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October Surprise of 2020 Elections Could Be Crisis in Taiwan Strait

This post is part of a series on themes Nuclear Weapons in the Taiwan Strait

Earlier this month, China sent 18 military aircraft into the sky near Taiwan. This exceptional maneuver came shortly after naval exercises near the island and Chinese military exercises in East Asia.

The Chinese Ministry of National Defense issued a stern warning to the United States and Taiwan.

“The recent collusion between the United States and the Democratic People’s Party, whether using Taiwan to control China or using Westerners for self-respect, is doomed to a dead end. Playing with fire causes someone to get burned. “

US provocations

The warning is addressed to President Trump, who has decided to elevate the status of US relations with Taiwan. He sent a number of US officials to meet with their counterparts from the ruling Democratic People’s Party, which saw the Republic of China (the official name for Taiwan) as a “functionally independent country”.

Last week, US Secretary of State Keith Kratch met with Taiwan President Tsai Ying-wen as these 18 Chinese military aircraft were flying towards the island. This is the second time in a month that China responded to an official US meeting with Tsai by sending military aircraft to the island.

The US visits are a face-to-face violation of the conditions under which diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington were established in 1979. The USA agreed to sever all official relations with the Republic of China. Past US presidents have relaxed but did not break this agreement. President Trump, with the unanimous support of the US Congress, has decided to ignore this openly.

China on the way to the campaign

It is nothing new to take a hard look at the US relationship with China during the presidential election. China has become a US campaign issue since the Chinese communist party took control of the country in 1949. The communist victory in the Chinese civil war was a key factor in the 1952 competition between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. Republicans accused the Democrats of “losing China” and of being weak in national defense.

During the 1996 elections, Republicans claimed that “American foreign economic policy was put up for sale” by Democrats who wanted to favor China. A Republican Congress spent the next four years researching Chinese influence on the Clinton White House. Among other charges, they alleged that Democrats provided classified information about US spy satellites in exchange for campaign contributions.

This election season, Trump accused Joe Biden of complicity in Clinton-era economic policies that helped China’s rapid economic and technological development. Biden responded by criticizing Trump for weakening the alliances the Obama administration mobilized to control China. Both candidates seem to acknowledge that US-China relations are entering a more conflictual era.

Past as a preface

It is unlikely that China will accept what the US sees as an attempt to unilaterally change the terms of the 1979 US-China agreement. If President Trump continues to send US officials to the island, China’s military response is likely to increase. Chinese Ambassador Sha Zukang once warned an American audience that it would be a grave mistake to underestimate what Chinese leaders could do under these circumstances – in the most uncomfortable and frightening moment I have had in my 18-year meeting with Chinese officials.

China previously used massive military provocations to protect its claim over Taiwan. In 1954, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden suggested that the United Nations decide the matter. China responded by bombing the Taiwan-held islands of Quemoy and Matsu. Chairman Mao wanted to send a signal that Taiwan’s status was not negotiable. President Eisenhower mistakenly believed that the Chinese communists were preparing to take over the islands. This misunderstanding has created a crisis that brought the two countries to the brink of nuclear war.

In 1995, President Clinton granted a visa to Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui. China responded with an unprecedented mobilization of codenamed strategic rocket forces. Arrows-95, this resulted in multiple missiles being launched towards the island. The US responded with the largest demonstration of US military power in Asia since Vietnam.

Next steps

It is unlikely that China will start a war due to the visits of relatively low-level US government officials, but history shows that Trump’s disregard for the agreement on which US diplomatic relations with China are based will not go unanswered. As hard conversations about China heat up in the final weeks of the US presidential campaign, there is a risk that the Chinese leadership will come to the conclusion that, as it did in 1955 and 1995, China must take more dramatic steps to ensure its replacement for the United States. Concerns about Taiwan are more serious.

China’s current ambassador to the United States said he “did not wait for November” to consider his government’s options. The Chinese Ministry of National Defense said the People’s Liberation Army is ready to “pay any price” to stop what it perceives as the US efforts to separate Taiwan from China. Presidential candidates and US voters should pay more attention.

Unfortunately, despite all the talk about China during the election campaign, the most important issue in US-China relations is not discussed. Journalists following the campaign, including moderators of presidential debates, would serve voters well if they questioned the candidates about the dangerous situation in the Taiwan Strait. When a crisis comes, it is always better to be prepared than to surprise.

The featured image on this blog is from the Hu Guo temple on Quemoy (Jinmen) Island. Source: G. Kulacki / UCS

Posted in: Foreign Policy, Nuclear Weapons Tags: Nuclear Weapons in Taiwan Strait

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