Talking Point

Crossing the line

A new round of tensions bring the Taiwan Strait closer to conflict

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A break with diplomatic tradition: US Undersecretary of State Keith Krach arrived in Taipei last week

Democracy as an ‘idea’ originated in ancient Greece. For the Chinese, ‘unity’ is a core Confucian value that has been upheld for a similar duration of more than 2,200 years. This helps to explain the rather different interpretations of Lee Teng-hui in the Chinese press and parts of the international media. Taiwan’s first democratically elected leader has been lauded as “Mr Democracy” in the West. But in media outlets on the Chinese mainland, “controversial” would be the politest adjective for a politician who served as an officer in the imperial Japanese army during the Second World War.

“Traitor” is a more common refrain, in fact.

The KMT’s Chiang Kai-shek and his son both cracked down mercilessly on pro-independence activists in Taiwan. But after Lee took over from the Chiang family as the KMT’s third leader ­ and president of Taiwan in 1988 he pushed for liberal political reforms and began to promote Taiwanese identity.

His efforts took the Taiwan Strait closer to conflict after a high-profile visit to his alma mater Cornell University in 1995, when he became the first Taiwanese leader to set foot on American soil since Beijing formally re-established relations with the US in 1979.

In retaliation against what it deemed as Washington’s break with the ‘One China’ policy, Beijing initiated months of intimidating military drills and fired missiles into waters close to Taiwan. The US responded by sailing two aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait.

Lee died on July 30 and his memorial service was held last week amid another round of military maneouvring by mainland China against Taiwan. As the fraying of Sino-US relations continues to fan tensions in the region, another crisis is brewing in the Taiwan Strait.

Who ‘crossed the line’ this time?

The Cross-Strait relationship has been tensing up ever since Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party won the presidential election in 2016 (see WiC326).

Her refusal to endorse the so-called ‘1992 consensus’ – a tacit understanding between Beijing and Taipei that there is only ‘One China’ – with the two sides disputing the natural government of that entity – saw relations reach a new nadir following her re-election this year. Tsai’s victory also saw Chinese leader Xi Jinping break ranks with a longstanding commitment to peaceful unification and warn of “the use of force” in his bid to bring Taiwan back together with the mainland (see WiC436).

Tsai began her political career in Lee Teng-hui’s administration. According to the China Times, her father was a long-term friend of Lee, and Lee then became her political mentor and “spiritual father”.

At Lee’s memorial service, Tsai gave this eulogy: “He [Lee] skilfully led the people of Taiwan by promoting pragmatic diplomacy. Taiwan became synonymous with democracy and was catapulted onto the world stage. Because of this, President Lee came to be lauded as Mr Democracy.”

Former Japanese Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro also attended the memorial (Kishi Nobuo, the younger brother of ex-PM Abe Shinzo and a longtime acquaintance of Tsai, pulled out of the Japanese delegation after being appointed as Japan’s new defence minister).

However, the presence of another guest irked Beijing the most: Keith Krach, the under secretary for economic growth, energy and environment at the US State Department. Arriving in Taiwan for a 48-hour visit on September 17, Krach was the most senior State Department official to visit the island in decades. His arrival came shortly after another high-profile visit last month by US Health Secretary Alex Azar (see WiC507).

Taiwanese media was already buzzing with speculation when the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT – the de facto American representative office on the island) said in a statement that the US and Taiwan would be launching an “Economic and Commerce Dialogue” and that the initiative would be led by Krach.

Although Washington later confirmed that Krach was in Taiwan to attend Lee’s memorial service (and his other meetings with Taiwan officials took place behind closed doors) Beijing was still furious, describing the visit as an unacceptable act of “collusion”.

Hours after Krach had set foot on the island, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was sending war planes over the median line of the Taiwan Strait.

China wants to make a point?

In response to questions about the PLA incursion, a foreign ministry spokesman told a press conference in Beijing this week that the so-called “median line” is “non-existent” because Taiwan is an “inalienable part of China’s territory”.

On the other side of the Strait the rebuttal sounded like another blow to years of status quo between the two sides because the median line has served as a carefully observed boundary that has prevented military confrontation for decades.

