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The US should stop provoking China on Taiwan

Updated: Sep 14, 2023

Writer: Nina Renata Pop

Editor: Shachi Gokhale

“I will not be the president of China who loses Taiwan. If you force my hand, there will be war”, Xi Jinping allegedly told Biden at the 2022 G20 summit. This warning came after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, which sparked strong military intimidation attempts from China, including missiles fired across the island.

In April 2023, the US once again challenged China by hosting Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-Wen on a visit to meet Pelosi’s successor Kevin McCarthy, to which China responded by conducting military “combat-readiness patrols” around Taiwan. These events are symptomatic of rapidly souring US-China relations, which the US should refrain from using as a scapegoat to poke China on Taiwan. Here’s why.

China’s warnings are serious China’s sensitivity to Taiwan can easily be underestimated by its Western counterparts. In fact, Taiwan is one of the most important matters of national pride based on the “sacred interest” of reunification. What makes it sacred? The period of “foreign oppression” that China suffered after 1839 remained in the collective conscience as a wrong to be righted. While most of it was, including the restitution of Hong Kong, Taiwan remains. Despite their ideological differences, both Beijing and Taipei agree that they belong to the same country, so US official recognition of the Taiwanese state would be seen as Western interventionism by mainland China. Most analysts agree that such perceived interventionism would force any Chinese leader to react.

The claim that China would risk war could be easily challenged based on its pragmatic leadership. With its economy significantly more intertwined with the US than Russia’s, a small island would logically not be worth risking Russia-resembling economic sanctions, let alone war against a fellow nuclear power. The price of such a war would be gargantuan, ranging from a downturn in the global economy to nuclear destruction. While this argument makes sense, the facts show the opposite, so perhaps China’s leadership is less rational than everyone thinks. Or perhaps Xi, despite his iron fist, fears internal backlash over losing Taiwan.

Either way, the fact is that China wilfully risked war over Taiwan multiple times during the Taiwan Strait crises and is now increasingly aggressive, which is arguably reason enough to believe it.

And, until recently, the US did. Its policy of ambiguity entailed an official recognition of the People’s Republic of China as the sole Chinese Government while vowing to protect Taiwan from a military takeover. Recently, however, covert provocations like the visits and overt ones like Rep. Tom Tiffany’s proposal to officially recognise Taiwanese independence mean that the US is, in the words of Xi Jinping, “playing with fire”.

If the US wants its “world cop” image back, it should stop creating chaos The obvious reason why the US should stop is that it’s risking unnecessary war with dire humanitarian and economic consequences. But it’s also bad advertising. The US has long made a brand out of basing its foreign policy on promoting democracy and the liberal order worldwide, however questionable the purity of these intentions might be. This image of a reliable leader enabled other democratic countries to align behind it and consolidate its unipolar moment, an era of US primacy that the Trump presidency helped to end with its inflammatory discourse and protectionist measures. While the threat of China’s rise was sooner or later unavoidable, the global destruction of trust in the US is fully a product of America’s making.

A telling example is the weaponization of the USD upon the US exit from the Iran Deal. When European countries kept honouring the deal by trading with Iran in USD as the international currency, the US imposed illegal fees on European banks for not respecting a US policy on non-US soil. As a result, America’s own allies created a non-USD-based payment system to trade with Iran that they considered for further use, a clear sign of mistrust.

At the beginning of his term, Biden triumphantly declared that “America is back”. Sadly, his China policy has been different from Trump’s in declaration only, with tariffs still in place and diplomatic ties equally cold. Taiwan is no exception, but it’s infinitely riskier given China’s aggression.

If the Biden administration truly wants to restore America’s image as a trustworthy world leader, it needs to pivot back to the responsible policy it’s preaching. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the only way to do this was through war. Perhaps Ukraine can serve as a warning to China. As for the US, as long as China refrains from attacking Taiwan, risking the peace of a democratic country with de facto independence is neither noble nor in the interest of democracy. It is merely a costly excuse to throw another stone in the US-China Cold War.

The strategic importance of peace in Taiwan The US shouldn’t risk starting a war because of the obvious perils and effects on its international reputation, but Taiwan is also an important US ally in its competition with China, which makes risking its very existence even more baffling.

Taiwan has long competed with and even outperformed China. Its economic advantage, exemplified by its GDP per capita consistently exceeding China’s, is closely linked to its democratic nature. While Chinese companies are increasingly rejected amid fears of weaponizing tech exports, Taiwan is trusted by the Western world to be the largest producer of semiconductors. The conclusion is clear: a democratic Chinese society outperforms an authoritarian one.

Perhaps, one day, a rational CCP leadership might take this as a cue to reverse Xi Jinping’s path to dictatorship. Until then, Taiwan can remain an economically powerful US ally that stands up to Chinese aggression, a scarce commodity on China’s doorstep. That is, of course, if the US doesn’t compromise its ability to do so by pushing China towards military conflict.

For decades, the US got to have its cake and eat it too. It protected Taiwan while appeasing China. With nobody left to advocate for better US-China relations in Washington, Taiwan’s future as an autonomous democracy can be easily caught in the crossfire, and with it international peace. And if America’s morality is a thin veil for its interests, it should at least make the right strategic decisions for its own future at the forefront of the international community.

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