Beijing’s attempt to isolate Taiwan keeps making progress with two of the island’s remaining allies switching allegiance to China in less than a month. Indeed, the Dominican Republic decided on May 1 to break its diplomatic ties with the Republic of China—Taiwan’s official name—followed by Burkina Faso on May 24, leaving Taiwan with only 18 diplomatic allies. China is now going further, trying to put pressure on Swaziland—Taiwan’s only remaining ally in Africa—in order to “join the family of China-Africa friendship at an early date” and support “the historic cause of China’s full national reunification,” China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared on May 26. Considering Taiwan as a Chinese province, Beijing argues that Taiwan has no right to state-to-state relations.
As a result, tensions keep increasing with Taiwan accusing Beijing of “dollar diplomacy,” promising Chinese investments for infrastructure projects, low-interest loans and financial assistance to poor countries in order to influence the countries’ allegiance, and gain support for China’s reunification. That is why some experts argue that China is trying to apply psychological pressure on Taiwan to deter the island from making a declaration of independence. Indeed, President Tsai Ing-Wen—elected in 2016—is the leader of the Taiwanese pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party and she has refused since her election to recognize the 1992 Consensus, mostly known as the One-China Policy. This principle means that both sides recognize the existence of only one “China,” each side having its own interpretation regarding the definition of this principle. Thus, China is concerned about a potential move in Taiwan towards formal independence, even if President Tsai has been very prudent on the issue, and repeatedly assured the status quo will be maintained.
But here comes the ambiguous game played by the United States. Whereas Washington recognizes the One-China Principle, it has always maintained close unofficial ties with the island and provided weapons under the Taiwan Relations Act, since the official rupture of their diplomatic relations and U.S. recognition of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China in 1979. The United States has then remained committed to preventing China from forcibly reincorporating the island. That is why Taiwan is the most important and sensitive core issue in the China-U.S. relationship.
President Trump already made China angry after his election by accepting President Tsai’s call—the first conversation between a U.S. president and a Taiwanese leader since 1979—and by approving a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan in June 2017. Then, the relations between Beijing and Washington have deteriorated a lot. Indeed, these past few months, Washington has tried to improve diplomatic relations and tighten ties with Taiwan, causing deep concern in Beijing. First, the Taiwan Travel Act—signed by President Trump on March 16—allows “visits between U.S. and Taiwanese officials at all levels,” including Cabinet-level national security officials, general officers and other executive branch officials. In addition, the opening of the new building of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) on June 12—designed to promote American interests and conduct U.S. programs—means a lasting and strong American commitment to the island and the Taiwanese people and constitutes a U.S. de facto embassy in Taiwan.
Consequently, China has questioned the respect of the One-China Policy by the United States and Taiwan’s reassurance of maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing, seeing the Taiwan Travel Act as a potential violation of this principle, already urged Washington in March to “handle Taiwan-related issues properly and cautiously so as to avoid causing any major disruption or damage to the China-U.S. relations”. Then, China decided to go further by conducting military exercises the last months—sending its H-6K bombers, fighter jets and the PLA’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning—to conduct regular “island encirclement” in order to send a clear message of disapproval over growing ties between Taiwan and the United States. In response to this deployment and China’s actions to further isolate Taiwan, U.S. officials declared lately they planned to send a U.S. aircraft carrier group into the Taiwan Strait, which could be perceived by China as highly provocative. Thus, these moves could lead to serious frictions and a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
Therefore, Taiwan is another serious subject between China and the United States that keeps heightening tensions between them, just like trade frictions, the North Korean crisis and the militarization of the South China Sea (see our analysis here).
According to the newest U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS), released in December 2017, China is seen like Russia as a revisionist power that is “using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda.” Thus, the Trump administration could use Taiwan as a strategic leverage to gain concessions in its dealings with China on North Korea or trade, and against China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea in its newest Indo-Pacific strategy. But playing the Taiwanese card could be extremely dangerous because it could much more deteriorate the bilateral relationship and, even worse, could lead to a Sino-American war.