Taiwan’s politico-diplomatic status has been the most contentious issues between the US and China. For the US, Taiwan is an important political and diplomatic entity and the bilateral relations are driven by the 1976 Taiwan relations Act and Washington has often invoked the ‘Taiwan Card’ to ruffle Chinese feathers. On the other hand, Chinese Communist leadership has vowed to prevent Taiwan declare independence and threatened to use military force and invade Taiwan.
At another level, China has consistently pursued an aggressive foreign policy to dissuaded States from maintaining diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Between 2001 and 2008, 14 countries cut diplomatic ties, and in 2020Taiwan is left with diplomatic recognition from only 14 out of 193 United Nations Member States. In March 2020, the US signed into Law the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI Act), a symbolic statement of support for Taiwan which “requires the Department of State to annually report to Congress on steps the State Department has taken to help strengthen Taiwan’s diplomatic relationships and partnerships around the world”
The US-Taiwan relations are primarily guided by the 1976 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) under which 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 a sufficient self-defense capabilities.” The 2019 US Department of Defence Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (IPSR) makes specific reference to the Chinese plans to prevent any third-party intervention in Taiwan for which the “PLA continues to prepare for contingencies” to deter, delay or deny and if necessary, “compel Taiwan to abandon moves toward independence”.
Taking note of the 2019 IPSR, US Senator Josh Hawley introduced earlier this month a draft Taiwan Defense Act in the Congress. The draft Bill notes that Taiwan is a “beacon of democracy in Asia” and a “steadfast partner of the United States in the common pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific region”. While urging the US to continue to fulfill its obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), Senator Josh Hawley is concerned and has warned that if the “Chinese Communist Party is allowed to seize control of Taiwan, it will stand ready to dominate the region…This would pose an unacceptable threat to the lives and livelihoods not just of our Asian allies and partners, but of working Americans here at home. We must not allow that to happen.”
In recent past, the US has been proactive in the South China Sea challenging Beijing’s expansive claims and the US Navy has been conducting “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) in the areasince 2017. Under President Obama’s Administration there were two FONOPs in 2015 and three in 2016. These have continued with a higher tempo under President Donald Trump’s leadership - five in 2017 and three in 2018. Similarly US naval transits through Taiwan Strait have increased - 12 in 2016, five in 2017, three in 2018 and nine in 2019.
The current US military activity in the airspace around Taiwan is noteworthy. In February, a US Air Force MC-130J Commando II aircraft flew north to south along the airspace over the Taiwan Strait, while two B-52 Stratofortress bombers flew along Taiwan’s east coast. In an unprecedented move, in June a US C-40A Clipper transport plane based at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa flew over Taiwan with the permission of Taipei. Apparently this was a response after Chinese Su-30 fighter jets intruded into Taiwan’s air space and were chased away by Republic of China Air Force. Earlier in March, a Chinese KJ-500 AEWC aircraft escorted by J-11 jet fighters conducted a nighttime training mission southwest of Taiwan and may have crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, prompting ROCAir Force to scramble its F-16 fighters.
The above are notable examples of US’ strategic signaling against any Chinese misadventure in Taiwan. Last month, the Trump administration announced military sales worth $180 million (18 MK-48 Mod6 Advanced Technology Heavy Weight Torpedoes and related equipment) and stated “The proposed sale will improve the recipient's capability in current and future defensive efforts. The recipient will use the enhanced capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen homeland defense,” The current sale is over and above the earlier announcements to sell to Taiwan “dozens of F-16 fighter jets, M1A2T Abrams tanks and portable Stinger anti-aircraft missiles arms sales to Taiwan valued at some $10 billion”.
China is visibly concerned about US military activity in the Taiwan Strait and has often declared that it is not deterred by such maneuvers. Chinese analysts too have dismissed these provocations as an attempt to divert attention of the US public from the failures of containing the Corona virus at home. But Taiwan says it has been preparing for “seven decades to defend the island from invasion” despite the fact that its military is dwarfed by the PLA.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.