Backgrounder: Taiwan ignores threats from China, braces itself for the aftermath of Nancy Pelosi's visit - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 3 August 2022

Backgrounder: Taiwan ignores threats from China, braces itself for the aftermath of Nancy Pelosi's visit

Hours after Pelosi's visit, 27 Chinese warplanes enter Taiwan's air defence zone


By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 4th Aug 22


Triggering a major escalation of tensions between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States (US), a top American official – Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi – landed in Taipei, Taiwan on Tuesday, ignoring furious threats from Beijing that China would treat this as a violation of its sovereignty and respond with military force.


America has trodden carefully in its relations with communist China, especially on the issue of Taiwan. Senior US officials have avoided Taiwan, and only one US president, Dwight D Eisenhower, has visited the island in 1960. The last high-ranking American official to visit Taiwan was one of Pelosi’s predecessors in 1997 – Newt Gingrich, the House Speaker at that time.  


In its strategic signalling, Beijing has messaged consistently that it regards any threat to Taiwan, or any move towards independence by the Republic of China (ROC) government, as an existential threat to the PRC. Such a threat would be met with military force and, if necessary, the use of nuclear weapons.


The PRC has also announced live-fire military drills encircling Taiwan, in a move that Taipei's defence ministry said threatened the island's key ports and urban areas. At some points, Chinese operations will come within 20 km of Taiwan's shoreline, according to coordinates shared by the PLA.


Taiwan's 23 million people have lived for decades under the shadow of a potential invasion. Now, that threat has intensified under President Xi Jinping, China's current leader and the most assertive one in a generation.


“If Pelosi insists on visiting Taiwan, China will take resolute and strong measures to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the PRC’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, warned on Monday. “Those who play with fire will perish by it.” 


In a phone call to his counterpart, Joe Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned against “meddling” with the island.


“One China” policy


Over the years, Beijing’s hardball diplomacy has coerced numerous countries, including the US, into dealing with Taiwan within the “One China” frameword. This is the PRC’s official position, which holds that there is only one sovereign state called China, with the PRC serving as its sole, legitimate government. The “One China” principle “acknowledges that all Chinese, on either side of the Taiwan Strait, maintain there is but One China and Taiwan is a part of it.”


The US technically does not support Taiwan’s independence. Through diplomatic pressure, Beijing tries to keep the ROC isolated on the world stage and opposes countries having official exchanges with Taipei.


Taiwan Relations Act, 1979 


Beijing will never condone direct relations between the US and Taiwan, since it regards Taiwan as a mere renegade province, awaiting re-unification with the mainland. To cater for this sensitivity, President Jimmy Carter passed the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, which laid down provisions that govern the unofficial relations between Washington and Taipei.


The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 is not a defence treaty. It does not guarantee American military intervention if the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)  attacks Taiwan. However, it does state that “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities.”


Taiwan’s defence forces are small but well-equipped and effective. Its air force has over 300 fighter aircraft, including F-16s and Mirage 2000s. The ROC’s navy, which will be called upon to block the PRC’s amphibious landings, deploys four destroyers, 22 frigates, 13 corvettes and four submarines. Even so, the PLA will enjoy a heavy numerical advantage.


Decisions about the weaponry that the US will provide Taiwan are to be determined in Washington by the President and Congress. America's policy of “strategic ambiguity” merely dissuades Taiwan from a unilateral declaration of independence, while dissuading the PRC from unilaterally unifying Taiwan with the PRC.


Taiwan: a troubled history


Taiwan is an island off the eastern coast of China, to which the Chinese Nationalists (the Kuomintang, or KMT), led by Chiang Kai-shek, retreated in 1949 after they were defeated in an armed revolution by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 


The CCP gained control of the mainland, where it established an ideological communist state, the PRC. Meanwhile the KMT, established itself in Taiwan as the ROC, eventually evolving into a liberal democracy.


The US initially recognized Taiwan’s government as the legitimate government of China. But after Washington and Beijing formally established diplomatic relations in 1979, the US-Taiwan relationship entered a decades-long period of diplomatic limbo.


Washington and Taipei behaved like allies — yet neither maintains an official embassy in the other’s capital. US presidents have long avoided interacting with their Taiwanese counterparts, even over the phone, to avoid angering Beijing.


Now, Nancy Pelosi has managed to do what several US presidents were unable, or unwilling, to do. China, however, continues to claim Taiwan as its own territory and has repeatedly threatened military force to seize the island. US military forces are now bracing themselves for the aftermath of Pelosi’s visit.

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