By Girish Linganna
Since the beginning of the Ukraine war, the Republic of China, which has come to be known as Taiwan as well as the People’s Republic of China, commonly known as China, has been vigilant. Beijing is not just on its toes but also upset, not with Taiwan but with the US.
As soon as Vladimir Putin’s invasion and destruction of Ukraine began in February, speculation on China’s possible designs on Taiwan, a tiny island country in East Asia bordering China, also began. Taiwan, in its geopolitical position, is sandwiched between the two most powerful countries in the world—China and the US. Both have historical reasons for their designs on Taiwan, a tech-driven country whose GDP per capita is much higher than that of China.
Taiwan probably would not have hit the headlines in the first week of May but for America. On May 5, the US left Beijing fretting and fuming by making a major change in its fact sheet on Taiwan. The United States State Department removed the reference to the island nation Taiwan as being a part of China. The revised content refers to Taiwan as a “leading democracy and technological powerhouse.” It further said Taiwan is an important US partner in the Indo-Pacific. Both countries share similar values, deep commercial and economic links, and strong people-to-people ties. According to the website, Taiwan is a key US partner in semiconductor and other critical supply chains.
The department also recalled the Six Assurances, referring to the Ronald Reagan period security assurances given to Taiwan, which the US declassified two years ago. As per the assurances made in 1982, the US has not set a deadline for selling arms to Taiwan. It has also not agreed to take prior consultation with Beijing on such a sale. The department has stated that the US has a longstanding one-China policy, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three US-China Joint Communiqués, and the Six Assurances.
It further says that though the US does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, we have a robust unofficial relationship as well as an abiding interest in maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the United States makes available defence articles and services as necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability. It reads: “The United States continues to encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait differences consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan.”
The department, in the previous version published in 2018, had stated that it does not support Taiwan’s independence.
In its immediate reaction, Beijing accused Washington of indulging in political manipulation and an attempt to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, which will backfire and the US itself will get burned.
The fights between China-US and China-Taiwan are not new. But certain recent developments have drawn the attention of the world, mainly because of the Ukraine war. China has not given up its sovereignty over Taiwan. At the end of World War II in 1945, the Japanese who were ruling China surrendered Taiwan to the Republic of China. In the 1949 Chinese civil war, the Republic of China (ROC) lost control of maintaining China to the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and took control of all of mainland China. Only Taiwan remained under the ROC. Both the ROC and the PRC have claimed to represent the entirety of China. In a consensus reached in 1992, both governments agreed that there was only “One China” and each claimed to represent that China. While the PRC’s policy is to reunite Taiwan with mainland China, there is political division in Taiwan regarding whether to be an independent country or reunify.
Taiwan crucial to US
Since the 18th century, the US has had a good rapport with the ROC. Now it is unofficial and informal as per the Taiwan Relations Act. Taiwan is playing a crucial role in America’s economy. It is just a tiny island of 14,000 square miles with a population of 23.5 million. Unlike China, this island country is following the free market and free society concepts. It is aiding the US’s competitiveness in advanced-technology industries. The US never hesitates to acknowledge Taiwan’s crucial role in semiconductor design in the US. Taiwan accounts for 45% of the US exports of semiconductor manufacturing equipment.
The US often makes it clear to China that Taiwan is crucial to it, not just from an economic point of view but even from a geostrategic point of view. If Taiwan is handed over to China, semiconductor companies in the Silicon Valley of America will lose billions of dollars in revenue. According to a study published by the Boston Consulting Group in April 2021, a one-year disruption could mean a loss of $80 billion in revenues and $500 billion for electronic device manufacturers across the globe.
All of the world’s most advanced semiconductor manufacturing capacity—in nodes below 10 nanometers—is currently located in South Korea (8%) and Taiwan (92%), the report says. It also pointed out that in December 2020, Taiwan’s memory fabrication plant faced an hourly power supply shortage. This resulted in the disruption of 10% of the global dynamic random access memory (DRAM) chip supply.
Taiwan is America’s 10th largest goods trading partner and the 13th largest goods export destination. It is the world’s 22nd-largest economy. The island country supplies America with a range of semi-finished products, parts, and capital goods. Besides ICT goods, other sectors of the US like medical devices, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, machinery, etc. are partially taken care of by Taiwan.
Despite all these pluses on its side, Taiwan is not recognised as a country, including by America. There is no American embassy or consulate in Taiwan. The American Institute in Taiwan is a research centre that doubles up as an informal embassy. As many as 17 countries in the world recognise Taiwan’s democratic government, but the United Nations recognises only China and Taiwan.
However, the well-being of Taiwan matters most to America. If Beijing takes over Taiwan, then China would be even more powerful in the Pacific region. Top-end technological industries would be in the hands of China. It can block oil shipments to both Japan and South Korea. China may be able to create a situation where the US would have to remove its military bases in Japan and South Korea. By the way, the US has military bases in no less than 70 countries.
Beijing, if it uses military forces, can escalate the threat to Taiwanese shorelines in a short time. There were talks of military threats to the island nation long before the Ukraine war. Taiwan is hardly 100 miles off the Chinese coast. The topography of Taiwan may slow the advances of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Even Taiwan’s military, though very small in size as compared to the PLA, is well trained. America has well-stocked its defensive weapons in Taiwan. The International Institute of Strategic Studies says Taiwan’s armed forces, with 163,000 active service members, are well trained. But the PLA’s strength is 2,035,000 active personnel. Both sides can engage in cyber warfare on an equal footing, it is said.
No war goes as per experts’ opinion or politicians’ determination. China is now seeing how weak or strong America and international peacekeeping bodies are in the case of Ukraine’s unending war. At the moment, Taiwan may look formidable because of its geographical advantages and military strength. But none can underestimate China’s autocratic behaviour and ambition to teach a lesson to the US as well as meet its goal of One China. In 2021, China tried to build pressure on Taiwan by sending military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defence zone. In a single day, it is said that 56 aircraft incursions were made by China. The US Navy’s guided-missile fleet went around the Taiwan Strait through international waters on May 10.
Moreover, why would China destroy a tech-driven, rich country like Taiwan and occupy it? It may exert pressure in different ways, like further dividing opinion among Taiwanese who want to be a part of China. Also, a lot depends on the political acumen of Taiwan to thwart China’s pressure and the intruding nature of America. So far, Taiwan has shown no scaled up zeal to confront China and be annexed.
(Author is Aerospace & Defence Analyst & Director, ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).