Washington Times: Chinese pressure sparks debate on Taiwan’s resilience

August 8, 2021

by: Guy Taylor

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China’s expanding military provocations toward Taiwan have elevated concern among the United States and its allies that Beijing could be on the verge of using force against the island democracy, which China considers to be an integral part of its sovereign territory.

The pressure on Taiwan and other aggressive actions by the authoritarian communist government in China have also triggered debate over the extent to which the aggression might backfire by boosting Taiwan‘s strong pro-independence forces and prompting the U.S. and others to deliver more robust support for Taipei.

The Biden administration has made rhetorical overtures of support for Taiwan, but analysts say the U.S. is as wedded as ever to “One China.” Under the policy, Washington refuses to formally recognize Taiwanese independence but helps the island defend itself and leaves ambiguous what the U.S. military would do in a shooting war.

Some say Beijing‘s actions over the past year, most notably stepped-up drills and missile testing by the People’s Liberation Army in the Taiwan Strait, have backfired, producing unprecedented support for Taiwan by the United States and its Indo-Pacific allies.

“Beijing‘s pressure against Taiwan has triggered counteractions by Washington and the international community, perhaps more than China has anticipated,” said Zoe Leung, the director of Track 2 Diplomacy Programs at the Houston-based George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations.

“Since the beginning of 2021, U.S. Navy [ships] transited the Taiwan Strait seven times in response to PLA show of force,” Ms. Leung told The Washington Times. The increase in visits to Taiwan by current and former U.S. officials over the past two years should also is a sign of expanding American support, driven by Washington’s desire to counter China’s aggressive moves.

She said the Biden administration has been working behind the scenes to expand diplomatic support for Taiwan on the international stage.

“Australia, Japan, South Korea, [the Group of Seven] and [the] EU have all identified Taiwan security as increasingly important, as Beijing stepped up efforts to isolate Taiwan in the international arena,” Ms. Leung said. “Japan has signaled it may be forced to intervene in a cross-strait crisis. These developments were unprecedented.”

Ms. Leung and Cameron Waltz, a junior fellow with the Bush Foundation, pushed their argument in a recent commentary published by Foreign Policy under the headline “Beijing’s Attempts to Intimidate Taiwan Have Backfired; Chinese coercion has strengthened democratic resolve.”

“The United States is now at its closest with Taiwan since it de-recognized the Republic of China in 1979,” the authors said. The Biden administration has responded to China’s increased military activity in the Taiwan Strait by “normalizing U.S. warship transits near Taiwan, coupled with sales of advanced weapons to Taipei to boost its ability to asymmetrically deny a Chinese invasion.”

Not everyone agrees. Some say China‘s increasingly overt threats to Taiwan‘s independence are deeply worrying.

“This idea that Beijing’s tactics have helped Taiwan gain more support than it has seen in decades — that’s just false,” said Michael Pillsbury, a longtime adviser on China to successive White House administrations and currently the head of Chinese strategy at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

“There’s certainly increased concern for Taiwan, but the main concern is that China’s going to invade Taiwan,” Mr. Pillsbury said. “Still, I don’t think China’s aggressiveness is having any effect on tangible steps to defend Taiwan or increase deterrence, even if international concern over the prospect of China possibly using force against Taiwan is at the highest level it’s been in decades.

“Have any other countries started selling arms to Taiwan? No. We’re the only country since 1980 that dares to sell arms to Taiwan. Let’s see Australia try to sell arms to Taiwan. They won’t do it,” Mr. Pillsbury said. Many key U.S. allies, including Australia and Japan, are far  more dependent on China as an import and export market than is the United States.”

On the weapons front, the United States has long been the lone exception in selling arms to Taipei. The State Department last week formally approved the first Taiwan arms sale of the Bidenera. The $750 million deal includes some 40 self-propelled howitzer armored field artillery vehicles. China‘s nationalist, state-controlled Global Times denounced the sale as a “vicious provocation.”

Mr. Pillsbury said delivery on such deals often gets delayed indefinitely, and he called it a gross overstatement to say the U.S. sells Taiwan “advanced weaponry.” He said Washington often does not meet specific Taiwanese weapons requests.

He stressed that the U.S. maintains its adherence to the 1979 One China policy.

Formal international support for Taiwan remains low, he said. Just 15 countries, mainly tiny nations that trade more with Taipei than Beijing, recognize Taiwanese independence. The list does not include the U.S., Japan, Australia, India, South Korea or any other major democracy in Asia.

“The meat here is that nothing has changed on specific steps for Taiwan‘s defense. Nothing has changed,” Mr. Pillsbury said. “I’m tired of virtue signaling and false hope and wishful thinking on this issue. [The Taiwanese] can’t even fly their flag inside the United States. Taiwanese air force pilots have the Taiwan insignia ripped off their uniforms when they start training [in the U.S.]. Do you have any idea of the level of humiliation the Taiwanese go through?”

Increasingly wary

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, a former CIA official who also has decades of experience analyzing China, said the international community, in general, has grown increasingly wary of Beijing’s actions on a range of fronts, including Taiwan, trade, the South China Sea and the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr. DeTrani pointed to frustration over the Chinese government’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong by imposing an aggressive “national security law.” He noted regional unease from aggressive moves in disputed areas of the South China Sea where Beijing has been constructing military bases on artificial islands.

Other areas of concern, he said, are Beijing’s human rights abuses of Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region and its “wolf warrior” international diplomacy. Inspired by the Rambo-style Chinese-action movie “Wolf Warrior,” officials sharply denounce officials and institutions in Australia, India and Japan that criticize China.

“There’s a multitude of issues out there where China’s behavior is turning a lot of countries and people off,” Mr. DeTrani said. “I believe China’s actions — whether it’s the national security law in Hong Kong, the wolf warrior diplomacy mentality, the assertiveness in the South China Sea, the actions in Xinjiang — have backfired and are affecting not only the international view of China and [President Xi Jinping], but also the situation with Taiwan and engendering more concern for the well-being of the people of Taiwan.”

Concern about the fate of Taiwan has also been coursing through the halls of the Pentagon.

The Associated Press reported in April that the U.S. military assessed that China was accelerating its timetable for capturing control of Taiwan. Such a move could trigger a direct U.S.-Chinese war. Gen. John E. Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. had “failed miserably” in a war game simulation of a Chinese attempt to overrun Taiwan.

“An aggressive Red Team that had been studying the United States for the last 20 years just ran rings around us,” Gen. Hyten told an audience at a defense industry event on July 26. “They knew exactly what we’re going to do before we did it.”

The Defense Department has revealed few details about that war game, but officials said it delivered a jolt to the U.S. military’s assessment of the balance of power in the Pacific.

Adm. John C. Aquilino, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, downplayed the war game exercise in remarks to the Aspen Security Forum last week but acknowledged that Beijing’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea and elsewhere sparked a “sense of urgency” inside the Pentagon.

“Those games have helped us to identify where we have gaps and seams, how we make requests for capabilities and requirements to ensure our competitive advantage is maintained,” Adm. Aquilino said. “I’m confident we still have the finest and strongest military on the earth and that the U.S. is ready for any contingency, should it occur.”