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CvT: Taiwan’s Dilemma – An Island Caught in the Middle

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Since Donald Trump took office, the US-Taiwan relationship has had its status quo challenged on multiple occasions. Early in his Presidency, Trump phoned in the ‘Trump Tsai’ call, marking the first instance since 1979 that a US President had directly spoken to the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Another record-breaking moment followed a visit to the Island earlier this year by a US diplomat, also for the first time since 1979. These are just a couple of highlights in an otherwise unforeseeable series of events that suggest a US-Taiwan relationship in transformation. China has watched on as the two democratic parties began to revisit their relationship, and has begun making preparations for a swift militarized response to curb the budding signs of this newfound friendship.

Trading ambiguity for the military

Taiwan is just one of the self-imposed autonomous zones that Beijing has vowed to bring back into the fold of the motherland. As US-Taiwan relations warm up, China has made it abundantly clear that it does not condone the US’ recognition of an independent Taiwan outside of the unspoken ‘One China’ policy. As a result, the world’s two largest economies have entered into a high-stakes bout of tug of war, with the Island caught in the middle as a beefed up US Naval presence in the 180-kilometer Taiwan strait is met in lockstep by Chinese military fortifications and invasion exercises.

Though much of the Taiwan Strait is identified by maritime law as public waters, China’s historically strict control over the expanse has largely been part of its efforts to keep a watchful eye over Taiwan. The second half of 2020 has seen numerous examples of Chinese militaristic projections in the Strait, including live-fire exercises by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). These exercises have included multi-unit and multi-dimensional actual combat drills, while live-fire drills from July through September have been speculated to include mid-to-long range air defense missiles as a means to consolidate shoreline air defense. In retaliation, the US Navy has taken their stance by sailing through the Strait in both May and June, and most recently in early October. Though these displays of power have been a clear back-and-forth show of commitment to the region, the implications of potential clashes could have very real consequences for Taiwan.

A strong offense is the best defense

Accompanying the escalating demonstrations, Washington has been selling arms to Taiwan. On October 22nd, President Trump approved US$1.8 billion in proposed weapons sales to Taiwan. While the US has historically always sold military equipment to Taiwan – eliciting China’s discontent – the most recent bipartisan sale reflects Washington’s perception as to the severity of the threat that Beijing now poses to Taiwan. Included in the package were weapons systems able to reach coastal regions of China, such as missiles and artillery, that point to a more offensive approach to sovereign defense than in the past. Robert O’Brien, a US national security advisor, posited that even though China may not be using military force against Taiwan now, Taiwan must still “fortify itself” in preparation for potential future military activity. Evidently, Washington is aware that a military attack is not off the table and is rallying around China’s strongman offensive over Taiwan.

A new “X” factor in the Strait: the incoming Biden administration 

While Taiwan has long been a contentious subject interwoven in international politics, the Trump administration seems to have opened the door to toeing Beijing’s “red-line” when it comes to relations with the Island. Though some speculate that Biden will continue in the past Administration’s footsteps and address the growing threat of China in the Taiwan Strait through arms sales, it remains to be seen if the incoming Biden administration will continue to openly transition away from the historical US stance to Taiwanese relations or if it will quietly return ambiguous equilibrium to the Strait.

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