High profile political statements and significant military developments have heightened regional tensions and exasperated the turbulent waters of East Asia. Taiwan heralded the New Year by flexing military muscles and released video of firing of Hsiung Feng-3 anti-ship supersonic missile capable of hitting Chinese warships as far as 1500 kilometers. Meanwhile, Chinese leadership sounded drumbeats for unification of Taiwan and President Xi Jinping did not rule out use of force against the ‘renegade’ province and the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen clarified her country’s resolve not to give any concessions on sovereignty. But before that, on the last day of 2018, U.S. President Donald J. Trump signed into Law the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) which calls upon the US President to allow transfers of defense articles to Taiwan.
Last year, the region was marked by a number of provocative initiatives and maneuvers by China and the US such as the reclamation-militarization-weaponization of many reefs and features in the South China Sea by China, US Navy’s freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea including through the Taiwan Strait, announcement of US’ Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) or the ‘Quad’ involving Australia- India-Japan-US.
In the coming months, Taiwan can potentially be the locus of the regional security discourse, and heightened tensions among China, Taiwan and the US, that can potentially send reverberations across the Indo-Pacific region for at least three reasons. First, China has repeatedly warned Taipei that any move to declare independence would be dealt with severe consequences. President Xi Jinping’s new year message of carrot and stick stated that “all the compatriots in Taiwan treasure peace as much as they treasure their own eyes, and pursue national reunification as much as they pursue happiness,” but “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures, targeting external interference and a very small number of 'Taiwan independence' separatists and their separatist activities,”
Xi had earlier instructed the military region responsible for monitoring Taiwan and the South China Sea to “prepare for war” and in his speech to the high officials of the Central Military Commission (CMC) he called on the military to “understand major national security and development trends, and strengthen their sense of unexpected hardship, crisis and battle,” The Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe vowed that China would not cede “a single inch” of its territory. Similarly Beijing advised Washington to ‘earnestly abide by the one-China principle’ and ‘prudently and properly handle Taiwan-related issues’.
Second, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen led Democratic Progressive Party which suffered defeat in local elections against the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), did not miss the opportunity to hit back and rebut Xi Jinping’s argument that reunification was an “unshakable historic task” and by rejecting the Chinese concept of “one country, two systems”; instead she offered a dialogue with mainland only if Taiwan was represented by its own government.
Third, the United States has chosen to remove ‘Asia-Pacific’ from its strategic glossary and internalized the term ‘Indo-Asia Pacific’. The 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) singularly identifies China as a competitor and cautions that Chinese militarization of South China Sea endangers the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability.’ Also, the US Pacific Command has been renamed as the US Indo-Pacific Command. Furthermore, the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) was signed on 31 December 2018 into a law.
These are significant legislative and operational initiatives and provide a clear long-term strategic vision for US policy in the Indo-Pacific. With regard to Taiwan, the ARIA urges the US President to provide military support ‘tailored to meet the existing and likely future threats from the People's Republic of China’ as also support Taiwan’ efforts to ‘develop and integrate asymmetric capabilities, as appropriate, including mobile, survivable, and cost-effective capabilities, into its military forces.’ Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat and a member of the Communist Party Politburo has warned the US that “Taiwan independent forces and their separatist activities pose the biggest threat to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” and China will not be intimidated by any country. President Xi Jinping too has warned that “No one and no party can change the fact that Taiwan is part of China,” obviously referring to the US.
Taiwan is a potent diplomatic tool for the US to provoke and annoy China. The ongoing contentious and acrimonious issues of South China Sea and trade wars between US and China provide President Trump an opportunity to bring into play the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) under which Washington is committed to provide military support to Taipei. Meanwhile several American lawmakers have voiced concern and U.S. Senator John Kennedy has labeled President Xi Jinping’s warning of ‘right to use force against Taiwan’ as “irresponsible, counterproductive and just bad diplomacy.” Furthermore, US could agree to supply Lockheed Martin F-35 which are part of the Taiwanese military shopping list worth $ 330 million arms deal with Taiwan, on which Beijing has warned of “severe damage” to bilateral ties as also peace and stability in Taiwan straits. The US could also explore a port call by a US warship to a Taiwanese port, which Chinese believe could backfire on the US. However, in all fairness, Taipei may not like to be caught in the US-China crossfire; instead would prefer dialogue with mainland China on its terms and conditions.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is former Director National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi and is associated with the Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.