Even as China continues with its aggressive behaviour around its periphery, it has been particularly tough on Taiwan for allowing senior US government officials to visit Taipei in recent weeks. Taiwan was forced to scramble its fighter jets for interception as Chinese aircrafts repeatedly buzzed the island, including crossing the island’s air defence identification zone, the same day US Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Keith Krach began his engagements in Taipei. Krach is the most senior State Department official to visit Taiwan in four decades and Beijing decided to show its displeasure by seriously escalating tensions with Taiwan, even announcing military exercises near the Taiwan Strait. As if targeting Taiwan was not enough, China’s air force also released a video showing nuclear-capable H-6 bombers carrying out a simulated attack on what appears to be Andersen Air Force Base on the US Pacific island of Guam
Global Times, China’s unofficial mouth piece, went ballistic in its trademark style by arguing that “Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen, who pledged deeper ties with the US at a dinner for a visiting senior State Department official, is clearly playing with fire. If any act of her provocation violates the Anti-Secession Law of China, a war will be set off and Tsai will be wiped out.” Chinese foreign ministry has argued there was no so-called median line in the Taiwan Strait “as Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese territory.”
However, it did not seem to have much of an effect on Taiwan’s behaviour with President Tsai Ing-wen pledging deeper ties with the US with the “hope that Taiwan and the United States continue to work together to promote peace, stability, prosperity and development in the Indo-Pacific, positively impacting the region.” Taipei also warned Beijing that its armed forces have the right to self-defence and counter attack amid “harassment and threats” and that it followed the guideline of “no escalation of conflict and no triggering incidents.”
China has never been shy of claiming democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory, to be taken by force if needed but in recent years its hold has become ever more tenuous. The plight of Hong Kongers seems to have reinforced in Taiwan the need to remain autonomous of the shenanigans of the Chinese Communist Party. And the Trump Administration has scaled up its support for Taiwan in various ways. Before the visit of Krach, US Health Secretary Alex Azar too had visited Taiwan amidst reports of major new arms sales to Taiwan, one of the largest in recent years, which include including long-range missiles that would allow Taiwanese jets to hit distant Chinese targets in the event of a conflict. It was just last year that Washington has announced the sale of 66 F-16 fighter jets worth US $8 billion to Taiwan. Taiwanese armed forces are keen to acquire weapon systems that would allow them asymmetric advantages vis-à-vis Beijing by enhancing deterrence.
The Trump Administration’s strong position on the issue of Taiwan dovetails well with its broader policy on China which has become increasingly hardline as the two nations have been sparring over a range of issues. Trump is also campaigning in the US elections as a President who has been tough on China and has managed to balance out a highly unequal relationship with Beijing by tightening the crews on trade, technology and geopolitical issues. But the issue of Taiwan has bipartisan support in the US Congress as well and it is unlikely that a potential Joe Biden administration will scale back American commitments to Taipei.
Taiwan’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially when juxtaposed with China’s initial mismanagement and lack of transparency has resulted in worldwide appreciation. Taiwan’s global cache has risen at precisely the point when China’s global stock is falling rapidly. Long ignored for fear of incurring the wrath of Beijing which resulted in most nations adhering to ‘One China’ policy, there is a recalibration going on about the benefits of such a unilateral posturing. Compared to a bullying and aggressive China, Taiwan today is the very epitome of a responsible global stakeholder.
India too has started relooking at its engagement with China as Beijing-New Delhi ties have nosedived and as new avenues of cooperation with Taiwan are opening up. Taiwanese President Tsai has been very keen to cultivate new partners and her New Southbound Policy (NSP), has sought to enhance links with countries across South and Southeast Asia. India is a natural partner in more ways than one. New Delhi which has often purported to speak on behalf of the weakest members of the international community, should now make Taiwan a priority. And not just because of China but also because Taiwan is a nation worth investing in – politically, economically and culturally.
This essay originally appeared in The Telegraph