Taiwan has been a persistent problematic issue in US-China relations for decades. President Biden’s comments on Taiwan during a recent trip to East Asia stole headlines, reminding people that the Taiwan issue is the most dangerous in China-US strategic competition. When asked if the United States would be willing to “militarily defend” Taiwan if China were to invade, Biden said, “Yes, that’s the commitment we made.” This remark triggered a public discussion on whether the United States has changed its “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan, the traditional strategy widely accepted by US political elites. Administration officials later appeared to walk back the president’s comments. But Beijing reacted forcefully, conducting military drills close to the island and with numerous Chinese officials condemning the comments. Most recently, at the Shangri-La Dialogue earlier this June, Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe warned that the People’s Liberation Army will “fight to the very end” if Taiwan dares to “secede” from China. Beijing’s vociferous reaction to Biden’s comments underscores how contentious the Taiwan issue remains and how easily tensions can flare.
Recently, US house of representative speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, ignoring Chinese threats and a warning by President Xi Jinping, delivered to President Joe Biden last week, to “not play with fire” (by provoking China), ramps up US-China tensions and risks pushing the countries further apart. Pelosi is the highest-ranking US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years, drawing the ire of China which called the move a breach of the “one China” policy. Under that framework, the US recognises Beijing as the sole legal government of China, though Washington also maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan. The notion of a geographical pivot upon which great historical trends might turn retains its value. Some places in the world are of such extraordinary military and economic importance that a change in their status might signal the end of an era or the beginning of a new global order. For this generation, Taiwan is such a place. It is the largest land mass between Japan and the Philippines, and thus anchors a chain of islands that US strategists have identified as crucial to containing the rising military power of China.
The Chinese government too assigns great strategic importance to this “first island chain,” and in particular to Taiwan. There are other island chains further east, but these are more abstractions than real barriers. Beijing, whose Navy now is bigger than that of the United States, has signalled that it does not intend to be contained and will one day be the dominant Pacific power. Washington has made the prevention of this outcome the overriding objective in its national defence strategy, and each US military service is planning to use the first island chain as a place of leverage for countering China’s expansionist plans. This is not a partisan impulse unique to the Trump or Biden administrations. It was President Obama who began the shift of US forces from Europe and the Persian Gulf to the Pacific. Taiwan’s centrality to the Pacific power calculus arises from several factors. First, it is by far the biggest island in the archipelago between Japan and Southeast Asia. Okinawa, the next biggest, is only seven miles wide on average; although it hosts half of the US military forces stationed on Japanese soil, its bases could easily be disabled by China at the onset of war. Taiwan, with 30 times the land area, affords more space for concealment and manoeuvre.
Second, Taiwan (officially, the Republic of China), is a first-class economic power in its own right. Companies such as Taiwan Semiconductor lead the world in advanced technology. Third, Taiwan is much closer to mainland China than the other islands and has been claimed by Beijing since Nationalists were driven there during the Chinese revolution in 1949. But the most important consideration is simply this: if China were to gain control of the island, its ability to operate east of the first island chain would be assured. Its navy effectively would have broken out into the Pacific, and the ability of US forces and their allies to control other nearby islands would be severely impaired.
Taiwan is an important test case for both the US and China. It is about America’s credibility in the Indo-Pacific in the aftermath of its withdrawal from Afghanistan. And it is about China’s age-old ambition of national reunification and Xi Jinping’s project of national rejuvenation. For Taipei, this is about preserving its democratic values and way of life. These cross-currents of history and contemporary strategic trends are shaping the actions and the counter-actions of the major actors in this unfolding drama. The implications can be potentially very serious not only for the region but also for the evolving global order.