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The Troubled Waters of Taiwan
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Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has indeed sent shockwaves around the globe. The Chinese dragon seems cornered. It is trying to defend itself with all its wrath and fury. Members of the U.S. Congress do travel to Taiwan regularly and China has often whined about American “interference” in the past. Newt Gingrich (the then U.S. House Speaker - second in line to the U.S. presidency) visited Taiwan in 1997. The condition that China set on Gingrich’s visit was to not fly directly to Taiwan. He left for Tokyo after a three-day visit to China before visiting Taiwan. China wasn’t as prosperous or military to worry about at that time. Not even close to it. China loathed the then president of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui who favored Taiwan declaring itself an Independent state. Just before the visit, China had repeatedly conducted missile tests in the waters surrounding Taiwan in a bid to intimidate Gingrich. China backed down after America dispatched two aircraft carrier groups to the region. Before the trip, Gingrich alarmed many, including those in his administration by warning China’s leadership that the U.S. would intervene militarily if Taiwan were to be attacked. Prior to taking off from China, Gingrich spoke about his meetings with the leadership and said, 'I said firmly want you to understand, we will defend Taiwan. Period!”

In the past, Washington has had diplomatic ties and a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan. It revoked these in 1979 and established “formal diplomatic relations” with mainland China. Baffling as it may sound, Washington follows a “One-China policy,” which very much recognizes Beijing, but leaves room for “informal relations and defense ties” with Taipei. At the same time, provides arms to Taiwan and follows a ‘strategic ambiguity’ policy without overtly asserting (or even commenting, in fact) as to how far it would go to defend Taiwan in case of an attack from China.

The recent visit by Pelosi is being seen as a direct provocation because of the drastic changes in both – the internal politics of China and the geopolitical balance of power. The Chinese “constitution” (since 1982) set down a term that a president could not serve (rule with an iron fist) more than two consecutive terms – it was abolished by the incumbent in 2018. President Xi established himself “president for life.” The last one to hold that title was Mao. One of the four oldest civilizations (along with Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt & India) in the world, China witnessed the most disastrous times under Mao. Mao wanted to catapult China into the new world and make it a powerful force to reckon with on the world stage. In his attempt to do so, his authoritarian regime herded millions of people and everything was “collectivized.” The inhabitants lost their lands, their homes, and livelihoods for the “greater good.” Violence, torture, coercion, and a spoonful of food according to “merit” became the way of life under him. It was a colossal ruination, making Mao the biggest mass murderer in history. The meticulous reports compiled by the party itself have come to light recently and the detailed dossier puts the number at “at least 45 million people between 1958 and 1962.”

This show of strength by the U.S. has made Xi nervous, worried and irritated because he justified his one-man dictatorship by promising the nation that he will fulfill the “Chinese dream of national rejuvenation” – which can only be achieved by annexing Taiwan. The reunification has been a long-term goal for China and Taiwan is a necessary element for its ascent to superpower prestige. At the end of the civil war of 1949, the Nationalist foes made a run to Taiwan and, ever since, claiming Taiwan has been a top priority of the Communist party. America (on two occasions in the past in fact) did recognize that both the people of mainland and Taiwan were “One China.” The balance of power has since shifted in Asia and the Pacific, it is inconceivable for America to imagine that Taiwan could one day be controlled by Beijing. The US Department of State on its website declares that “Taiwan is a highly advanced economy producing an estimated $786 billion in goods and services in 2021. The United States and Taiwan have deep and growing commercial, financial, and trade ties, which advance U.S. interests and help create economic opportunities in the United States.”

The U.S. has bared her fangs in an attempt to tell China that Taiwan is no Ukraine and it won’t be a cakewalk swallowing this tiny island. Taiwan is a highly valuable nation in the geopolitical realpolitik and the US has made its stance clear: it’s worth fighting for! A Taiwan controlled by China could serve as an airbase extending the dragon’s range by up to almost 300 kilometers to the east which would mean controlling the busy air as well as the sea routes in the East China Sea. It would also expand the attacking and the hitting range of the Chinese aircraft and missiles making Japan and Guam (a U.S. island territory in the Western Pacific) sitting ducks. Militarily, the allied forces would inevitably be pushed further afield with the US & allied camps under a much more pronounced threat posed by China. Taiwan extends the allied forces a platform of sorts, through which they project power onto mainland China. 

