hu Jintao, in the early 2010s, began to erode the view in Washington and other capitals that their longstanding strategy of engagement with China was yielding the expected dividends.

The ascendance of Xi Jinping, and the ultranationalism that has accompanied his rule, eventually prompted the view that a course correction was necessary.

By the time Donald Trump was elected president, the conditions were ripe for a confrontation with China, both over trade and geopolitics, and it was only logical that democratic Taiwan would become a frontline in this standoff.

As NGOs and journalists fled Hong Kong and China as Xi tightened control, many of them regarded Taiwan as a new, indispensable bastion of democracy in a region troubled by resurgent authoritarianism.

Increasingly, the US found creative ways to collaborate with Taiwan without directly undermining its One China policy. The two countries organized joint initiatives on good governance in the Pacific Islands, democracy promotion and media literacy, among other issues.

Meanwhile, Beijing continued to threaten Taiwan and isolate it by poaching its official diplomatic allies. Seven countries have switched their recognition from Taipei to Beijing since 2016. In response, Trump signed a number of laws, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, that sought to reassure Taiwan and help it mitigate China's aggression.

Taiwan's particularly successful handling of COVID-19, despite being excluded from the World Health Organization due to Chinese pressure, also resulted in unprecedented positive publicity for Taiwan. With the reelection in January of President Tsai Ing-wen, who advocates a firm stance toward China, People's Liberation Army aircraft and naval vessels ramped up their activity near Taiwan. The US Air Force and Navy responded by deploying assets to the region.

By this summer, Taiwan found itself in the middle of a chicken-or-egg dispute, with Beijing arguing that growing US involvement in the region is compelling it to intensify its activities, and Washington countering that a more involved US presence is a necessary response to China's assertiveness.

The Trump administration is now readying a series of arms sales to Taiwan that include drones, advanced combat aircraft and long-range missiles. Senior US officials have also conducted back-to-back visits to Taipei in recent weeks.

These developments have alarmed Beijing, which sees them as external meddling in what it insists are its "internal affairs."

The reality, though, is that none of these moves violate America's One China policy. While the recent flurry of activity has certainly pushed the boundaries of this policy, it is nevertheless completely in line with previous US commitments to maintain stability and preserve the status quo in the Taiwan Strait against Beijing's attempts to unilaterally alter it.

For his part, in January 2019, Xi stated in a major address to "Taiwanese compatriots" that China would not wait indefinitely to "reunify" Taiwan and would not abandon the option of using force to resolve the matter.

The recent US actions have also encouraged other countries to rethink and deepen their engagement with Taiwan under their own One China policies, with possibly more to come.

Given the solid bipartisan support for Taiwan in Congress and the acknowledgement in many Washington circles that a rethink of US relations with Taiwan and China was long overdue, it is altogether conceivable that the closeness that has developed between Taiwan and the US since 2016 will continue even if Trump is voted out of office in November.

Contrary to Beijing's perceptions, the US and other like-minded countries are choosing to reward a successful democracy — one that, unlike China, actually does behave as a "responsible stakeholder." They are doing so creatively, by means which do not violate the agreements that were reached when they established diplomatic ties with China.

In times of global stress and unprecedented challenges, many governments are opting to recognize the importance of democratic institutions, while refusing to give in to Beijing's red lines regarding Taiwan.

That adjustment was long overdue. Beijing doesn't like it, as it has made perfectly clear through its words and actions. But much of what has happened in recent months is the result of China's own belligerence, not to mention its total disregard for world opinion.

Should it recognize the error of its ways and pull back, it is likely that Beijing would find itself in a more hospitable international environment. But it is doubtful that Xi, whose own intransigent rhetoric has pushed him into a corner, will back down, as it would constitute a loss of face.

Instead, we are on the cusp of what could be the most unstable period in the Taiwan Strait since the missile crisis of 1995-1996, when China bracketed Taiwan with missile launches in a failed attempt to influence the outcome of its first direct presidential election.

Since armed conflict would be disastrous for all, it is essential that the US and the rest of the international community do everything they can to deter Beijing from taking unnecessary risks that could quickly spiral out of control.

J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, DC; the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada; and the Taiwan Studies Program at the University of Nottingham. He is a former analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in Ottawa. His latest books, "Insidious Power: How China Undermines Global Democracy," co-edited with Dr. Hsu Szu-chien, and "Cross Strait Relations Since 2016: The End of the Illusion," were published in July and April, respectively.

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