By Adam Aluzri
As the international system of nation-states continues to retreat into isolationism amidst waves of anti-globalization sentiment, it is becoming clear that diplomatic outreach no longer carries the same weight it once did. Nowhere is this more visible than in US-China relations. Not only has China been one of President Trump’s favorite political targets at rallies, his rhetorical belligerence is now being matched economically with 10% tariffs on over $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. These actions have not been without consequence—Chinese president Xi Jinping responded almost immediately with retaliatory tariffs on $60 billion worth of American goods. A trade war of such massive scale has the potential to dramatically stymie global production. In fact, on October 9, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) downgraded its expectations for global GDP growth for the first time in two years, citing the US-China trade war as a major reason. Clearly, US-China relations have global consequences.
Trade is only the tip of the iceberg, though. Something far more dangerous looms on the horizon for US-China relations: Taiwan. While Taiwan is effectively independent, with its own military and democratically elected government, that situation could change as soon as April 6, 2019. That date marks what will likely become the first valid national Taiwanese referendum on independence. Unsurprisingly, mainland China is not particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of Taiwan proclaiming its own independence, as it views the island as one of its own provinces (under the name Chinese Taipei). Beijing has explicitly threatened war multiple times, citing its 2005 Anti-Secession Law as justification. President Xi Jinping has backed up these threats with huge naval military drills over the past year, including several which unsubtly span an area about the size of Taiwan.
While the referendum itself has overwhelming political support, its outcome remains uncertain. Some polls indicate that a clear majority of Taiwanese citizens prefer formal independence, while others suggest that support for independence is sharply declining in the face of Chinese hostility. (Interestingly, those polls which show higher Taiwanese support tend to be carried out by government-supported think tanks.) Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is also facing low approval ratings, which may have an impact on the referendum considering the current administration’s role in supporting and carrying it out. Regardless of the referendum’s outcome, though, it is clear that China is not afraid of showing force in the face of what they perceive as treasonous sentiment. While this may seem like overreaction on China’s part, the referendum process itself may be emboldening potential allies of Taiwan, such as the United States, into conflict against China. Beijing’s fear is clearly not unwarranted.
To put things into perspective, I must note that American involvement in this conflict is not new or unusual. The US was a supporter of the Chiang Kai-Shek regime which occupied Taiwan following Mao Zedong’s seizure of power. It was not until 1979, with the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), that the US officially recognized the People’s Republic of China as a legitimate governing body. This act also officially cut diplomatic relations between Taiwan and the US, although it still provides for continued interaction with some Taiwanese officials (the extent of which to be determined by future administrations). Further, it states that the US is obligated to provide Taiwan with the means necessary to defend itself from invasion, although it stops short of a full military alliance. While past administrations have interpreted and reinterpreted the TRA in their own terms, it remains a significant guiding force for American policy regarding the China-Taiwan conflict. It should come as no surprise, then, that US foreign policymakers would care about the outcome of the independence referendum. Why, then, are the stakes so high this time? As it turns out, the Trump administration may care about this issue quite a bit more than its predecessors.
To say that President Trump cares much about Taiwanese independence would almost certainly be hyperbole. Whenever the White House addresses China, it usually focuses on trade, exchange rates, and North Korea—Taiwan is not high on the priority list. However, the White House has been making some moves with potentially significant consequences. For example, the US continues to sell Taiwan weapons and military technology, including the plans necessary to build and operate submarines and missiles, despite Chinese resistance. One might chalk this up to military-industrial opportunism rather than a sign of political allegiance. However, in March of this year, Trump also signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which is a non-binding resolution “[encouraging] visits between officials of the United States and Taiwan at all levels.” When this resolution was circulating through Congress, President Xi Jinping explicitly suggested that such interaction between American and Taiwanese officials would lead to military conflict with the US. Nevertheless, Trump was undeterred. One must also recall the surprise phone call between then President-Elect Trump and President Tsai in December 2016, then considered a major blunder but now considered a sign of what was to come. Finally, Trump has been ramping up military exercises in the South China Sea. Some of these drills are normally done jointly with other countries, but Trump has explicitly “disinvited” China from them. While one could rightly label Trump a quintessential isolationist, he is taking a dramatically interventionist role in this conflict.
It is clear, then, that China’s jingoistic threats are not coming from nowhere. Of course, a significant portion of President Xi Jinping’s military zeal can be boiled down to posturing. Still, there is reason to suggest that the Taiwanese independence referendum marks a “red line” for them. Unlike normal US-China hostility, the Taiwan issue can no longer be avoided. Beijing views the Taiwan conflict as a domestic issue, not a foreign one, meaning that diplomatic options are out of the picture. While the act of holding a referendum is already grounds for a military response under the Anti-Secession Law, and Beijing has yet to actually commence military operations against Taiwan, its rhetoric and military gesturing is steadily hitting a fever pitch. A vote for independence would be totally unacceptable to them.
If this issue carries so much risk for military involvement, why is the Trump administration so invested in it? It is difficult to disentangle the White House’s rhetoric to find Trump’s true motive, but suffice it to say that there are significant business interests at stake in the US-China relationship, especially involving intellectual property rights. Perhaps more importantly, though, there are several other actors pressuring the president into an increasingly militaristic anti-China and pro-Taiwan position. For starters, the Taiwanese government is trying to increase American military involvement so as to directly implicate the US in case of a Chinese invasion. To reiterate, there currently exists no military alliance between the US and Taiwan, but by currying favor with President Trump, President Tsai hopes to assure Taiwan’s own survival under American protection.
However, I suspect more influential lobbyers are already working within the White House. They are the historically neoconservative anti-China hawks in prominent foreign policymaking positions. This group of intellectuals views China as the foremost threat to American hegemony. They prefer an active American role in advancing democratic values across the globe, through military might if necessary. Most notable among them is John Bolton, the current national security advisor. While former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized cooperation with China, Bolton prefers a far more belligerent approach. For example, in a 2017 Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Revisit the ‘One-China Policy,’” Bolton called for a significant increase in arms deals with Taiwan, alongside the stationing of American armaments and troops on the island. This past April, the South China Morning Post reported two anonymous US officials as saying that Bolton is willing to use military force to coerce China into compliance with US goals. Considering Bolton actively designs and implements US foreign policy as the national security advisor, it is fair to say that he plays a central role in determining the course of US-Taiwan relations, including military affairs. That he is actively reshaping American foreign policy into his own twisted and archaic vision of unilateral Western dominance should be concerning to everyone. After all, it is this vision’s rudimentary design and execution which plunged the US into extensive conflicts abroad and lost it international credibility over the past two decades.
This brings us back to the independence referendum. Beijing has remained patient until now, but US-China relations are at a historical low point and deteriorating quickly. There are no signs indicating either American or Chinese willingness to cooperate on this topic. If the independence referendum truly marks a “red line,” military conflict between China and Taiwan appears all but certain, and the US may well be caught in the crossfire. The Taiwanese government shows no signs of halting the referendum despite Beijing’s threats, suggesting this outcome is inevitable. War between China and Taiwan would be disastrous enough, but a direct military conflict between the US and China would have global consequences. Such conflict would likely force the involvement of third parties, such as Russia and Japan, leading to even further escalation. The costs would be massive on ecological, economic, and human terms. Needless to say, it’s not worth it. The Trump administration would do well to purge itself of its anti-China hawks before they plunge it headlong into chaos. Ultimately, it is likely impossible to totally prevent military conflict even if the US eases up on the bellicose rhetoric. Still, I am not convinced that the current policy of actively spurring hostility is the best solution. We have given up on diplomatic and multilateral approaches far too quickly and at far too great a cost.