While the eyes of the world are focused on security developments on the Korean Peninsula, two recent events should resharpen attention on the Taiwan Straits.
The Chinese launched a new aircraft carrier, and President Donald Trump indicated that he would check with Chinese President Xi Jinping before he would take another phone call from the president of Taiwan.
The new ship, whose name is as yet unknown, marks China’s first domestically produced aircraft carrier. It joins the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier. Remarkably, the Liaoning itself only joined China’s fleet in 2014; before that, China had no experience even operating an aircraft carrier.
In short, China has joined the ranks of carrier navies in less than five years. This reflects the broader overall growth of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, as China has added a range of new surface combatants (including air defense destroyers), many new submarines, and an array of logistics and support ships that will allow the PLA Navy to operate for sustained periods far from its shores.
Most recently, the PLA announced a fivefold expansion of the PLA Navy’s Naval Infantry force—its counterpart to the U.S. Marines.
This expanding set of naval capabilities, including an improved ability to conduct forced entry operations and expeditionary warfare, directly affects Taiwan. Beijing’s hostility towards the island has increased substantially with the election of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016.
Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party was founded on the concept of promoting Taiwanese independence. Tsai has been very careful not to push that aspect in her policies, but this has done little to mollify Beijing.
Instead, Beijing has repeatedly insisted that, to maintain cordial relations between Beijing and Taipei, Tsai must explicitly endorse the so-called “1992 Consensus.” Intended to allow the two sides to engage in dialogue while bypassing the political status of Taiwan, the very meaning of this phrase is now debated.
The People’s Republic of China claims this “consensus” essentially accepts the idea that there is only a single China, and the entities on both sides of the Taiwan Straits are part of that China.
Tsai’s reluctance to submit to Beijing’s demand to use the phrase should not be surprising since it fundamentally contradicts a foundational aspect of the Democratic Progressive Party. Also, the party won massive victories in the 2016 election cycle, not only taking the presidency of Taiwan, but also control of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s Congress, or parliament. Tsai almost certainly could not politically survive the abandonment of a cornerstone Democratic Progressive Party position by acceding to Beijing’s demands.
Unfortunately, Taiwan’s overall political situation appears to have been weakened by Trump’s comments. In an interview with Reuters, when asked if he would speak with Tsai again, Trump responded by saying: “I think [Xi Jinping’s] doing an amazing job as a leader and I wouldn’t want to do anything that comes in the way of that. So I would certainly want to speak to him first.”
The statement has roiled U.S.-Taiwan relations, as it appears to suggest that the administration is willing to grant China an implicit veto on whether to have contact with Taipei. That no sitting American president has spoken directly with the government in Taipei since 1979 is irrelevant; the optics on the statement suggest that the U.S. is granting China the ability to determine American actions.
In reality, the United States can, and should, conduct an independent foreign policy with regards to Taiwan. This is the spirit of the Taiwan Relations Act, which is a key document governing U.S.-Taiwan relations. In fact, when it comes to arms sales, it is specifically stated that:
The president and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles and services based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan, in accordance with procedures established by law.
This has long been taken to mean that the United States will not consult with China before determining what items to sell Taiwan. It should not be consulting with Beijing on other aspects of U.S.-Taiwan relations either. Undermining and diluting the understandings that link the U.S. and Taipei will prove as counterproductive for long-term regional stability as undermining the security and economic ties between the U.S. and key allies such as South Korea and Japan.