That said, the frequency of the intrusions across the separator appears to be synchronised with Taipei’s closer interactions with Washington, which Beijing sees as a mounting provocation.

Previously PLA aircraft have circled back quickly to the midline’s mainland Chinese side. But last Saturday when two Ching-kuo fighters (named after the Chiang Kai-shek’s son) were sent to repel them, the Taiwanese pair were confronted by six PLA warplanes at point-blank distances, reported Chung Tien TV, Taiwan’s most watched broadcaster.

The encounter came after Taiwanese anti-aircraft missiles had also locked on to the Chinese planes, Chung Tien TV suggested, noting how the aerial confrontation was part of a 19-aircraft incursion that coincided with Krach’s attendance at Lee’s memorial.

According to Taiwan’s government, as of Thursday Chinese aircraft had crossed into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) at least six times in the previous week. The PLA also initiated combat exercises for troops and landing ships near the Taiwan Strait during Krach’s visit, with the Ministry of National Defence declaring for the first time that the move was prompted by events in Taiwan.

A new promotional video by the PLA’s air force then showed simulated bombings of what appeared to be an American naval base in the Pacific, although viewers soon ridiculed it online, with suspicions that some of the footage was lifted from Hollywood movies The Hurt Locker and The Rock.

Nevertheless Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, proclaimed how the PLA’s action had underlined Beijing’s toughening response to Washington’s increasingly frequent interaction with the DPP government in Taiwan. Such behaviour was cutting the ‘One China’ principle to shreds in a manner akin to “slicing a sausage”, he decried.

“The collusion must stop or else the Chinese military actions will definitely escalate quickly until the final showdown,” Hu added. “If they [Taiwan] dare to fire the first gunshot attacking the PLA warplanes, the PLA could unleash a destructive offensive against Taiwan forces.”

What does Taiwan hope to achieve?

When Azar met Tsai at her presidential office last month, Donald Trump’s health minister accidentally mispronounced the Taiwan leader’s surname as “President Xi” in a televised statement.

Many Taiwanese described it as an inexcusable blunder and called for Tsai to file a formal protest with Washington.

But the Taiwanese government has been on a wider charm offensive with the Trump administration. Krach’s visit was a result of significant concessions such as lifting a ban on US pork imports containing ractopamine, says the China Times (ractopamine, a growth compound, has prompted intense food safety rows in Taiwan). The decision is controversial as Taiwanese media argues that ractopamine is banned in more than 100 countries, although Washington has lobbied for the restrictions to be lifted for nearly a decade.

When confronted by reporters about what Taiwan could expect to receive in return, Tsai’s health minister replied: “What are we trading for? We are trading for an international status for Taiwan.”

Can Taiwan achieve a change of diplomatic status?

Politically, that objective hinges on whether Washington will continue to adhere to the ‘One China’ policy – as stipulated in three communiqués that have served as the cornerstone of Sino-US relations (signed in 1972, 1979 and 1982 respectively).

The American stance appears to be shifting, although US diplomats have argued that the latest moves are adjustments “well within the boundaries” of the American interpretation of the ‘One China’ stance.

“The US takes no position on sovereignty over Taiwan. The fundamental US interest is that the Taiwan question be resolved peacefully, without coercion, and in a manner acceptable to the people on both sides of the Strait as Beijing promised,” David Stilwell, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told a video conference last month.

Stilwell also pointed to a couple of recently declassified documents from the Ronald Reagan era stating that the US willingness to reduce arms sales to Taiwan (as agreed in the 1982 communiqué) was conditional on Beijing’s continued commitment to a peaceful solution to Cross-Strait differences.

On the business side, a bilateral economic dialogue with the US would also be a tremendous diplomatic breakthrough for Taiwan. Although Krach’s visit doesn’t seem to have jumpstarted a more formal dialogue in the way that much of the local media had hoped, economic affairs minister Wang Mei-hua did say the US envoy had met with Taiwanese officials to exchange views on issues including 5G networks and supply chains.

Perhaps tellingly, Morris Chang, the founder of semiconductor giant TSMC, was the only Taiwanese businessman to attend the closed door meetings with Krach. He retired two years ago (see WiC407) but the 89 year-old stood between Tsai and Krach for a group photo taken before dinner at Tsai’s presidential residence. The image, published on Tsai’s Facebook account, quickly become one of the most forwarded items in mainland Chinese social media. Tsai’s three Labrador Retrievers also feature, with the black-haired one difficult to spot at first glance. Chinese netizens were soon poking fun, asking “how many dogs” you could see in the shot.

Are the risks of war increasing?

Back in the mid-1990s the possibility of a military clash was felt across the region. Stock markets crashed around Asia, although the tensions were much worse in Taiwan, where soldiers penned their last letters home.

“Even primary school kids could feel the shadow of war. A classmate of mine asked me seriously, next to a [playground] slide: ‘What will you do if we go to war against the Chinese Communist Party?’” recalled one of the Taiwan-born editors at news portal Initium.

Meetings and exchanges across the Strait had been cancelled in all forms in early 1996 as Lee campaigned in Taiwan’s first presidential election. Following his visit to the US the year before, official meetings with American officials were refused at all levels by Beijing as well. China’s ambassador to the US, Li Daoyu, also returned to Beijing for a “duty visit” that was so lengthy that most commentators interpreted it as a fuller recall.

Conversely, this time round, the American ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, has just announced that he will be leaving Beijing next month. There is no news so far about his replacement – which effectively downgrades diplomatic relations should the position not be formally filled.

During the crisis in 1996 countries made preparations to bring home their nationals when the Chinese fired missiles into waters near Taiwan. The then Japanese Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro suffered sleepless nights about what position Japan should take should war break out, given the treaty of mutual military cooperation between the US and Japan, according to the China Times.

Another fear was that the PLA’s missiles might miss their targets and land on Taiwanese soil rather than in the sea. The concern was legitimate. One of the reasons why Beijing is said to have decided against an invasion was its military’s inferior weapons. According to Phoenix TV, a Hong Kong-based channel, a couple of missiles did miss their targets because of interference from the American-built GPS system (now being challenged by Chinese investment in its own satellite positioning system Beidou, see WiC502). The PLA’s air force also stood less chance against two US carrier combat groups. (Shock revelations that the PLA’s major general Liu Liankun was spying for Taiwan were said to have played a role in deterring an invasion too. Liu was court martialled and executed in 1999.)

In weighing up the potential costs of going to war, Beijing might have been thinking as well of Hong Kong’s handover the following year or China’s potential WTO entry in 2000.

But probably most significant in their decision-making was that Lee had still not stepped across Beijing’s ultimate ‘red line’ and declared Taiwanese independence.

This time around the risks of a military clash seem to lie more in changes in policy emanating from Washington. With the November 3 presidential election approaching, the Trump administration is stepping up its anti-China rhetoric, partly to energise its voter base. Another round of moves that seem to challenge the ‘One China’ protocol could serve as a bigger provocation in enraging Beijing, however.

Sun Yun, a director of the China programme at the Stimson Centre, a Washington think tank, still thinks the chances of a conflict are being overplayed, including the possibility of an accidental clash between the two militaries as they increase their states of readiness in the region. “It’s a political decision to launch a war. Should there be an accident, I don’t think military officials would be escalating the situation but they would be making phone calls [for high-level decisions],” she told the UK newspaper The Times this week.

Another factor against a fuller confrontation is uncertainty in Beijing that its army would win, Sun argues, despite years of investment in the military’s resources and capabilities. From this perspective the Chinese government isn’t going to commit to a military response unless it is absolutely certain it would win, she says, because “the Taiwan issue is about the Party’s legitimacy, and it cannot afford to lose the war”.

But for some geopolitical strategists the months ahead look potentially ominous. In what is being billed as the most existential US presidential election since World War Two, a grim and plausible scenario is that the result is contested and both candidates refuse to concede. Were Joe Biden to emerge as the marginal winner in such a close outcome, Trump’s angry final months in office could be explosive. Such circumstances could see a combustible shift in Taiwan policy ahead of Inauguration Day on January 20. Rocky months may lie ahead…


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