The US’ Role in the Most Dangerous Place on Earth: Not Handling the Taiwan Issue Alone

Written by Christine Penninga-Lin.

Image credit: 210315-D-BN624-1052 by U.S. Secretary of Defense/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

For years Taiwan and its people live in a bizarre universe; the situation of the Taiwan strait and the Chinese escalation of military threat on Taiwan have made it a regular on the potential conflict outbreak point chart. But anyone who’s visited Taiwan in the recent two decades would hardly conclude their stay in Taiwan as unsafe or that the country is socially unstable.

Alongside being named the most dangerous place on earth by the Economist in May 2021, the New York-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) also put Taiwan on their tier 1 list on Conflict to Watch 2021 earlier this March. The Economist’s title was nothing short of sensational, and the CFR’s tier 1 list can also be unsettling for some. Still, the latter also put the US and NATO member states on the same tier due to the potential conflict with Iran and Russia, respectively. None of these is new, yet the intensifying frequency of Chinese fighter jets entering Taiwanese ADIZ and naval activities in surrounding water are hard facts that make it difficult to overlook the manifested Chinese military aggression and ambition to annex Taiwan.

The former US Indo-Pacific Commander Philip Davidson testified in front of the Senate’s Armed Service Committee that, ‘I am worried that they (China) are accelerating their ambitions to supplant the US and our leadership role in the rule-based international order […] I think the threat (Chinese invasion of Taiwan) is manifested during this decade, in fact, the next six years.’ Davidson also called for a reassessment of the US’ strategic ambiguity on Taiwan in the same hearing. Voices calling for the US to set strategic clarity on Taiwan never cease to exist in Taiwan and the US. Interestingly, when asked in a late May interview with the American PBS whether he is satisfied with the US commitment to defend Taiwan or prefers a less ambiguous one, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu answered, ‘We need the US support. And the US has shown its support to Taiwan. And I think this is much better than getting into the debate or of strategic ambiguity or strategic clarity.’

Strategic ambiguity or clarity, the US is making the Taiwan Strait issue regional, multilateral and international

Strategically ambiguous or not, perhaps a more interesting question to raise is what’s the US’ role together with its Indo-Pacific allies, in particular Japan, South Korea, Australia and India, on the Taiwan Strait issue. Since its inauguration, the Biden administration has been relentlessly occupied with what most predicted before the election, bringing the US back to the world stage through multilateralism and re-enhancing cooperation with the US’ traditional allies.

In mid-March, the Japan-US Security Consultative Committee (Japan-US 2+2) was held in Tokyo, in which the American and Japanese Foreign and Defense Ministers meet with their counterparts. The Japan-US 2+2 joint statement reaffirming the bilateral security alliance is the cornerstone of peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. It extends to the alliance’s role in regional security. The four ministers expressly underscored the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and reiterated their objections to China’s unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea. Furthermore, the Japanese Prime Minister Suga became the first world leader that President Biden met with on 16 April. The joint statement is titled ‘US-Japan Global Partnership for a New Era.’ It went beyond emphasising bilateral and regional cooperation in the Japan-US 2+2 ministerial meeting a month earlier. Various global issues such as climate change, digital infrastructure, cooperation against unfair trade practice and COVID pandemic response and origin investigation were underlined as the focal points of the future US-Japan global alliance cooperation. Once again, the importance of peace and security across the Taiwan Strait was once again mentioned in the two leaders’ statement.

The American and Japanese efforts in bringing the Taiwan Strait issue on international platforms continue after the two leaders’ joint statement. In May 2021, President Biden met with Korean President Moon in the White House and Prime Minister Suga had a virtual summit with his EU counterpart Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyden. For the first time, ‘preserving the peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait’ was explicitly mentioned in the joint statement of the American and Korean presidents. Putting Taiwan in the joint statement is not without pressure from China on the Korean side. The Moon administration has been critiqued for being too soft on China and being constantly wary about whether China will again retaliate if they deem the Koreans working too closely with the US after the deployment of THAAD in 2017. Almost a week after the Biden-Moon meeting, the EU and Japan held a virtual summit. They released a joint statement afterwards, highlighting their cooperation for a more secure, democratic and stable world. The Japanese and EU leaders emphasised a free and open Indo-Pacific based on the rule of law and democratic values as well as the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. Moreover, they encouraged the peaceful resolution of the cross-Strait issue.

This is the moment we thought was urgent and important for us to the aid of our friends. To make it clear, we intend to do so’

Senator Chris Coons at Taipei 6 June 2021

Immediately before the writing of this piece, Taiwan is hit by its first COVID 19 wave. Despite being a 15-month delay compared to most other countries, Taiwan’s intention to develop its own indigenous vaccination and later international vaccine procurement scheme made the vaccination rate extremely low. Furthermore, the country is in dire need of COVID vaccines.

During the COVEX AMC virtual summit on 2 June, Japanese Prime Minister Suga announced that Japan would donate around 30 million doses of JapanesCOVEX AMCe manufactured vaccines to other countries and regions. Two days later, 1,24 million doses of Japanese made AstraZeneca vaccines arrived in Taipei from Tokyo. In a press conference after the cabinet meeting, Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi said that Japan had provided Taiwan vaccines based on the important partnership and friendship with Taiwan. On 6 June, a US C-17 landed in Taipei with three Senators headed by Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) with the news that the US is giving Taiwan 750,000 doses of COVID vaccination as a part of its global COVID vaccine donation scheme. In his short remark (starting from 40m40s) during their three-hour visit, Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) said ‘[…] And make certain that the people of Taiwan know, there are some countries that question whether the United States will come to the aid of our friends in Taiwan. This is the moment we thought was urgent and important for us, Mr Foreign Minister, to make it clear that we intend to do so.’

It’s hard to imagine that the Biden administration will overturn the decade long American strategic ambiguity on Taiwan completely. Still, from the recent US diplomatic and strategic manoeuvres, we can see that the US does not intend to handle the Taiwan strait issue alone.

Is Taiwan the most dangerous place on earth? Certainly, if one looks at the number of missiles targeting this beacon and frontline of democracy and freedom. But is Taiwan earning this unwanted title by itself, or do we have the proverbial elephant in the room that many dreads to name.

Christine Penninga-Lin is an independent analyst based in the Netherlands. She specialises in US-Taiwan-Japan relations and EU-Taiwan relations. Christine was a foreign affairs researcher at the Taiwan Thinktank in Taipei and works professionally in Chinese, English, Japanese and Dutch.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan’s Security & China-US Rivalry.

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