Authors: Amit Kumar & Dr. Katja Banik
The storm that has been gathering over the South China Sea in recent years has now reached Taiwan’s shores. The question is whether Taiwan, alone or with the backing of other democracies, will be able to withstand China’s strong will for reunification. The relations between China, Taiwan and the United States is at its lowest point in the region’s history. For China’s president, Xi Jinping, Taiwan is now the last bastion of resistance in his quest for national rejuvenation. Is the reunification of Taiwan with China – like German reunification – the key question for the Chinese people?
With unprecedented numbers of planes breaching its air defense identification zone (ADIZ), Taiwan expressed alarm over China’s rising military intimidation as an act undermining regional peace. The ADIZ overlaps with China’s air defense identification region. The US opposes China’s “provocative” behavior and is committed to protecting Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory, and helping it defend itself against China. The US-China relationship is severely strained, and neither country can mediate on the Taiwan issue since, for China, the Taiwan question is a purely national matter According to Chinese observers, the dialogue between Xi and Biden is limited due to the differences between the countries over Taiwan, which makes Taiwan one of the key deciding factors for world leaders seeking to establish their hegemony and credibility (value of their words).
Biden’s pledge to defend Taiwan if the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attacks the island state demonstrates the US commitment to and the strategic importance of Taiwan. Meanwhile, Beijing has warned that the US’s intervention in Taiwan poses “game-changing and significant threats.” While some experts foresee rising tensions between China and Taiwan in the coming years, the main conflict could be between the US and China, with Taiwan serving as a litmus test for a restructuring of the global order.
While the US supports Taiwan’s pro-independence administration, China’s expanding influence is endangering the country’s sovereignty. In 2018, Xi stated that “Taiwan would face the wrath of history” if it chose to secede. In this perilous circumstance, and with Xi under pressure to deliver on his promise, China could have no choice but to annex Taiwan – even if it provokes a major conflict with the US. In response to China’s aggression, Japan’s defense minister cited Russia’s annexation of Crimea as an example of how quickly China may move in. Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has also warned that a full-scale invasion by China is highly likely.
While the rest of the world is observing the situation in the South China Sea and waiting to see what happens to Taiwan, the ramifications are far-reaching, since Taiwan has emerged as one of the geopolitical theatres which is masking a significant worldwide transformation towards a new global governance with more authoritarian structures.
Afghanistan today – Taiwan tomorrow?
The United States’ disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan has created a power vacuum in the region, allowing China to extend its agenda and grand strategy. Critics argue that withdrawal from Afghanistan has dealt American credibility a staggering blow. Since isolating its friends in Afghanistan, the United States’ commitment has been called into doubt, as has its ability to demonstrate its trustworthiness. Without wasting time, Beijing lashed out against Taiwan, claiming that the US will desert it in a crisis due to its shattered credibility: Afghanistan today, Taiwan tomorrow! Globally, both national players along with globally active companies and non-governmental players like lobbyists are all putting pressure on today’s liberal international world order.
The increase in Islamic extremism, authoritarian governments and military coups has posed a challenge to democratic principles and ideals, underlining the United States’ retreat from liberal international standards. The reputation, strength and influence that the United States possessed across the whole spectrum of international affairs – bilateral, multilateral and international institutions such as the United Nations, World Trade Organization and World Health Organization – are on the decline. The old-world order is at an end – the future is still in the stars.
In terms of politics and diplomacy, the United States’ once-vast sphere of influence is rapidly dwindling. Due to strong economic relations, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East are closer to China than the United States. The EU and its member states as well as many Asian nations that were formerly considered US allies are now preferring to remain neutral in the US-China confrontation. Over the previous two decades, the United States’ engagement with Middle Eastern countries has earned it a negative reputation. Many post-Cold War conflicts initiated by the United States have been blamed on democracy.
Both the United States and democracy appear to be dwindling in relevance today. Should the United States fail to protect Taiwan if it is invaded by China, the United States will lose its status as the defender of the democratic world, and democracy will be perceived as incapable of self-defense. All other developing and developed nations will look to China for moral and material assistance, as well as the prospect of a restructured world order led by the Communist Party of China. This will set in motion a chain reaction that will lead to the establishment of authoritarian rule over democracy.
The US is fully cognizant that the stakes in terms of risk and reward are at an all-time high.
For China, what is at stake is its newly conceived ambition. For Xi, his tenure as “lifetime” president is at stake. To considerable surprise, the 6th Plenum of the 19th CCP Congress did not endorse Xi Jinping’s life tenure, referring to him instead as the “Core of the Leadership.” China has had a meteoric ascent in global politics and is tempted to establish itself as a Middle Kingdom. China’s emergence as a competitor to the United States has undermined the latter’s position, as the countries’ codependency has decreased, and the world now views China as a genuine rival to the US. China’s governance model is also under rigorous study, as its miraculous rise, poverty upliftment and standard of living have astounded the world. The COVID pandemic, however, has tarnished China’s international reputation, but the country has quickly made up for it through vaccine diplomacy. While democracy is fading, Chinese authoritarianism is gaining popularity beyond the country’s borders.
On the economic front, China is outpacing US investments in numerous locations throughout the world, most crucially, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s investments are free of any strings and entail no direct engagement in domestic politics. With growing financial clout, Beijing has been able to expand its influence by strategically placing its key officials in influential agencies and international organizations, such as UNCTAD, WTO and WHO. China has also replaced the US as the top trading partner of its key allies. A hidden truth is global capitalism is not China’s enemy but its ally. Without the prosperity and stability delivered by global trade and investments, Beijing would not be in the position to modernize its military or use its investment and foreign aid to expand its influence overseas. Beijing’s geographical assets are at an all-time high. From defense to technology, it is a frontrunner in critical technical components and is making progress in other essential civilian and military technology. Further, with its dual-circulation strategy, China is reducing its dependency to a strict minimum. Thus, there is no sphere in which the United States is unchallenged.
