On the 17th of September, the U.S. Under Secretary Keith Krach’s official visit to Taiwan for a memorial service crystallized existing tensions between the autonomous island and its powerful neighbor China, which has, in reaction, sent warplanes to breach the Taiwan Strait median line. This escalation of hostilities can be explained by shifting calculations by China and Taiwan of perceived long-term political advantages versus short-term economic advantages. The balance of power maintained for decades between these two regional powers had already been disrupted earlier by the perceived de-sinicization of Taiwan – thus, the official visit of a U.S. representative in Taiwan has further threatened China’s views on the region.
After an ostentatious display of military force with both sides conducting offensive and defensive military drills in Taiwan Strait – a de facto demarcation line respected by both parties since 1979 -, including the sending of 18 Chinese jets and their tracking by the Taiwanese air defense system, Chinese state-run Global Times newspaper quoted experts who suggested drills are “rehearsal for a Taiwan takeover,” according to the International Crisis Group.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said that the trip “severely violated the one-China principle” and urged Washington to “immediately stop official exchange with Taiwan.” Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has identified Beijing’s act as a “threat of force, which is part of the verbal attacks and military threats (against Taiwan).”
China has maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity with Taiwan since 1979. At the same time as economic integration was praised and implemented, China refused to renounce the use of force. The lack of perceived time pressure sustained this strategic ambiguity: on the one hand, the short-term economic advantages made economic collaboration important, and on the other, the long-term political advantages were rooted in a broader trust regarding the inclusion of the island in the Communist Party of China. However, events that disrupted the Chinese illusion of long-term political advantages – such as pro-democratic movements like the Sunflower Student Movement, the January 2020 re-election of a progressive president opposed to the KMT, or the official visit of a U.S. representative -, pushed President Xi Jinping to activate China’s overwhelming military power for compellence and swaggering. In response, Taiwan resorted to other defense strategies by raising awareness among neighboring countries about the potential threat posed by China and by turning to its powerful ally, the U.S., and its plans to sell major weapons systems including mines, cruise missiles, and drones – further triggering the security dilemma’s build-up.
Other strategies could be envisioned to prevent war and to either safeguard the status quo or to reach a peaceful renegotiation of the balance of power. A re-focus by China and Taiwan respective governments on economic, human, social, and political security rather than on military security could be a first step towards finding alternatives to military conflict resolution and preventing further escalation of hostilities. Furthermore, the role of the U.S. could be conducive to peace if it was mediated through international institutions like the United Nations. Currently, U.S. foreign policy only contributes to flaring up tensions through an owned-up interested involvement promoting national interests tied to economic and geostrategic gains.
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