by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook
FOLLOWING US SPEAKER of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, tensions in the region seem set to escalate. Although in a recent Pentagon briefing, US government spokespersons claimed that they had anticipated China’s moves, China’s actions still came as a surprise.
For example, most English-language discourse expected that China would not attempt any moves as provocative as firing a missile over Taiwan. Nevertheless, some Taiwanese experts took the view that this would take place, such as Lu Li-shi, and were proven correct.
Although missiles were fired over Taipei, Lu predicted that China could also lob missiles over Taichung and Kaohsiung. Though the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was aiming to show that it could hit targets in Taipei by firing missiles over Taiwan, firing missiles over Taichung and Kaohsiung could be how the PLA escalates next.
Likewise, the PLA’s actions lashed out at not only Taiwan, but also sought to intimidate Japan and South Korea militarily. PLA missiles landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone in a move that the Japanese Ministry of Defense claims was deliberate. To this extent, Chinese vessels were sighted near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands, and China naval activity also took place near South Korea in the Yellow Sea and Bohai Sea.
Beijing was probably lashing out at both because of Japan and South Korea being part of the US security umbrella in the Asia Pacific, though it is significant that it did so in a preemptive manner. While Beijing was probably hoping to warn other regional powers against any possible efforts to assist Taiwan, this may have been premature, and could, in fact, serve to push them together against Chinese threats.
The US is planning navigation through the Taiwan Straits in the near future, while joint drills with the Indian army planned by the disputed border between India and China may be aimed at redirecting heat away from the Asia Pacific. Nevertheless, the precise dangers at present may be that of regional escalation, if the US responds to China in a tit-for-tat fashion with escalatory moves that China then further responds to with more escalation. If this takes place, both the US and China would likely only perceive themselves as responding to the actions of the other in a purely reactive manner, but escalation would occur on both sides.
The challenge for Taiwan, then, is to escape a chain of escalation that would embroil it in conflict. Ironically, however, the best option for Taiwan may be to let China vent and flex its muscles, allowing China to take the view that it has successfully forced away the US and can de-escalate.
There are, of course, dangers, seeing as Beijing may escalate actions even if it perceives itself as having gained ground, viewing this as an opportunity to expand geopolitical influence that may prove useful in the future, as it maintains the aim of eventually annexing Taiwan. Nevertheless, at the same time, Chinese actions are likely to push Taiwan further away from China, seeing as Taiwanese have more often responded to Chinese threats in past years by throwing support behind the DPP than being cowed into supporting the KMT with the view that it is the only party able to maintain stable cross-strait relations.
Although the US will be emboldened to take a firm stance against China, so as to avoid seeming weak, this may not always be in Taiwan’s best interests either. There is a need to take a firm stance against Beijing, in order that it does not try to fill what it sees as a power vacuum to expand its influence over Taiwan. But there is also a need to provide Beijing with off-ramps, to avoid tensions boiling over into the start of hostilities.
This will not always be how the US will act, seeing as there is a clamor from US politicians for actions that will make it appear as though America is tough on China. For America, as with China, nationalist sentiment can guide irrational sentiment.
As such, for Taiwan to find a way out of regional escalation may prove easier said than done. Certainly, simply acquiescing to Beijing’s demands will compromise Taiwan’s sovereignty and embolden Beijing to further action, with Taiwan being far from only the target. Yet the right combination of taking a firm stance to avoid compromising on sovereignty while avoiding China feeling provoked into military action will prove key to avoiding conflict. The US cannot always be counted on to maintain this balance, which complicates Taiwan’s path forward, and so Taiwan’s future will depend on strategically negotiating relations with the US and other regional powers.