China understands that Taiwan is a zero-sum game. If China succeeds in gaining control of Taiwan, its influence and might would grow exponentially, while the United States’ sphere and strength will shrink proportionally. China will be viewed as a more credible and capable global actor which delivers on its promises. This will pave the way for China to rewire the international system to reflect Chinese characteristics and values. China is aware that the United States stands between it and the Middle Kingdom’s splendor. Hence, Taiwan is a key that will open the door for China to the Pacific trade route, realizing the Middle Kingdom’s vision and paving the way for Xi’s “lifetime” presidency.
To demonstrate its credibility and sustain the status quo in the region, the United States’ role in safeguarding Taiwan is becoming increasingly vital.
As a result, the US is prepared to counter China’s aggressiveness on all fronts. Apart from the trilateral military alliance AUKUS, it staged one of the largest military drills since the Cold War with Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom. Taiwan has confirmed the training of American soldiers alongside Taiwanese forces on its soil, reiterating the US commitment to Taiwan. Along with increasing Taiwan’s modern combat capabilities, the US is also upgrading the military forces of its allies, such as Japan and Australia, who would be called upon to defend Taiwan in a conflict. Finally, a bill has also been introduced in the US Congress to provide $2 billion in military funding until 2032.
The United States seems to be lobbying for Taiwan to be admitted to the United Nations through its broad network of allies. Washington is forming an alliance with democratic nations to condemn Chinese aggression, generate global support and boost their relationship with Taiwan. This prompted the European Union’s first official visit to Taiwan, where a delegation communicated the message “You’re not alone” and offered to integrate Taiwan into the global system, which would ease tensions rather than fuel them. Furthermore, Taiwan was invited to join more than 100 other countries in the Biden administration’s “Summit for Democracy” (December 9-10, 2021). The invitation was a significant victory for Taipei at a time when Beijing is intensifying its drive to keep Taiwan out of international organizations. To keep up with Washington’s lead, New Delhi is strengthening its relations with Taipei by negotiating agreements to create semiconductor manufacturing plants in South Asia.
China sees US meddling as an attempt to westernize the region and destabilize the communist regime. Beijing is utilizing every tool at its disposal to subdue Taiwan, from military threats and intelligence theft to economic pressure and disinformation warfare. Experts argue that Taipei’s recent ADIZ invasion constituted electronic warfare. According to Taiwan’s National Defense Report 2021, China’s grey-zone threats include cyberwarfare and cognitive warfare in an attempt to conquer Taiwan without actual combat. China is trying to prevent any foreign military action within the first island chain. It is increasing military activity on Taiwan’s Pacific coast to sever links between the United States and Japan. If Taiwan loses its ties to the United States, it will collapse. As a result, even if the United States has a more capable military than China, we should not dismiss China’s strategies to seize Taiwan.
Xi Jinping has repeatedly warned the United States against ganging up on China, and military maneuvers, claiming that they would jeopardize the peace and stability of the Taiwan Straits. Beijing has also cautioned the United States to keep away from Taiwan, which it regards as part of mainland China. Beijing’s diplomatic dexterity is strengthening its strategic ties with Russia, Pakistan and Iran, which will advocate and stand up for China’s agenda. Without a doubt, Beijing will modify its tactics every day to invade Taiwan without having to go to war.
Taiwan is still an integral part of the United States’ commitment to safeguarding democracy and sovereignty. But for how long and at what price?
Taiwan is also seen as an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which dislikes Taiwan’s democratic nature. However, Taiwan’s president seized on the country’s impassioned feelings and said she would do everything in her power to protect the country’s freedom and democratic way of life. Bearing that in mind, Taiwan is unquestionably on the verge of a formal declaration of independence. Taiwan’s independence might have a major influence on Chinese stability, particularly in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. The South China Sea crisis has now boiled down to the question of Taiwan’s status in the world: Is it an independent country or an extension of mainland China? The progression of events in determining this question would eventually unleash one of the profoundest global transformations the world has ever seen.
The Taiwan saga could have three potential outcomes: First, China and the US go to war, which is very improbable since China understands it cannot squarely confront the US because defeat is certain. In this event, the United States will re-establish its hegemony and credibility. The world will once again look to the United States and its liberal institutional ideals, and China will suffer a significant setback as a rising force.
Second, China delves deep into Sun Tzu’s wisdom to devise strategies, ploys and shrewd maneuvers to divert the attention of the United States and its allies – in order to take over Taiwan right under their noses, which will be tough but not impossible. If China is successful in doing so, it will deal a significant blow to the US’s reputation and credibility. It will also establish itself as a more credible partner than the US, eventually causing the world to shift East rather than West – until the next superpower competition.
Third, China, the United States and Taiwan reach an amicable agreement on Taiwan’s position. The solution would ideally safeguard the US’s reputation, retain Taiwan’s independence and democratic way of life, and fulfil Chinese authorities’ demands that Taiwan not declare itself fully independent of China. If such a solution were found, it would be a win-win situation for all three parties. However, even in this instance, China would declare victory by leveraging its propaganda apparatus to best effect.
Regardless of the outcome of the Taiwan question, the world is clearly in a process of deep transformation. It is not up to the world’s leaders, not up to China, the US, Taiwan, or the EU to decide about a new world order.
It is up to us – to the peoples of the earth, to every single person – to take responsibility, to accept the preciousness of our own cultural heritage and thus make the world a better and more human place, one in which everyone can live in the spirit of peace and sovereignty.