US, China and the Taiwan theatre: Will there be a winner?

  • Amin Bagheri
  • 25 Aug 2022

Washington’s ambiguous policy on Taiwan has often caused heartburn for Beijing. But in the great game in the Asia Pacific region, none would dare to go for a direct confrontation.

( AP )

China’s angry response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan was on expected lines. And Washington’s repeated attempts to pacify Beijing, saying that there has been no change in the US’s stated "one-China policy", also followed the usual diplomatic sweet talk that follows every instance of friction between the two political and economic powerhouses.

In 1949, when the communists led by Mao Zedong assumed power in mainland China—the People’s Republic of China—the nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan and formed a government-in-exile, the Republic of China, in the breakaway region. 

China did not take it lightly. For years now, China has scoffed at any attempt by any country to officially engage with Taiwan, which Beijing claims is part of the communist nation. 

These developments coincided with the beginning of the Cold War between the former Soviet Union and the US. Ever since, the US has used Taiwan to exert pressure on the eastern or the communist world. 

Washington has also used Taiwan to leverage its China policy. 

US position and policy

Although the US officially maintains a one-China policy, Washington’s actions over the years have been contradictory and, at times, even provocative from China’s point of view. 

This means that when the Republican Party is in power, it often rattles the sabre of Taiwan’s independence to exert pressure on China. 

This position is often adjusted during the rule of the Democrats. Regarding the US's dual policy towards Taiwan, it is worth noting that even the Democratic Party does not approve China’s attempts to annex Taiwan, like Hong Kong. 

In 1979, the US House of Representatives passed a law obliging the US government to defend Taiwan against China and provide defence and military facilities to Taiwan. 

Analysts believe that the US policy towards China and Taiwan is a kind of strategic and somewhat meaningful ambiguity.

Strategic ambiguity

The US's ambiguous strategy can be seen as a sword constantly raised over China's head. Whenever China's policies are not in line with the US, it uses Taiwan as a pressure lever. Pelosi's recent trip to Taiwan is a clear example. 

But Beijing, as usual, has refused to cow down to Washington’s arm-twisting methods. And it said so in a spectacular show of its naval might during a military exercise coinciding with Pelosi’s Taiwan trip.

A group of US defence experts and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who simulated a hypothetical Chinese attack, believe that though Taiwan will be able to repel the assault, Beijing’s military will sink a huge part of the American and Japanese naval fleets.

US' goals from Pelosi's visit

But there could be more to Pelosi’s recent visit than just the usual American great game of one-upmanship.

With the Democrats predicted to lose control of the Senate in the US congressional elections in the coming fall, the Biden government is trying to showcase its foreign policy ‘achievements’ to its domestic audience. 

After all, China is seen as the US’s biggest enemy by the American public and the US government just wanted to create social capital for itself in light of what Washington considers to be China’s humiliation. 

The Russian assault on Ukraine, it seems, has also played a part in the US’s actions. While the Western nations, led by the US, have come down heavily on Moscow with wide-ranging economic sanctions, China has preferred to remain ‘neutral’. So much so that Beijing has not directly condemned the Russian invasion.

Pelosi’s trip was meant to remind Beijing that the US has not abandoned Taiwan and the Asia-Pacific region and that Washington is closely watching China’s actions.

The US, in the framework of its policy towards China, especially since the Trump era, had put most of its efforts into the trade war and curbing China in the economic field. Although this approach caused problems for China, it did not have much effect on slowing down the Asian economic giant.

Therefore, since the Biden era, the transfer of confrontation from the geo-economic field to the geo-political field has been on the agenda. And that’s the reason for the creation of geo-political challenges for China, esspecially in Taiwan. 

China's reaction 

Although China has come out of the cocoon of conservatism during the Xi Jinping era and is using its power as a tool, it has still maintained a cautious approach to entering into conflicts. 

Chinese decision-makers still listen to the teachings of Sun Tzu, the historical Chinese strategist, who said that even the winner of a war is a loser simply because war destroys wealth and resources and means the failure of dialogue.

Overall, the prestige war between the US and China in Taiwan has not had a winner so far. Although some believe that the US was able to humiliate China by realising Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, this is not the end of the story, and it is expected that the issue of Taiwan will be the main subject of confrontation between the US and China for many years. 

Testing China's tolerance point on the Taiwan issue is a dangerous game that may one day involve the US in unforeseen and costly consequences. 

On the flip side, any attempt to occupy Taiwan by China will likely be met with military, political and economic actions of the West, which will affect the Chinese economy.

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