Testing Limits, Challenging Boundaries: The Curious Case of US Policy on Taiwan

There is only one China. Taiwan is not independent. It does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation, and that remains our policy, our firm policy

  • Colin Powell to Phoenix Television, Hong Kong (2004)

The One China Policy rattled the international balance of power the moment it was introduced to the world. It indicates how America had to choose a tumultuous position when it severed ties with Taipei in the 1970s to pass the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, making the American position in the Western Pacific Ocean quite controversial. How could America stick to the One China Policy and still empower Taiwan to defend itself? How long would this gambit play out and what would be the fallout if it fractured? The answers to these questions are now manifesting themselves since Nancy Pelosi decided to follow in Newt Gingrich’s footsteps and visited Taiwan, much to Beijing’s anger. Though this is not the first time America and China are flexing their muscles in the region, implications of current showdown can be quite different. The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis had a similar escalatory trajectory but without a global economy in recovery amid multiple other economic and military meltdowns. Chinese military ambitions in the South China Sea have come a long way and Beijing is determined to defend its claims without acquiescing to any provocation. The geostrategic landscape of this region will most definitely have a deep impact on the future of America’s position on its One China acceptance.

Even though Nancy Pelosi went out of her way, defied the American President and landed in Taipei, it did nothing to America’s position on the One China Policy. With aggressive statements and military drills in its milieu, China will now respond in a manner similar to its Third Taiwan Strait Crisis method. Though it can be a serious standoff situation, Biden’s word is what will remain crucial in deciding how America absorbs Pelosi’s visit in light of the Taiwan Relations Act. For Xi Jinping, this is a unique opportunity; Xi can either engage in repeating what China did in 1996 or he can rally support behind its claim. For Biden, the conundrum is exactly the opposite: push China to a stalemate or politically reinforce deliberate ambiguity of policy on Taiwan to his party. American foreign policy seems to be recuperating from its Trump phase where America stepped back farther than it had hoped. Juggling an active Russia and triggering Beijing on a similar warpath is the last thing America would want. American allies, especially nations housed within collective security/extended deterrence assurances, see such visits with grave concern, despite siding with the US in the end. Chinese military drills and America’s counteract Super Garud Shield are not a Cuban Missile Crisis level event so far but what is to stop it from becoming one?

China sees Taiwan as a renegade province and not a disputed territory, which means that Taiwan is an extension of China itself. For Beijing, it becomes a matter of protecting its sovereign claim and will definitely exercise an exclusive stance. Though China may not escalate the conflict further than some browbeating show of force but it will militarize the region more aggressively in the future to prevent similar visits. This means that countries in the Western Pacific Ocean will have a hostile economic and military atmosphere. Their expectations from America in providing a robust deterrent will put additional weight on an already stressed American economy. Biden would be under immense pressure to fill all vacuums created by Donald Trump when he decided to revisit America’s international commitments and dialed down its role in global security. If Pelosi’s actions can be termed an ‘act of defiance’, this further weakens America’s position on the world stage. Deciding to reinforce Taipei would mean opening another front with Beijing and choosing to resile back to ambiguity means abandoning Tsai Ing-wen. Substantiating One China means undermining Taiwan’s perceived independence, and military assistance after this incident will surely be a venture America might not be able to take.

Xi Jinping is no Nikita Khrushchev and the Western Pacific Ocean is not a ‘Jupiter Missile’ situation where a compromise can be arranged. China seeks a very aggressive claim within the South China Sea and any eventuality that allows it to capitalize in reinforcing its claims will be seen as a golden opportunity. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War were different times for American foreign policy and its position on Taiwan benefited greatly from that atmosphere. In more recent times, such gambits cannot be played out so conventionally because China holds a firm grip over its position, unequivocally. Assuming that China will not capitalize on the situation is an assumption nonetheless. American foreign policy is currently being tested on its ability to deliver on promises and commitments legally enshrined in enactments passed in favor of Taiwan, irrespective on its international position on One China. Beijing has learned a lot from the Cold War and has decided not to repeat the mistakes of the USSR, which eventually led to the latter’s decline. The American position on Taiwan is based on its domestic legislation, coupled with an uninterrupted commitment to Taiwanese governments in reinforcing their economic and military position. Despite this assistance, Taiwan can still not match Chinese in a military standoff and will likely look at America to provide a blanket cover.

Biden’s presidency is proving to be an uphill battle against international expectations and growing multipolarity. America does not have the Cold War advantage and its adversaries are not likely to implode like the Soviet Union any time soon. Maintaining ambiguity on Taiwan in the environment of current tensions is going to be a major setback either for Biden’s presidency or for Tsai Ing-wen’s promise of sovereignty. To expect that China will not see this moment as an opportunity in convincing America to revisit its stance on Taipei’s future is where American foreign policy hangs in the delicate balance. China would most certainly see current military activity as a deterrent, but expecting it to back down would have to have tremendous benefits at the end. Whether America is in a position to offer such dividends and end hostilities rests on how American allies in the Western Pacific interpret such rapprochement. Japan and South Korea are already worried about how the region is actively transforming into a flashpoint, expecting America to retaliate with reasonably modest posturing. The future of this visit will most likely sound alarm bells either for Biden back home or for Tsai Ing-wen and the Taiwanese Democratic Progressive Party as they cannot afford to be a new Hong Kong.

Testing Limits, Challenging Boundaries: The Curious Case of US Policy on Taiwan

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