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With U.S.-China tensions increasing on a number of fronts, the main issue that could spark a military conflict over the long term is still one that is fundamental to their relationship: Taiwan.

Chinese fighter jets have entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone seven times in the last two weeks, prompting the island to scramble warplanes to warn them off. While the total number of Chinese incursions this year is still largely on pace with previous years, the outburst over the past few weeks is unusual and could augur a dramatic escalation if sustained.

The military maneuvering reflects the ever-present potential for war over an island that China’s Communist Party has threatened to take by force ever since the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek fled the mainland in 1949. For much of the time since, the possibility of U.S. intervention has helped maintain the status quo — even after the Carter administration switched formal diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979.

China views Taiwan as an inalienable part of its territory that must eventually be brought back under Beijing’s control, by force if necessary. While it has long used economic incentives as a carrot to achieve those goals, it cut off all direct ties after the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen, who views the island as a de facto independent nation in need of wider international recognition.

‘Pipe dream’

Her re-election in January by an even wider margin showed that the two governments are only shifting further apart. At the same time, Taiwan is increasing economic links with the U.S., where it’s increasingly being hailed as a model democracy by Trump administration officials who regularly slam China for increased authoritarianism.

“President Tsai’s re-election does not change much in cross-Strait relations, but it may have solidified the view in Beijing that peaceful, uncoerced unification is a pipe dream,” said Michael Mazza, a visiting fellow at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, who analyzes U.S. defense policy in the Asia-Pacific. “We may well see a new crisis in the Taiwan Strait before the decade’s out.”

One of the Chinese incursions occurred just hours after a U.S. military plane had flown across the island on June 9. So far this year, there have been 17 Chinese navy or air force exercises around or close to Taiwan, according to the island’s defense ministry. That compares with 29 in the whole of 2019.

The show of force comes as Taiwan’s public becomes increasingly skeptical of China. President Xi Jinping’s call last year for talks over unification under the “one country, two systems” model used to govern Hong Kong, which has been rocked by unrest over China’s tightening grip over the city, helped fuel support for Tsai’s big re-election win. Nearly 80 percent of Taiwanese reject the use of “one country, two systems,” according to a survey by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council in June.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen delivers a speech at the first public test flight of the AIDC T-5 Brave Eagle, Taiwan's first locally manufactured advanced jet trainer, in the city of Taichung on Monday. | REUTERS
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen delivers a speech at the first public test flight of the AIDC T-5 Brave Eagle, Taiwan’s first locally manufactured advanced jet trainer, in the city of Taichung on Monday. | REUTERS

In a speech marking the beginning of her second term in office last month, Tsai called for talks with China on the precondition of parity between the two sides. China has consistently opposed that, and Premier Li Keqiang raised eyebrows at the National People’s Congress last month when he didn’t mention past agreements with Taiwan that have helped ensure stability in the relationship.

“We will adhere to the major principles and policies on work related to Taiwan and resolutely oppose and deter any separatist activities seeking Taiwan independence,” Li said. Although Tsai’s party acts as if Taiwan is independent, any formal declaration is a red line for Beijing that would likely trigger an invasion.

At the moment, however, the risk of an invasion is very low. Qiao Liang, a hawkish Chinese military strategist, told the South China Morning Post last month that an invasion of Taiwan could be catastrophic for China: Even if the U.S. doesn’t join the war, it would likely impose sanctions along with other countries that could lead to widespread economic hardship and undermine the Communist Party’s long-term development plans.

“The Taiwan issue is actually a key problem between China and the U.S., even though we have insisted it is China’s domestic issue,” he told the newspaper. “In other words, the Taiwan issue cannot be completely resolved unless the rivalry between Beijing and Washington is resolved.”

Responding to a question at a monthly press briefing Wednesday on recent U.S. actions around Taiwan, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, a Defense Ministry spokesman, called Taiwan “an inseparable part of China.”

