The official four-day visits of US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to Taiwan in August 2020, marked the senior most US visit to this self-governing island since formal diplomatic relations were severed in 1979 in deference to China. This is going to be a fresh thorn in prickly US-China ties.
Despite switching allegiance to Beijing, the US maintains unofficial ties with Taiwan in deference to Beijing. It remains the island’s most important ally and provider of defensive arms. A 2018 US law urged Washington to send increasingly high-level officials to Taiwan in contrast to past years when such visits were extremely rare. Azar’s visit is therefore the highest-level American official to visit Taiwan since their break in formal diplomatic ties in 1979. In recent times, US-China bilateral ties have experienced strain over a range of issues such as South China Sea, TikTok, Hong Kong and trade. In a throwback to the Cold War, the two recently ordered tit-for-tat closures of consulates in Houston and Chengdu and rhetorical sniping has become a daily occurrence. The significance of Azar’ visit should be measured against this backdrop.
Taiwan’s credentials on virus control
First, a few words about the credibility Taiwan earned by its deft handling the pandemic can help analyse Azar’s visit in context. Besides demonstrating America’s strong commitments to defend Taiwan’s security, necessary protocol was maintained on the Covid-19 issue for the delegation. The fact that such protocol was strictly maintained spoke plenty of Taiwan’s unbending stands in securing its territory from any possible virus threat. Like Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam are the other two success story in containing the virus. Therefore, use of face masks and other necessary safety protocols were strictly followed by all the delegation members, except in “rare circumstances”. With a population of 23 million, Taiwan has reported 479 cases and seven deaths.
Not only Taiwan handled the virus in the country successfully, it proved to be a responsible nation for the world by sending quietly Covid-19 assistance to foreign countries surreptitiously to avoid protests from China. China’s attempts to isolate Taiwan compelled the island at times to keep its donations of masks and personal protective equipment under the radar. Taiwan chose such an approach as it did not want to complicate the recipient country’s relationship with China. China has pursued all possible measures to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, including barring its participation in forums such as the World Health Assembly.
After bringing the virus under control at home, the island nation donated 51 million masks overseas, including 10 million to the US, along with other items of personal protective equipment. There was no problem in naming the US as one of the recipient country but the vulnerability of other recipient countries prevented Taiwan from revealing their identities. Just 15 countries maintain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and China has sought to peel away its remaining allies. Taiwan is aware that acquiescence to Chinese pressure would merely turn Taiwan into another Hong Kong, where China has enforced a new national security law to throttle democracy. Taiwan is unwilling, and rightly so, to surrender its hard-earned democracy after experiencing a phase of dictatorship to the authoritarian aggression from Beijing.
Why Azar’s Taipei visit not a normal one?
Azar’s visit was not a normal one; it posits in the large political and geopolitical context. It will likely to exacerbate mounting tensions between Washington and Beijing, which claims Taiwan as its own territory to be annexed by force if necessary. When President Donald Trump took umbrage over mounting trade deficit with China, he first put pressure on Beijing to take necessary corrective measures to address this issue. But having failed to get satisfactory response, he started to take countermeasures by tariffs and quantitative quota restrictions. Beijing too retaliated on its own ways. Finding the two at loggerheads and in a throwback to the Cold War, the two ordered tit-for-tat closures of consulates in Houston and Chengdu amid rhetorical sniping. Azar’s visit now adds to those frictions.
Though the visit represented an acknowledgment of the US-Taiwan deep friendship and partnership across a wide spectrum of security, economics, health care, and democratic open transparent values, Beijing was never expected to buy this justification. Even when the US and Taiwan celebrate the bond, China responded with two screaming jets towards the island before the talks began.
In a steady deterioration of bilateral ties, when Washington explicitly denied most of China’s maritime claims in the strategically vital South China Sea, it instantly drew China’s ire. China’s claims almost to the whole of this strategic waterway and considers activities in the area by the US Navy, including ships close to Chinese-controlled islands, as threatening regional peace and stability.
The Trump administration lunched the tariff war targeting Chinese institutions and officials, besides campaigning to exclude Chinese telecoms giants Huawei from the US and its allies, which China saw as US attempt to prevent China’s development as a global technology power. Trump suspects Huawei’s links with the ruling Communist Party and that compromises personal data and the integrity of the information systems in the companies in which it operates. Beijing demands proof of this. Further, Trump escalated tensions when he signed an executive order banning to deal with the Chinese owners of consumers apps TikTok and WeChat, possibly leading to their becoming unavailable in the lucrative American market.
Adding another dimension to the US-China tensions, Azar while in Taipei alleged that Beijing broke the international health treaty by failing to warn the world about Covid-19 on time. He also expressed regret over Taiwan being excluded from the World Health Assembly denying it an opportunity to share its health expertise. The US and Taiwan have developed their relationship as one based on “shared democratic values”. The US sees Taiwan playing its role in a brewing ideological battle between the two even when Beijing is not shy of warning consequences if Taiwan continues to nurture ties with Washington.
In the recent past, especially after Tsai came to power, Beijing has used economic doles as weapons and was instrumental in wooing some of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to switch allegiance to Beijing, leaving Taiwan with only 15 diplomatic allies. Even without formal official ties with many countries who switched allegiance to China, Taiwan’s engagement economically and in cultural domains with many countries it does business with has remained robust. However, Taiwan suffers international recognition as it cannot engage officially with world organizations. Even with the WHO, it was deprived of its observer status because of China blocking it at a time its experience in handling coronavirus could have been of some help to the world community.