What we need to understand is that Taiwan is not merely an old friend. America has concealed, well-planned, strategic, and profound motives for resorting to this showdown. Taiwan, no doubt, is a connexion between East Pacific nations and the upholder of American power in the region, it is also a crucial economic partner, but what the world media has egregiously overlooked is the meeting between Pelosi and Mark Lui. Lui is the chairman of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC). TSMC is the world’s largest chip manufacturer and the US is enormously reliant on these chips. It has made efforts in the past to persuade TSMC to establish a manufacturing base in the US and to stop making advanced chips for Chinese companies. As of today,  TSMC is the world's most valuable semiconductor company and holds a 53% market share in the world of semiconductor manufacturing. Other Taiwan-based manufacturers account for a further 10% share of this market. The Biden administration’s 100-day supply chain review report admits that “the United States is heavily dependent on a single company – TSMC – for producing its leading-edge chips. It is worrying for the US that only TSMC and Samsung (South Korea) can make the most advanced semiconductors, down to five nanometers in size! (For those like the author himself, who aren’t well versed in the literature of mathematical units: an ant is 5 million nanometers long.) According to the report, this “puts at risk the ability to supply current and future [US] national security and critical infrastructure needs.”

It is no secret that America has no friends or foes, she has her vested interests. Historically speaking, American credibility is dangerously low. Having said this, America went all out in the Korean war. (President Truman wanted to not only contain communism but also avert the domino effect. If Korea fell, Japan would have been next. Japan was and is a very important trade partner for America) China has followed a policy of “Peaceful rise” under which it has sought to assure the world that it will avoid unnecessary international confrontations and that it is committed to, “its own internal issues and improving the welfare of its own people before interfering in world affairs.” China is not quite a superpower yet, but China is getting there slowly, slyly, deceitfully, and guardedly – as taught by their forefather Sun Tzu. As someone who has long studied American foreign affairs and her involvement in different parts of the world in the past, in my humble opinion, America will not shy away from protecting the autonomy of Taiwan at all costs. China warned America in no uncertain terms. President Biden and the Chinese Premiere Xi Jinping held two hours of “candid and in-depth” in late July. Xi told Biden that, “those who play with fire will eventually get burnt. I hope the US side fully understands that.” They heard him, they understood and Pelosi flew to Taiwan 5 days after that. I have no doubt in my mind that the US emboldened Taiwan with some sort of a written or a promised assurance. The highest tower in Taiwan was lit up and read, “Welcome to TW!” An editorial in the Taiwan times welcomed Pelosi as “a comrade-in-arms in the fight against tyranny and the pursuit of liberty.” Utter humiliation! Xi brought this embarrassment on himself. It was an eyeball-to-eyeball standoff and boy did Pelosi blink? The trip made Xi look weak not only to the rest of the world but also to his people who followed the trip closely on social media. Taiwan snubbed his nose in it. An article published The Atlantic noted, “…. if all of Beijing’s bluster and threats couldn’t scare away even an octogenarian from California, what’s to stop a parade of foreign dignitaries from visiting Taiwan in defiance of China?”

The ball is now in China’s court. As events unfold, there is a high probability of the U.S. and its allies getting dragged into a regional conflict. China might have by far the largest army in the world (India is second, the U.S. third), but it cannot, as of today, even think of a direct confrontation with America. China accounts for just under 15% of the global GDP whereas America is well over 25%. The U.S. has a major technological edge in key areas such as command, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and communications. Since the end of the Cold War, America has spent $19 trillion on its military, that’s $16 trillion more than China and almost as much as the rest of the world’s combined military expenditure for the same duration. America’s exhibit of resolve and strength was much needed after the Ukraine crisis. To borrow Mary Anne Radmacher’s words, “Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.” Sometimes it does.

Sartaj Chaudhary is Master of Laws from the prestigious University of Kent. His areas of interest are terrorism, regional conflict and international relations. An expert in International Law, he has written extensively about the changing global order and numerous other contemporary issues.

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