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.
Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China
There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.
Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.
By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.
The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.
China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.
Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.
The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.
A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.
Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question
The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.
Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.
Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.
However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.
Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.
During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.
Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.
Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.
If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.
From our partner RIAC
Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?
Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.
One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.
In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.
To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.
The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.
Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.
Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.
From our partner RIAC
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