On the issue of Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Organisation in 2018 that blocked a million-dollar Taiwanese contribution, Azar described Beijing’s position that time as “political bullying”. Had that not happened, Taiwanese contribution could have helped combat an Ebola outbreak in Congo. Indeed, in times of events of global dimensions, international organisations should not be places to play politics but unfortunately China did in 2018 and again in 2020 by denying Taiwan observer status at the world health assembly where its experience in handling the virus could have benefitted other nations.
No wonder, Taiwan saw Azar’s trip as a diplomatic coup and an opportunity to showcase its widely praised response to the virus. Beijing however saw it as another provocation from the US. When the US increases interactions with Taiwan and also sells arms committed under the Taiwan Relations Act, Beijing sees that red and as a challenge to its sovereignty and in defiance of its threats to unify the island with the mainland by force. Azar’s remarks that “Taiwan’s response to Covid-19 has been among the most successful in the world, and that is a tribute to the open, transparent, democratic nature of Taiwan’s society and culture”, infuriates Beijing. Seeing an opportunity and praise pouring in from around the world, Taiwan started promoting the island as a model of democracy and sent millions of masks labeled “Made in Taiwan” to countries in need.
Taiwan was not intimidated when Chinese jets J-11 and J-10 fighter aircraft briefly crossed the mid-line of the Taiwan Strait, the side sensitive and narrow separating it from its giant neighbour, even when Azar was on his way to Taiwan. The aircrafts were tracked by land-based Taiwanese anti-aircraft missiles patrolling the area which drove the jets away from its airspace.
Taiwan strengthens defence capabilities
In view of the looming threat from China and often reminding the island nation of the possible use of force, Tsai has reiterated a number of times the need for the island to ramp up its defences to safeguard its democracy from Beijing’s “coercive actions”. Such a commitment to accelerate the development of asymmetric capabilities, as explained by President Tsai Ing-wen during a video address to the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank, is under the rubric of the island nation’s defence concept. Taiwan’s cabinet has proposed a more than 10 per cent increase in the island’s military budget to $15.42 billion in response to Beijing’s aggression in the region and seeks a “constructive security relationship” with the US.
Despite Taiwan’s determination and resolve to cope with the Chinese threat stemming from its own strength and military capabilities, the truism is Beijing-Taipei relationship if measured in terms of comparative military strengths between the two is something like comparing between David and Goliath as the gulf between the two is huge. Indeed, few geopolitical contexts are as mismatched as China and Taiwan.
China has already acquired enough military muscle and economic strengths over the past decades and has emerged as the world’s second largest economic power as well as a regional superpower in Asia. Compared to China, Taiwan is a dwarf. Its military expenditure is more than any other country except the US. After splitting from the mainland, the two sides claimed to represent China for almost three decades, during which military exchanges took place until détente set in the early 1990s. From this time onwards, both sides settled on there being “one China” but agreed to disagree on what that meant. Since then Taiwan has assumed a more distinct identity and considers itself as a de facto independent state separate from the mainland.
However, in terms of military comparison, China is much ahead of Taiwan. Taiwan has around 215,000 soldiers and a defence budget of $12 billion compared with China’s estimated two million armed forces and a defence budget of $178 billion. China is a nuclear-armed state with a growing arsenal of state-of-the-art weaponry including advanced fighter jets, two aircraft carriers, and more on the way. Its growing number of missiles, some of them hypersonic, is positioned just across the Taiwan Strait. It has more than 60 submarines, including nuclear-powered vessels.
In comparison, Taiwan’s 300 or so fighter jets have all been in services since the 1990s.
Its navy is massively outgunned by China’s — two of its four ageing submarines were built decades ago. Though Taiwan is aware that it does not need to match China dollar for dollar, it has certain strategy to defend itself in case it comes under attack. Some of the Western weapon exporting countries are reluctant to sell big-ticket military items in order not to displease China, leaving Taiwan to develop itself indigenously an innovative domestic weapons industry.
China under Xi Jinping has ramped up pressure and gone ballistic often warning that Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland is inevitable. Such belligerence has become more frequent after 2016 when Tsai was elected President who rejects the idea of a “one China” and sees Taiwan as a de facto sovereign state. Tsai is not deterred by such bellicosity even though Chinese fighter jets routinely fly into Taiwan’s defence zone.
The US is bound to arm Taiwan by law so that it can defend itself. Though the US officially maintains ties with the mainland China, it also takes into consideration geopolitics of the region and urges peaceful resolution of disputes between China and Taiwan. The US was careful not to sell major weaponry to the island nation until the mid-1990s as it was wary not to cause friction in its relations with China. That situation dramatically changed soon after. The Trump administration seriously started viewing America’s ties with Taiwan differently after frictions with China started widening.
Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the US has obligation to arms Taiwan. The Trump administration has taken major decisions to sell 66 next-generation F-16 fighters and an upgrade to the island’s Patriot missiles with the objective of strengthening Taiwan’s military capability in the wake of looming China threat. Taiwan’s decision to purchase the 66 new generation F-16 fighter jets from US aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin in a $62 billion, 10-year deal, is sure to anger Beijing. This new acquisition will add to its fleet of F-16s Taiwan purchased in 1992.
Given the China-Taiwan tensions, if a conflict erupts in the region it would be either centered on the South China Sea or on the Taiwan issue. If Beijing takes resorts to any military adventurism, the US is most likely to intervene with its massive military assets. China is best advised to exercise restraint not to precipitate events, lest the costs would be heavy for all. The Taiwan Strait remains one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints.