Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, asserted yesterday in a speech marking the island’s national day that opposition to China’s “one country, two systems” solution — the same solution now proving so incendiary in Hong Kong — is “the overwhelming consensus among Taiwan’s 23 million people… regardless of party affiliation or political position.” This is not what China wants to hear.
As the world nervously watches Hong Kong’s unraveling, a far bigger crisis is brewing in Taiwan, only a few hundred kilometers away. After decades of relative stability, tensions are again building over the island. The path to prevent these tensions from escalating into major military conflict is clear — but the political will to take it is lacking.
Beijing has ramped up pressure on Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province. Its displays of military might around the island are growing more forceful and frequent. So too are its efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically. In mid-September, Beijing lured away two more of Taiwan’s so-called diplomatic allies — Kiribati and the Solomon Islands.
It is easy to lay blame for growing tensions squarely with Beijing. But the reality is more complex. Chinese coercion is a response to Taiwan’s increasing estrangement. In 2017, over 70% of the island’s inhabitants said they believed that Taiwan was an independent country. A similar percentage under the age of 40 said last year they would be willing to fight to defend the island from Chinese annexation.
The U.S., for so long a force for stability, adds an additional layer of unpredictability. Trump has torn up the traditional diplomatic playbook. He has signed off on several big arms sales to Taiwan — including F-16V fighters and Abrams tanks — much to China’s chagrin.
U.S. Navy ships transit the Taiwan Strait monthly. The Defense Department’s recent “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report” controversially refers to Taiwan as a country.
In other words, Beijing, Taipei and Washington are each challenging the cross-strait status quo that until now has largely kept the peace.
A Taiwan conflict would be catastrophic. In the worst-case scenario, where the U.S. and China went to war over Taiwan, China’s losses in trade, consumption and income from investment would fall 25%-35% in a year, according to a 2016 report from U.S. think tank the RAND Corporation.
Neither Taipei nor Beijing nor Washington want conflict. But the risk remains that growing Taiwan tensions could unintentionally spiral out of control, for example if Taiwan misjudged China’s notoriously blurred “red lines” regarding the island’s independent status or military ships or aircraft collided or engaged in combat.
In late March, for instance, two Chinese J-11 fighters violated a tacitly acknowledged “median line” down the center of the Taiwan Strait for the first time in two decades. Tsai has threatened to “forcibly expel” Chinese aircraft should this happen again.
Taiwan could be drawn into what some analysts are branding a new U.S.-China Cold War, just as it was in the 1950s when Washington threatened to use nuclear weapons in its defense.
A Taiwan crisis could escalate rapidly if one side believed — perhaps incorrectly — that the other was targeting the satellites, radars and sonars that the U.S. and China use to track one another’s forces. The incentives to “shoot first and ask questions later” to protect these critical capabilities would be considerable.
What the Taiwan-China situation lacks — and badly needs — are credible measures to reduce the risk of inadvertent escalation.
The leaders of North and South Korea, for example, can now communicate directly through a crisis hotline. Senior defense officials in Beijing and Tokyo can manage and avoid crises through a new maritime and aerial “communication mechanism.”
China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are negotiating a code of conduct for the South China Sea, though many analysts remain sceptical regarding Beijing’s true intentions in this particular case.
Such efforts are nowhere to be found for Taiwan. A hotline agreed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping and then-Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou during their historic November 2015 meeting in Singapore is dead. When Taipei calls, the Chinese side reportedly does not answer.
Beijing needs stronger international encouragement to pick up the phone. But even more robust measures and protocols for managing a major cross-strait crisis are urgently needed.
Taipei maintains that long-standing, but largely unspecified, informal channels of communication will suffice. Yet history shows that messages delivered through intermediaries often get lost or confused in the heat of a crisis.
China and the U.S. must also do better. Late last year, they agreed to develop a vaguely defined “military-to-military crisis deconfliction and communication framework.” Important as military-to-military interactions are in any crisis, they are only part of the picture. More robust crisis management arrangements connecting the civilian and the civil-military levels of the Chinese and American governments are also called for.
This task is too important to be left solely to Beijing, Taipei and Washington. Others with a direct stake — especially trade-dependent nations such as Australia, Japan and Singapore — must collectively advocate for such measures.
This will not be easy. Chinese compliance, in particular, will likely remain a challenge — as the 2015 cross-strait hotline experience highlights.
But should the region ever find itself staring at the embers of a Taiwan conflict, Asia’s leaders will wish that they had tried much harder to prevent it.
Brendan Taylor is professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University and author of “Dangerous Decade: Taiwan’s Security and Crisis Management,” a new International Institute for Strategic Studies Adelphi book.