Despite the “era of good feeling” that has emerged between Taiwan and China, tensions in the Taiwan Strait have not disappeared. There are 1,500 missiles aimed at Taiwan. It is also the case that Beijing’s military posture toward Taiwan has hindered efforts to create a thaw in the relationship. China has not given up the notion of using force against Taiwan.
In the latest edition of its biennial military review, the Taiwan Ministry of Defense released a metaphorical bombshell. It noted that with China’s continuing and unrelenting military buildup, “it can now deter foreign militaries from assisting Taiwan.” This, of course, is a euphemism for deterring the United States. Since the U.S. deployed an aircraft carrier in the Taiwan Strait a decade ago when conditions heated on both sides of the divide, China has vowed to thwart any American military assistance for Taiwan. And if the report is accurate, that moment may have arrived.
Taiwan and China have been ruled as separate nations over the last 60 years, but Beijing claims the island must eventually unify with the mainland. The only question that remains is what is meant by “eventually.” Whenever the word independence has been used by Taiwanese politicians, China ratchets up the threat level.
Since the election of President Ma Ying-jeou, who is noticeably cautious in reference to independence, Taiwan’s relations with China have improved. The two nations now have regular commercial flights and are negotiating a possible free trade deal. What has not received much publicity is the fact that Taiwanese business investments in China have led to the employment of millions of Chinese mainlanders. However, these developments exist against a backdrop of China’s insistence that Taiwan is part of “one China.”
Holding China at bay is Taiwan’s most important international ally, the United States. According to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. government has noted it will provide defensive weapons and would intercede if China attacked the island. This report by the Taiwan Ministry, however, indicates that vows of intercession are meaningless gestures now that China’s military strength is sufficient to deter U.S. involvement.
It is also the case that Obama administration impulses to withdraw from foreign commitments make it extremely unlikely the U.S. would respond militarily to Chinese adventurism. For all practical purposes Taiwan is a literal and figurative island at the mercy of Chinese leadership.
This is not to suggest that China is prepared to attack Taiwan. Such an event would poison Chinese ties to the West and its position in the World Trade Organization. However, this does mean that China can apply pressure on a vulnerable Taiwan, thereby accelerating the goal of unification and forcing Taiwanese leaders to make concessions of various kinds.
Presumably Taiwan can seek military alliances in Asia with Japan, South Korea, and India in an effort to thwart Chinese ambitions. But, with the exception of India, most nations in Asia recognize putative Chinese regional leadership in the face of America’s evanescing Asian presence. The new Japanese government, for example, is already making overtures to Beijing in an effort to forestall Chinese inroads into the Sea of Japan.
It is instructive that a world with a less powerful United States leads to political instability in many parts of the globe. The Taiwanese are a resilient and remarkable people who have taken a once largely barren island and converted it into one of the most vigorous economies on the globe. Yet this development could not have occurred without the protective shield of the United States. One can only wonder how it can be sustained without active American assistance.
To learn that the Taiwanese now recognize checkmate in the Taiwan Strait is upsetting for any of us who admire the fierce determination of the island’s people. A new day is dawning and from the perspective of democracy and prosperity, it is a very gray day indeed.