Monday, December 28, 2020

War clouds over the Taiwan Straits

 Written by: (Contributed) on 29 December 2020

A major diplomatic stand-off between the United States and China over the Taiwan Straits immediately prior to Xmas during the dying days of the Trump administration reveals the narrow waterway might become a future theatre of war.

It will be interesting, therefore, to note future Cold War positions taken by the incoming Biden administration and their likely effect upon Australia and Japan, which have both been drawn ever closer to US-led diplomatic positions and likely 'real-war scenarios' during the period of the Trump administration.

In the period leading to Xmas celebrations the US navy sailed the USS Mustin, a guided missile destroyer, through the Taiwan Straits, the water-way which has effectively divided mainland China with Taiwan since 1949, is only 130 kms at its narrowest, with an average width of 180 kms dividing the two landmasses. It is one of the most politically sensitive areas of the region; China has always regarded Taiwan as merely a renegade province since its establishment as Formosa in 1949. The position has been contested by Taiwanese governments in recent years with some demands for full independence.

The rise of China as a dominant regional player and second-biggest economy in the world has altered the traditional balance of forces across the sensitive northern part of the South China Seas; in recent years, for example, US military concerns have been raised about the 'growing imbalance of power across the Taiwan Strait'. (1)

During the past four years of the Trump administration diplomatic tensions and hostilities have soared over the Straits; the issue of Taiwan was raised during the initial Trump presidential election campaign and subsequently followed with a dramatic increase in defence spending to the tune of $17 billion US arms sales to Taiwan during the period of the administration. (2)

Behind the scenes there have been a number of important considerations, which include the Trump administration using Taiwan as a major part of their regional policy due to its close proximity to China.

While the US switched their diplomatic allegiance to China in 1979, they have always retained strong commitments toward Taiwan, often at a clandestine level. The present American Institute in Taipei, for example, has an estimated five hundred US diplomatic staff ostensibly on temporary leave from the State Department in Washington. (3) Meanwhile, their hosts in the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen, are 'increasingly being invited to regional dialogues on the Indo-Pacific organised by think tanks'. (4)

The ruling presidential administration in Taipei, which was re-elected earlier in the year, has been responsible for two policy commitments which run counter to traditional positions: raising questions about eventual independence for Taiwan and the implementation of a New Southbound Policy with the aim of establishing 'deeper ties with South-east Asian neighbours and beyond'. (5) Taiwan's foreign policy has also provided the Tsai Ing-wen administration with increased access into US-led nerve-centres of power and decision-making.

It has not proved particularly difficult to find examples of the role of Taiwan within US-led decision-making and implementation of more aggressive foreign policy options toward China.

Some of those involved in recent opposition protests in Hong Kong have been linked to Taiwan. The recent arrests of a group of opposition activists attempting to flee Hong Kong in a speed-boat were heading for Taiwan, where the Tsai Ing-wen administration has 'quietly turned a blind eye to residents turning up without proper visas or paperwork'. (6)

The Trump administration arms deals with Taiwan have also coincided with increased demands for independence from within the ruling administration, raising questions about whether they were undertaken as part of a planned and concerted diplomatic push; an official US Defence Department publication, The Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, June 2019, actually referred to Taiwan as a country. (7) The stated position runs counter to established UN protocol.

It is also important to note Taiwan remains a central consideration with Island Chain Theory (ICT), a classic Cold War type model and relic of the previous period which has been revamped by US military planners to restrict regional access and egress by China and their naval and maritime fleets in recent years; the three chains all use US strategically-placed landmasses. Taiwan, for example, is central to the first chain which runs from the Kuril Islands, through the Philippines to Borneo. The second has included Guam, a US territory. The third, has included Hawaii, the US regional command centre for the Indo-Pacific.

Recent US-led Cold War regional diplomatic positions have increasingly made use of ICT: when the Chinese Shandong aircraft carrier sailed through the Taiwan Straits a few days after the USS Mustin, diplomatic tensions soared; China was viewed as entering into a sensitive area of ICT.

The fact the USS Mustin was the twelfth such US-led naval presence in the Taiwan Straits during 2020, while the Shandong was the only Chinese naval presence during the same time period, has revealed just how aggressive US-led diplomatic positions have been during the past year. (8) The Trump administration has had no intention of accommodating China. Statements by the Trump administration over the wider South China Seas and so-called 'freedom of navigation' manoeuvres and exercises have been deliberately ambiguous; they have been, for all intents and purposes, examples of military engagement with China, falling into the grey zone of operations just short of real-war scenarios. (9)

The diplomatic position has rested upon earlier initiatives.

US regional foreign policy toward Taiwan has included 'strategic ambiguity … which … has guided US policy on Taiwan for decades'. (10) While the US remains formally committed with defence agreements to defend Taiwan, in reality they require other regional allies to maintain the position. The US requires military facilities in the Indo-Pacific region itself, for rapid deployment, if required. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a US agent of influence, proclaims that while 'Washington would provide military support   ... they would ... expect Japan and Australia to be involved'. (11)

Both Japan and Australia are regional hubs for 'US interests' linked directly into US-led military planning; they have, therefore, been placed into a difficult position in recent years. They are linked directly into a triangular diplomatic network with the US based on real-time surveillance with Pentagon-based military planning for regional operations.

The Trump administration has been responsible for pushing Taiwanese independence and attempting to alter the status quo. (12) China has not stood idly by, but countered many of the demands.

It remains, therefore, important to note the forthcoming position taken by the Biden administration, which will be likely to have considerable bearing upon Australia. It has been suggested the incoming Biden administration may seek a return to traditional US diplomatic positions and the status quo. (13) Whilst this may mean a less erratic and provocative stance, Biden is expected to be stronger and more direct in trying to stop China’s expanding influence. 

We, therefore, need an independent foreign policy!

1.     U.S. seeks new Asia defences, The Wall Street Journal, 24-26 August 2012.
2.     Biden will speak softer but act stronger on Taiwan, (FP), 10 November 2020.
3.     Beijing keeps a wary eye on new US Taipei outpost, Australian, 18 June 2018.
4.     Ibid.
5.     Ibid.
6.     'Speedboat fugitives' to face trial, The Weekend Australian, 26-27 December 2020.
7.     Taiwan Flashpoint, The Lowy Institute, 25 February 2020.
8.     Chinese carrier enters Strait, Australian, 23 December 2020.
9.     How will reckless adventurism in Taiwan Straits expose Trump administration, CGTN, 21 December 2020.     
10.   FP., op.cit., 10 November 2020.
11.   2021 the year of the wolf warrior at the door, Statement from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Australian, 23 December 2020.
12.   FP., op.cit., 10 November 2020.
13.   Ibid.

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