Cross-strait ties and the US-China-Taiwan relationship had, until recently, been a rare bright spot in the increasingly conflicted security dynamics of the Asia-Pacific region. For the past half-decade or more, cross-strait ties have kept on an even keel, even as tensions spiralled dangerously on the Korean Peninsula and episodically in the East and South China Seas.
Judging by the early inclinations of Donald Trump, that period of calm may be coming to an abrupt end as he publicly questions the need for the US to hew to its “one-China” policy. Trump is surrounded by a set of iconoclastic advisers, some of whom have long sought a loosening of the one-China policy that has been both the foundation of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington and the principal obstacle to expanding democratic values-based strategic ties with the government in Taipei. As much as one might consider Trump’s views as being part of a familiar pattern of semi-ignorant, off-the-cuff remarks, they tap into much deeper intellectual roots within minority sections of Washington’s Republican Asia policy establishment.
If a US-fomented political crisis is to break out in the Taiwan Strait under Trump, its long shadow will not be confined to the strait. Were this crisis to degenerate into a three-cornered outbreak of hostilities, it could extend and envelop the whole East and North East Asian region, too.
In an ironic twist, it was the North Korean attack across the 38th parallel in 1950 that galvanised the Truman administration to reverse its policy of non-interference in the Chinese civil war and dispatch the Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait. That fleet continues to remain the core deterrent to China’s cross-strait military ambitions.
The provocation and outbreak of hostilities in the Taiwan Strait today, equally, will invite a political reaction by China in favour of Pyongyang – compounding an already tense and combustive action-reaction chain of behaviour on the peninsula. China’s more sophisticated military capabilities makes such war contingency planning an extremely hazardous task, both on the peninsula and in the strait.
For Japan, the Korean peninsula and Taiwan have been its twin forward ramparts through much of its history. Instability or hostile foreign intervention on the peninsula or on the island was deemed to impinge on Tokyo’s vital interests. The Seventh Fleet that sailed into the Taiwan Strait in the summer of 1950 and continues to deter the PLA Navy is homeported today in Yokosuka.
During the Korean War, minesweepers manned by ex-Imperial Navy personnel played a covert role in the peninsular waters. That covert role has now been overtly formalised. In the 1997 US-Japan Defence Guidelines, Tokyo committed to de facto extend the reach of the Self-Defence Forces’ (SDF) rear-area logistics activities to enable it to support US forces during a cross-strait contingency. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expanded the range of military activities that can be conducted as logistics support activities in aid of US forces. The SDF is henceforth authorised to provide ammunition and fuel to US combat forces in close proximity to an actual battle zone. If a full-blown cross-strait contingency constitutes a “survival-threatening situation” to Japan, the SDF may even exercise the right to self-defence in combination with US forces.
Japan, willy-nilly, cannot exclude itself from a breakdown in cross-strait political and military comity. Of its own volition, in fact, it has become a full accessory to any military conflict in the Taiwan Strait. ■
Sourabh Gupta is a senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington