The coming conflict in the Taiwan Strait

As the United States and China are positioning themselves for a possible trade war, Beijing launched a massive military drill in the Taiwan Strait on April 18.

The April 2018 Taiwan Strait exercise was the “biggest ever” military parade carried out by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. As Chinese President Xi Jinping was watching fighter jets taking off from China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and PLA H-6K nuclear-capable bombers were flying around the island, more than 10,000 PLA personnel, 76 aircrafts, 48 warships and a nuclear-powered submarine took part in the live-fire drills in disputed South China Sea.

China views Taiwan as a defiant province and has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control. Beijing’s anger towards Taipei has been growing, ever since Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party won her presidency in Taiwan in January 2016. Between August 2016 and December 2017, PLA Air Force’s strategic bombers and fighter jets had conducted some 25 drills around Taiwan, and in March, the Liaoning aircraft carrier sailed through the Taiwan Strait, which is 130 kilometers wide at its narrowest point.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office announced on April 18 that Taiwan’s “independence separatist activities” were the “biggest threat to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. No force and no person should underestimate our resolute resolve and strong ability to defend the nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” “Any outside forces” that attempted to “play the Taiwan card,” added the spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office, would “hurt themselves if they went over the line.”

Beijing’s message, therefore, is not just meant for the leaders on the runaway island, but for the Trump administration as well.

“Even if the United States and China can find a way out of their simmering trade dispute,” writes Cary Huang of South China Morning Post, “the next topic that could provoke an ugly clash may already be upon them: Taiwan. A string of recent events has served to highlight escalating tensions between Washington, Beijing and Taipei.”

“The PLA drills were intended to signal Beijing’s disapproval of the growing ties between the U.S. and Taiwan,” according to Huang, “Beijing has become alarmed at signs that President Trump has been warming to the island’s cause since he came to office. Soon after his election he infuriated and unnerved Beijing by questioning Washington’s long-standing commitment to the ‘one China’ policy and by breaking decades of diplomatic protocol to have a telephone conversation with Tsai Ing-wen. The ‘one China’ principle requires Washington to forego official ties with the island.”

Then on March 16, President Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act into law. The Act “encourages visits between officials of the United States and Taiwan at all levels.” Soon after the Taiwan Travel Act became the law, and on the very same day that China’s aircraft carrier entered the Taiwan Strait, Alex Wong, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State visited Taiwan and appeared alongside President Tsai at the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. In his address, Wong declared the United States’ commitment to Taiwan to have “never been stronger” and stated “Taiwan can no longer be excluded unjustly from international fora. Taiwan has much to share with the world. The United States government and the United States private sector will do their part to ensure Taiwan’s stellar international example shines brightly.”

Alex Wong is not alone in speaking up for Taiwan. In the past few weeks, both the Secretary of State designate Mike Pompeo and Admiral Phil Davidson, the new head of U.S. Pacific Command, have repeatedly emphasized the importance of upgrading relations with Taiwan.

Perhaps more importantly, two further U.S. actions that appear to be in the works, warns Cary Huang, “threaten to make the biggest mess of U.S.-China relations since Nixon. First, if Trump approves National Security Adviser John Bolton’s planned visit to Taiwan, it will be seen as the greatest challenge to the ‘one China’ principle yet — and thus may cross a red line for Beijing. Indeed, Bolton has already advocated use of the ‘Taiwan card’ against China by ultimately restoring full diplomatic recognition. Secondly, Trump’s authorization for American manufacturers to sell submarine technology to the island will enrage Beijing as it will substantively help upgrade the island’s defenses against any military invasion by mainland forces.”

For the United States and China, the real conflict over Taiwan is yet to come.

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.