US actions risk upsetting the security status quo on Taiwan

Cary Huang says the United States is playing a dangerous game by prodding China over Taiwan and undermining the carefully maintained Washington-Beijing-Taipei security triangle that has kept the peace for four decades

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 January, 2018, 1:41pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 January, 2018, 7:50pm

The triangular security relationship between Washington, Beijing and Taipei is under strain again, following the passage of two pro-Taipei pieces of legislation in the US House of Representatives.

The Taiwan Travel Act calls for more visits by US officials to Taiwan and by Taiwanese officials to the United States. Such meetings have been avoided since Washington shifted diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. The other legislation directs the US secretary of state to help Taiwan regain observer status at the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organisation.

In December, in a new national security strategy based on Trump’s “America first” policy, the US lumped China together with Russia as rivals seeking to erode US security and prosperity. A month earlier, the US Congress finalised the National Defence Authorisation Act, authorising mutual visits by naval vessels between US and Taiwan.

All these developments not only seem to go against the rapport that US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping have carefully cultivated in the past year, but also risk the foundations underpinning the relatively stable triangle for decades.

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However, Trump himself rattled these foundations before he came to the White House when he, as president-elect, took a call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on December 2, 2016, breaking with decades of US diplomacy. Now, he seems to have doubled down on that decision.

Beijing has repeatedly warned that it would never bargain with Washington over its national sovereignty

These incidents prompted speculation that Trump planned to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip, insisting that any deals in US-China ties could be negotiable, including the four-decade-old “one China” policy, for which he would try to extort more favourable deals with Beijing.

These developments came amid mounting tensions on trade, maritime security and global governance. Further, Washington is now desperate to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis, in which Trump believed Beijing could help but did not, despite China’s publicised support for US efforts.

Beijing has repeatedly warned that it would never bargain with Washington over its national sovereignty or territorial integrity. Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province to be reunited by force if necessary. Any effort to break this diplomatic convention risks upsetting US-China relations, the world’s most important bilateral relationship.

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Taipei might be happy to embrace Washington’s goodwill gesture for improved ties, but should not naively expect a significant shift in US policy towards Taiwan. For decades, the US has adopted strategic ambiguity, with frequent delivery of both warnings and reassurances to both Beijing and Taipei, so as to maintain the status quo.

Taipei should also understand that any small improvement in US-Taiwan relations will have a large, and negative, impact on its relations with Beijing.

Sino-US collision must be avoided at all costs

All players should maintain a cautious approach to avoid undermining the status quo and stability in the Taiwan Strait, which plays a role in not only separating but also linking the self-ruling island with the mainland.

Any effort to shift the status quo is not only risky, but the costs of such a change will be extremely high, as it might provoke conflict or even war between the world’s most powerful militaries. Thus, amid rising independence sentiment on the island and mounting nationalism on the mainland, maintaining a stable triangular interplay among Washington, Beijing and Taipei will be one of most challenging fields in global diplomacy for years to come.

Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post