As US President Donald Trump escalates his trade dispute with Chinese President Xi Jinping, there is a realization that a stabilizing force in relations with Beijing has been eliminated. The result is a reduced incentive for stability and restraint in Washington when it comes to China, raising the possibility that tensions could extend beyond the trade sphere and impact other areas of contention, including Taiwan and cross-strait relations.
Since Trump assumed office, US foreign policy has seen major shake-ups and sparked intense anxiety about the future of American leadership in the Indo-Pacific and the world. He ran for office vowing to extricate the United States from entanglements abroad. But his administration now finds itself juggling many national security crises overseas while facing burgeoning cross-strait crises. His attacks on alliances, trade and global institutions, his disregard for human rights and democracy, and his impetuous surprise tweets on foreign policy have all dominated the headlines about American foreign policy and unnerved internationalists at home and abroad.
Two years into the Trump administration, there is evidence of both disruption and continuity in US policy toward Taiwan and strategy in the Indo-Pacific. US allies are barely able to conceal their exasperation at the disruptive, unpredictable, and often insulting style of the president. An objective assessment of Trump’s interests in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait requires careful consideration of these dimensions.
Of all of the United States’ security partnerships around the world, the one with Taiwan is surely unique. The danger of a new cross-strait crisis is increasing as a result of developments in the United States, China, and Taiwan. The United States has several preventive options to try to avoid another cross-strait crisis. These options include helping Taiwan to confront Beijing’s comprehensive campaign to exert control over Taiwanese politics and society, which is steadily eroding a decades-old status quo that has kept a shaky peace.
The complicated relationship between the United States, Taiwan and China has been heating up. On April 15, China flexed some muscle by sending warplanes to circumnavigate Taiwan. Just two weeks earlier, two Chinese J-11 fighter jets crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which separates China and Taiwan, for the first time since 1999. The incursion came days after two US navy ships traversed the strait. The risk of a serious crisis between China and Taiwan is growing. Political trends in Taiwan, domestic politics in China, and changing US policy toward the Indo-Pacific are increasing the risk of a cross-strait crisis in the coming months. The United States should take steps to help avoid and, if necessary, mitigate a confrontation.
The relationship between the US and Taiwan was sustained by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and Six Assurances, alongside the Three Joint Communiqués. These laws and assurances are not in fact contradictory, but they also give the United States room to maneuver and be able to shift between Taipei and Beijing. Taken together, a number of acts in recent years – notably the National Defense Authorization Acts, the Taiwan Travel Act, the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, and the Taiwan Assurance Act – have put the US-Taiwan relationship on firmer footing, pushing it towards a more normal relationship.
The Trump government has been playing the “Taiwan card” based on US national interests, but this could put the territory’s own interests in jeopardy. President Tsai Ing-wen’s government cannot be ignorant of the “Taiwan card” logic, but because of its independence ideology and self-serving nature, its rhetoric and policies fuel anti-China sentiments.
In recent months, its intentions have become especially obvious. Tsai has frequently manipulated cross-strait relations as a bargaining chip in her bid for re-election, moving Taiwan toward war.
However, US-Taiwan relations have entered a new era. First, it is Beijing that expects Tsai to return to the 1992 Consensus, and in a speech this year Xi commented on the “two-system solution” more directly, rattling Taiwan.
Tactically, Beijing has repeatedly declared in the past that it will not rule out the settlement of the Taiwan issue by force, thereby constraining Taiwan independence, and is now constantly intimidating Taipei with its increasingly powerful military force.
Tactically, Beijing has repeatedly declared in the past that it will not rule out the settlement of the Taiwan issue by force, thereby constraining Taiwan independence, and is now constantly intimidating Taipei with its increasingly powerful military force
There has also been a shift in attitude in Washington. The Trump administration has continued to subvert the traditional American diplomatic strategy, and the cross-strait policy is no exception. There are even advocates in Congress for a more comprehensive bill to replace the Taiwan Relations Act to provide better protection for the island. As a result, Taiwan and the United States began to increase their security cooperation, thus allowing political relations to improve. But the friendly relationship between Washington and Taipei is only a momentary phenomenon within Trump’s tenure, so how long it will last remains to be seen.
The main factor behind the gradual tightening of China’s policy toward Taiwan are, of course, a fear of Washington’s next move. If the United States only treats Taiwan as a bargaining chip, there may be room for compromise in US-China negotiations, but Beijing’s real concern is that if Washington gradually steps on the red line of the “one China principle,” it will directly strike a nerve in Beijing.
Tensions between the US and China, including economic and trade frictions, would not be difficult to resolve. What is really tricky is the Taiwan issue, which is not only the main contradiction to be brought up in US-China talks in the past, but also the most difficult challenge for Beijing to parry. As a result, China is rattling its saber not just as a warning to Taipei but also Washington.
At present, the new relationship between the United States, Taiwan and China is manifested in three aspects: the strategic competition between the United States and China is becoming more and more fierce; the Tsai’s government is strengthening its resistance to China in the name of national security in the light of next year’s presidential election; and the vicious circle formed by these will sandwich Taiwan in the meantime and become the front line of the conflict.
Through the enactment of the TRA and Six Assurances, alongside the Three Joint Communiqués, the US provided 23 million people with specific security guarantees, allowing Taiwan to develop in a stable and prosperous manner. As far as Taiwan is concerned, it cannot afford to lose the US – a friend with similar ideals, but it cannot forever blindly view China as a foe. If the two sides of the strait remain in a state of confrontation, then much time has been wasted in the past 40 years. In the fluctuations in cross-Strait relations, how to find the best coordinates for the people’s welfare is an issue facing Taiwan.
Increasingly, that security partnership will be tested by the continuing modernization of the People’s Liberation Army. What Taiwan does to ensure its security is also a critical variable. Still, Washington should probably pull out the dual-deterrence playbook and consider an appropriate mix of warnings and reassurances to Beijing and Taipei, in the knowledge that China’s military power will only grow in the years ahead.
Of all of Washington’s security partnerships around the world, the one with Taiwan is surely unique. The danger of a new cross-strait crisis is increasing as a result of developments in the United States, China, and Taiwan. The United States has several preventive options to try to avoid another cross-strait crisis. These options include helping Taiwan to confront Beijing’s comprehensive campaign to exert control over Taiwanese politics and society, which is steadily eroding a decades-old status quo that has kept a shaky peace.
The triangular relationships of Taiwan, China, and the United States are always complex and vital, but perhaps never more so than today. The Indo-Pacific regional conflicts are more interwoven than ever, but disputes seem more difficult to resolve and tensions in one dimension seem to be spilling over to others. In reality, China’s appetite for Taiwan will only grow and the United States must help Taiwan resist Chinese dominance. But time is running out fast for the Trump administration to show the Taiwanese people they have Washington’s support for refusing to acquiesce to Beijing’s dominance over their politics, economy and society. With the United States-China relationship in a precarious state, the Trump administration must urgently reassess US policy toward Taiwan and China.