EVER SINCE THE Russian invasion of Ukraine, backed again by President Xi Jinping in a birthday conversation with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, Taiwan has gained new prominence in the US-China relationship.
Recent US gestures of support for Taipei, including arms sales, visits from lawmakers and President Joe Biden’s affirmations of US intent to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion, intend to warn off Beijing against attempting to take advantage of the current focus on Ukraine. Unlike other Beijing red lines, such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong, the United States has leverage regarding Taiwan.
Yesterday, US and Taiwanese officials opened their annual working-level security talks ahead of high-level meetings starting next Monday that will reportedly focus on weapons and military strategy for defending Taiwan against China. Chinese and US officials have recently exchanged bellicose language over Taiwan during meetings in Luxembourg and Singapore.
The Biden administration has said it wants Taiwan to adopt an asymmetric strategy against China, something Taipei has already done, recognising that it cannot keep up with the modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army. Thus it has been developing unconventional capacities to thwart any future Chinese aggression, such as anti-access capabilities, mobile defence systems, a submarine fleet to break any blockades and cyber warfare.
The PLA, too, has long planned for asymmetric warfare, intending to deploy drones, anti-ship missiles, mines and cyberattacks to keep US forces at bay in the event of military conflict over the island.
Taiwanese press reports say the Biden administration intends to maintain and upgrade Taiwan’s existing weapons systems. This would include missile defences to counter incoming missiles and air attacks. Selling Taipei advanced new weapons systems raises the risk of pushing Beijing closer to military action against the island.
Neither the US nor China wants that. However, the US and its allies have been sailing warships near Taiwan, including through the Taiwan Strait, while PLA Air Force warplanes are skirting the island’s airspace almost daily.
Beijing’s ambiguity about its red lines creates scope for misjudgement — as the agreement struck in Singapore last week between Defense Minister Wei Fenghe and his US counterpart Lloyd Austin to keep open lines of communication to head off crises indicates.
Update: Two leading US senators on the Foreign Relations Committee are seeking an overhaul of US Taiwan policy. Their proposed Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 would provide $4.5 billion in defence assistance to Taiwan over the next four years. The legislation would designate Taiwan as a major non-NATO ally of the United States and set up a broad sanctions regime to penalize China for any hostile action against Taiwan, including actions in the Taiwan Strait. Most provocatively in Beijing’s eyes, the bill would rename the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington as the Taiwan Representative Office.