Crisis brewing across Taiwan Strait

The emerging political-military crisis across the Taiwan Strait has the potential to destabilise East Asia, with Taiwan and China at loggerheads over the 'One China Policy' (OCP). On March 26, a Chinese Air Force Sukhoi-30 fighter aircraft, a Shaanxi Y-8 transport aircraft and a Xian H-6 strategic bomber, as part of a long-range flight training mission, flew a sortie over the Bashi Channel, which lies between Taiwan and the Philippines in the western Pacific Ocean. Clearly, Beijing's hostile military stance towards Taipei has the potential to escalate into a war-like situation across the Taiwan Strait, given the tensions that characterise Taiwan-China relations.

The recent visit of US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Wong to Taipei, after the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations recently passed the Taiwan Travel Act this January, to formalise contact between US and Taiwan government officials has prompted Beijing to project an aggressive posture. The Chinese newspaper, Global Times,considered a Communist Party mouthpiece, recently commented, "The mainland must also prepare itself for a direct military clash in the Taiwan Straits. It needs to make clear that escalation of US-Taiwan official exchanges will bring serious consequences to Taiwan."

The US accepted the OCP in October 1971 after Washington recognised the People's Republic of China (PRC) as the sole political entity. As a result, Taiwan, known as the Republic of China, had to vacate its UN seat that the PRC occupied thereafter and continues to do so. In the process, Taiwan became diplomatically and politically isolated in various international fora like the World Trade Organisation (then GATT) and WHO.

China escalated tensions after it started several new air routes along the M503 air corridor this January, which includes a north-bound route up the sensitive Taiwan Strait that divides China from the island. Taipei objected because Beijing initiated these commercial flights unilaterally without mutual bilateral consultations because it would affect operational coordination between their flight operation regions.

Beijing's strained political relations with Taipei have hit the entry of Taiwanese exports into China. In 2015, almost 40% of Taiwan's exports were to China, the stock of Taiwanese investment in the mainland reached approximately $133 billion and visitors from China, while recently declining, still generate 3.5 million customers for Taiwan's domestic businesses and tourism markets annually.

Ever since President Tsai Ing Wen of the pro-independence Democratic People's Party of Taiwan was elected to office in May 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been worried about the territorial integrity of China. President Tsai has refused to acknowledge the 1992 understanding over the 'One China' principle because each has their own interpretation about what that means. The problem of interpretation arises over whether Taiwan or China represents the real 'One China'. Beijing believes the 1992 understanding must be the political foundation for any dialogue with Taiwan. However, President Tsai's silence on it has deepened Beijing's suspicion about her position on independence for the island nation. In Beijing's view, Taiwan remains a renegade province to be united with the mainland at some point.

Addressing the 19thNational Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2017, President Xi warned Taiwan that it would be "punished by history" if it declares independence. The fact that US President Donald Trump accepted a telephone call from President Tsai followed by his public pronouncement to review Washington's OCP has irked Beijing no end. Beijing has embarked on aggressive diplomacy to isolate Taiwan since President Tsai was elected to office.

The sole Chinese Navy aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sailed across the Taiwan Strait earlier this month, for the second time this year, in a show of force to intimidate the small island nation. Earlier, the Liaoningreportedly entered Taiwan's Air Defence Identification Zone to conduct drills on three separate occasions in 2013, 2016 and 2017 but has always sailed on the western side of the median line. The distance across the Taiwan Strait that separates the island nation from the Chinese mainland is only 180 km, which makes it vulnerable to Beijing's land-based offensive capabilities -- especially an amphibious marine commando assault.

Taiwan has psychologically prepared for a Chinese invasion with its armed forces engaged in live-fire exercises to simulate a response to war since this January. Taiwan's Ministry of National Defence did not specify that the annual drill simulated an invasion by China, but said it was intended to "show determination to safeguard peace in the Taiwan Strait and national security".

The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) 1979, signed between the US and Taiwan, makes it obligatory for the US, also with a provision for Japan, to protect the island nation from the Asian dragon. Importantly, the TRA attempts to offset the military asymmetry that Taiwan suffers vis-a-vis China and enables the island nation to derive a sense of national security. Therefore, any military confrontation between Taiwan and China will necessarily involve the US. Importantly, any Chinese military misadventure against Taiwan will also bind the smaller island nations like Japan, besides ASEAN countries, into a tighter embrace to contain Beijing.

(The writer is a Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies at Christ Deemed to be University, Bengaluru)

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