Why has a visit to the United States by Taiwan’s president provoked such a hostile reaction in Beijing?
China has threatened to retaliate if Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-Wen, meets the US House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, on a visit to the United States. A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry warned of serious consequences if the visit goes ahead. Last year the then US speaker, Nancy Pelosi, met the Taiwanese president. China responded.
“Chinese forces began by firing missiles into the sea. Ten naval ships and 22 military aircraft reportedly crossed the unofficial maritime boundary into Taiwan’s waters.”CBS News
The current row is just the latest instance of sabre-rattling between China and America over Taiwan. It’s something that some fear could spill over into a major war between the two countries.
Taiwan is a small, democratic island off China’s south coast. Beijing sees the island as part of its territory and believes it should be unified with the mainland, by force if necessary. For many decades the US officially regarded Taiwan as the “real” China. But that changed in 1979 when America recognised the government in Beijing, ending its diplomatic ties with Taipei.
Since then, the US approach to Taiwan has been muddled, to say the least. The US officially backs Beijing’s claim over Taiwan and does not recognise it as an independent state. But the US also supplies Taiwan with weapons to enable it to defend itself in the event of an attack. On the major question of what would the US do in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the policy is one of “strategic ambiguity”. The idea is to leave open the possibility that American forces might engage China in a hot war.
Since Joe Biden took office, he’s said several times that if China were to invade, the US would defend Taiwan militarily.
Anderson Cooper: So are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defence if China attacked?
Joe Biden: Yes, we have a commitment.
Reporter: Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan, if it comes to that?
Reporter: You are?
Biden: That’s the commitment we made.
Interviewer: But would US forces defend the island?
Biden: Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack…
Interviewer: To be clear, sir, US forces – US men and women – would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion?
Despite the apparent clarity of those statements, the US’s policy of strategic ambiguity has still been maintained – each time the president has made clear his commitment to defend Taiwan, the White House has contradicted him, saying the US policy remains unchanged.
China’s position is clearer. Xi Jinping, China’s president, has made no secret of his objective to “reunify” Taiwan with the mainland by 2050. He says he is prepared to take “all necessary measures” to do so – including force. He has called on China’s armed forces to be ready to fight “at any moment” and to “step up preparations for armed combat.”
“We will continue to make upmost efforts for peaceful reunification, but will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve to option to take all measures necessary. Complete reunification must be realised – and it can, without a doubt, be realised.”Xi Jinping
But it’s still unclear, if China were to invade, when such an attack would happen.
And it’s not just the two presidents who are warning of the potential for war. Earlier this month, Qin Gang, China’s foreign minister, suggested that a war could be inevitable…
“If the united states does not hit the brake but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing, and there will surely be conflict and confrontation…”Qin Gang
General Mike Minihan, commander of America’s Air Mobility Command, wrote in a now widely circulated memo at the start of the year, that he thinks that war could be just a couple of years away…
“A four-star air force general is now predicting war with China. He writes in a memo that Beijing will likely invade Taiwan while the US is distracted by the upcoming presidential election…” He says, and I quote: ‘I hope I am wrong… but my gut tells me we will fight in 2025.’”Fox News
It isn’t just a war of words – China is rapidly modernising its military capabilities, developing missiles that can take out US aircraft carriers from a distance. America has agreed to supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. And Japan is increasing its military budget and has agreed to “closely cooperate” with the US in the event of an invasion of Taiwan.
Experts warn that a war between the US and China would be unlike anything the world has seen – and would make Russia’s invasion of Ukraine look like a warm-up act. It’s a situation that, ideally, both sides want to avoid. But what if they can’t?
If a war between the US and China actually happened, it’s worth looking at how it might play out. Some experts have done exactly that.
“I’m Mark Cancian, I’m a retired marine colonel and a senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.”Mark Cancian
At the start of this year, a Washington-based think tank, the Centre for Strategic Studies published a report that detailed what they thought would happen if China invaded Taiwan and the US defended the island. In most cases, the US and Taiwan won – but at huge cost.
“The United States with Taiwan and Japan, can maintain an autonomous Taiwan, but that comes at a very high price – the US and its coalition lose hundreds of aircraft and dozens of ships and thousands of personnel in a very short period of time. The Chinese also lose very heavily, enough so that it might destabilise the Chinese Communist regime… so our conclusion is that this conflict needs to be deterred and if this actually comes to conflict, it needs to be concluded as quickly as possible.”Mark Cancian
Taiwan is not an easy place to invade, and, compared with America, the Chinese army is relatively untested. But despite the heated rhetoric from both America and China in recent years, Mark Cancian isn’t convinced war is on the horizon.
“We don’t argue that war is inevitable, in fact we argue that war is unlikely. And we don’t argue that invasion is the most likely course of events for China… but we do argue that invasion is plausible, given the build-up of the Chinese military…”Mark Cancian
It’s worth noting that in the run-up to Russia’s attack on Ukraine last year, many experts were reluctant to predict a full-scale invasion. If Vladimir Putin does prevail, it could increase the chances of Xi Jinping trying something similar.
But there is no “Ukraine model” for Taiwan – its position as an island means that once an invasion starts, it would be almost impossible for America to ship weapons there. Joe Biden – or his successor – will need to decide pretty quickly whether they would send in US forces, or let Taiwan fend for itself.
The episode of the Sensemaker was written by James Wilson and mixed by Ella Hill, with additional reporting by Will Brown.