Members of the People's Liberation Army honor guards walk past a banner depicting Chinese president Xi Jinping near the Forbidden City in Beijing on May 21. | BLOOMBERG
Members of the People’s Liberation Army honor guards walk past a banner depicting Chinese president Xi Jinping near the Forbidden City in Beijing on May 21. | BLOOMBERG

The U.S. “frequently plays the ‘Taiwan card’ and wants to endanger China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by ‘salami-slicing,’ which is completely delusional thinking,” Wu said. “The PLA continues to maintain high alert, has a firm will, full confidence and sufficient ability to maintain national sovereignty and territorial integrity and maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

While the U.S. acknowledges China’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, it officially views the island’s status as unresolved and opposes any Chinese moves to force it into unification. It scrapped its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan when it recognized the government in Beijing, but it’s still widely expected that America’s military would intervene in a conflict.

Wavering support

U.S. President Donald Trump has strengthened ties with Taiwan, approving the first American fighter jet sale to Taiwan in three decades last year and lobbying hard — but ultimately unsuccessfully — for Taiwan’s inclusion in this year’s World Health Assembly following its successful handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, former national security adviser John Bolton questioned Trump’s commitment to Taiwan in his memoir. Pressure from Wall Street financiers and China’s top leaders made the U.S. president reluctant to fully back the island, including hesitating on whether the U.S. should sell it upgraded weapons systems, according to Bolton’s account.

“When Trump abandoned the Kurds in Syria, there was speculation about who he might abandon next,” Bolton wrote. “Taiwan was right near the top of the list, and would probably stay there as long as Trump remained President, not a happy prospect.”

Some U.S. lawmakers have pushed for the U.S. to back Taiwan more explicitly, a move that would surely anger China. In an article for National Review last month, Republican representative Mike Gallagher called for a declaratory statement unequivocally committing the U.S. to the defense of Taiwan, in part to keep China hemmed in along its coastline.

“By taking Taiwan, the People’s Liberation Army Navy would have a foothold to turn Japan’s flank and break out of the first island chain, adding Taiwan’s numerous foundries to China’s and gaining a near-monopoly on global microelectronics production in the process,” Gallagher wrote.

Shoring up

Taiwan’s technology industry, particularly the world’s largest contract chipmaker Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., is crucial if the U.S. is going to provide an alternative to Chinese companies such as Huawei Technologies Co. in 5G telecommunications and automated vehicles. The U.S. has asked TSMC, which recently announced plans for a $12 billion chip plant in Arizona, to cut ties with Huawei due to its close relationship with the Communist Party, Kung Ming-hsin, minister of Taiwan’s National Development Council, told reporters this week.

Taiwan under Tsai has sought to reduce the island’s economic dependence on China, a trend that has only accelerated following the outbreak of COVID-19. Through May this year, China and Hong Kong have accounted for 41.5 percent of Taiwan’s exports compared with 14.5 percent for the U.S., according to the Ministry of Finance. Still, around half of its shipments to China are assembled in the mainland and then re-exported to the U.S.

“As parts of the manufacturing process are now moved back to Taiwan, it will be possible for the supply chain as a whole to bypass China,” Kung said. “In this phase we are considering high-end products as well as products with cybersecurity concerns to be moved back to Taiwan for manufacturing.”

Attendees wave flags during a Democratic Progressive Party campaign rally with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei on Jan. 10. | BLOOMBERG
Attendees wave flags during a Democratic Progressive Party campaign rally with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei on Jan. 10. | BLOOMBERG

Besides Taiwan’s own attempts to shore up its economic strength, another key to its security going forward is a generally strong U.S. military that demonstrates the capabilities to take on China, according to Mazza from the American Enterprise Institute.

“Defending Taiwan is becoming a larger challenge as the PLA modernizes and becomes more capable,” he said. “Even absent a clear commitment to defend Taiwan, the United States can telegraph that commitment by making the choices required to ensure it can defend Taiwan successfully.”

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