China was keen that the US got directly engaged in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which gave it a golden opportunity to seize Taiwan by force.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022 after the conclusion of the Beijing Winter Olympics, it served China’s interests the most. The world got occupied with Russia, with US attention on China drifting to Russia. It was natural for China to believe that US’ hardening of stance against China during the Trump administration and continuing under the Biden administration may not be as damaging as anticipated earlier if the US stayed occupied with Russia. However, the US understands that China is a greater threat than Russia as it plans to replace the US as the sole superpower. It’s this realisation that led to the NATO summit in Madrid naming China as the most potent challenge to the world.
The US has been working on multiple fronts to checkmate China and a number of platforms have been formed for this purpose, including Quad, AUKUS and IPEF besides other initiatives. The US has also been engaged in its relationship with India and is making an exception for India by giving waiver from CAATSA sanction for purchase of S-400 missile defence system from Russia, recognising the threat from China.
While all these developments were taking place, China continued focusing on the integration of Taiwan. It has made it clear to the world that Taiwan’s integration with mainland China is its first priority. It was keen for Taiwanese unification earlier on the principle of “one country, two systems” on the lines of integrating Macau and Hong Kong. Taiwan was hopeful of continuing with its democratic form of governance even if unification was implemented with the consent of both countries. Its hopes were shattered due to the rising trust deficit between itself and China seeing the conduct of China in Hong Kong wherein it has broken all its promises. Taiwan is therefore keen to continue with its present democratic form of independence. China is now threatening to exercise the option of using force should that be only option left for the unification.
While Republic of China (ROC), now known as Taiwan, was instrumental in defeating the Qing dynasty in 1911 to finish the monarchy in power for more than 2000 years and capture a large number of areas under its control, but Taiwan remained under Japan, wherein it was ceded to Japan as early as 1895 as part of Treaty of Shimonoseki and continued to remain under Japan till the latter’s defeat in World War II and control of Taiwan shifted from Japan to ROC on 25 October 1945.
It was during these years that civil war was continuing between ROC and communists which ultimately resulted in PRC coming to power and establishing the present form of government with effect from 1 October 1949. It was in 1949 that ROC moved to Taiwan after the loss of the mainland to PRC and has been continuing as an independent country since then. Though other areas under ROC have already been captured by PRC, Taiwan is now left by itself along with a few islands.
Taiwan as ROC continued representing China in UN and a number of other international organisations. It was only on 25 October 1971 that China was represented in UN through PRC which is also the current arrangement. With the passage of time, the support of the international community shifted towards PRC and there are only a few countries which have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
The US has been supporting Taiwanese independence though it had already accepted the “One China policy”. Of late, Biden made a statement related to the defence of Taiwan even if it needed using force but that was later watered down. Increasing presence of US force is being noticed close to Taiwan, while China is violating the air defence zone of Taiwan multiple times.
As highlighted earlier, China was keen that the US got directly engaged in the Russia-Ukraine conflict which gave it a golden opportunity to integrate Taiwan by force. But before China could exercise this option, the US shifted focus back to Taiwan and the neighbourhood.
While it may appear to be posturing between the US and China, the recent visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has vitiated the atmosphere substantially. It was a visit of such level after 25 years.
China objected to this visit including threatening to down Pelosi’s aircraft. A telephonic talk between Biden and Xi Jinping for more than two hours on 28 July 2022 did not yield any results. Instead, China utilised the opportunity to further threaten the US. This was the fifth telephonic conversation between the two since Biden assumed power but the deadlock continues. Though an in-person meet in times ahead was discussed, but normalization of relations is near impossible as there is major trust deficit between the two. The US administration is conscious of China’s expansionist agenda, besides the Chinese attempt to debt-trap a number of nations and attempt to emerge as the only superpower in the world. The US credibility was at stake and the world was watching if Nancy Pelosi would visit Taiwan or not. The Chinese imbroglio will have clarity based on the way it proceeds for the integration of Taiwan after Pelosi’s visit. The seriousness of the US or it being merely a misread will be evident from its response to Chinese overtures as China has plans to conduct exercises and live fire drills all around Taiwan, breaking the median in Taiwan Strait. Whatever be the case, a conflict flash point is in the immediate waiting across the Taiwanese Strait. Whether it expands towards India on LAC in eastern Ladakh, is another issue to watch. While round one has gone in favour of the US, the outcome of the second round will be unveiled shortly. The stakes for China are too high for it to sit quietly.
Major Gen Ashok Kumar is a retired Army officer.