Tipping Point for China and Taiwan

Commentary | January 17, 2014

Writing for New Europe, EWI Professorial Fellow Greg Austin discusses possible scenarios for new East Asian alliances in 2014.  

Read the original article in New Europe, or see below. 

Much of 20th Century history unfolded in the shadow of events in Europe in August 1914, when major powers in Europe launched one of the most savage wars the world had seen. August 2014 is looking very different. The most powerful countries are as intent on avoiding war today as their European forebears were intent on making it 100 years ago. Yet the consequences of confrontations and alliances in this coming year may well determine much of what follows for decades to come. 

The wild card for 2014 in global alliance architecture is the geography between China and Japan. It includes the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea and Taiwan. All three have changed their geopolitical character in significant and destabilizing ways in the past decade. Yet unlike 1914, geopolitics today is seated in an interlocking web of globalized investment, trade and networked communications. This globalization of interest seems to offer a massive counterweight to any shocks that geopolitical confrontation might deliver.

The major potential catalyst for a shock that I see concerns Taiwan. While we have seen a strong positive trend in the relationship between it and China, it is this new closeness that is itself creating the danger. 

The United States has undertaken a strategic rebalancing to Asia to hedge against military destabilization there. That move, understandable in its own limited terms, has taken on more negative overtones for China as a result of the subsequent return to power in Japan of Shinzo Abe. He leads an unapologetically robust Japanese government, which is intent on normalizing its international security status, recalibrating its armed forces against China’s military modernization, and consigning apology diplomacy to the dustbin of history. There is now a naval arms race in East Asia.

Taiwan has done nothing to inflame the situation and has been promoting cooperative diplomacy between Japan and China. The conduct of Taiwan/China relations by both sides has been a model of cooperation. What is the crisis potential around Taiwan?

For decades, China has threatened the use of military force against Taiwan and any intervening U.S. forces to prevent the permanent separation of the island from its mother state. What we now see emerging is the opportunity for China to promote the permanent separation of Taiwan from military alliance with the United States. 

China and Taiwan now have common cause against Japan’s uncompromising stand on territorial sovereignty over the disputed islands. Both claim the islands based on their common history as part of a unified China. The issue has become more emotional than ever. The United States position on the dispute has inflamed sentiment in China regardless of the logic of it.

A century ago, the change in allegiance of a strategically placed “client state” at a time of anxiety about changing balance of power was a classic recipe for military crisis. Luckily, the world has changed, Taiwan is not a client state of the United States, and aggressive war of the sort that such changes of allegiance once provoked has been outlawed for at least seventy years, since the signing of the United Nations Charter. 

But there should be no mistaking the strategic trends. Taiwan’s geopolitical position is changing fundamentally and events in the past year and in prospect for 2014 suggest a quickening of the pace. The only question we have to answer is what form will any shift in alliances take, and what sort of crisis might it provoke? 

Perhaps we can take a hint from the early days of the George W. Bush Administration when anti-China neo-conservatives tried to force more arms purchases on Taiwan that its parliament and government wanted. Those days are long gone, but they revealed the American geopolitical mentality at its worst and the Taiwan geo-economic mentality at its best. This is not as inevitable a partnership as many in Washington believe. 

What is Taiwan’s situation? A 2013 paper from Brookings by Joshua Melzer shows China (including Hong Kong) now taking 40 per cent of Taiwan’s trade, with the United States dropping to a 10 per cent share. The reversal over two decades of the relative positions of China and the United States in Taiwan’s trade pattern is historic, even if as Melzer points out, the United States is a primary destination of production from Taiwan-invested factories in China.  

Deeper analysis is needed. What is the significance of the statement on 10 October 2013 by President Ma Ying-jeou that the people of Taiwan are part of the Chinese nationality and that cross-strait relations are not “international” relations? What is the significance of the 30-year low in arms purchases from the United States by Taiwan?  

What are the trends in people to people contacts? Is China’s policy of binding Taiwan to it with economic ropes (in place for twenty years) finally working? Does 17 years of the “one country two systems” model in place in Hong Kong have any impact in Taiwan?

Above all, what would the impact be of a scene in 2014 of Chinese PLA navy vessels defending Taiwanese national dignity and possibly its citizens against Japanese actions in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands–when the United States has been so visibly backing Japan, with the former having invoked the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty? 

I will not predict an outcome for East Asian alliances in 2014, but are we approaching an historic tipping point equivalent in geopolitical significance to the events of August 1914? I believe we probably are. Much more skilful and creative diplomacy may be needed in East Asia than we have seen so far.

Read the article in China US Focus