The Biden administration has a lot of priorities - some self-generated; some generated by Nancy Pelosi's House; some imposed from outside: completion of Donald Trump's withdrawal from Afghanistan; trillions of dollars of spending for "Coronavirus relief" and "Infrastructure"; the accompanying deficit and tax increase; the chaotic border with Mexico; expansion of the California voting system; climate change; the Iran nuclear deal; Russian hacking and threats to the Ukraine; Chinese global ambitions; packing the Supreme Court; statehood for the District of Columbia. The Coronavirus - which was largely responsible for his predecessor's defeat - is a place apart in terms of human suffering, economic impact, and politics. The status of Taiwan may well emerge as the second "Top Priority".
- Taiwan's original inhabitants have been overwhelmed by successive waves of Han Chinese immigrants beginning in about 1600, with major expansions in the mid 1700s and through the 20th Century, with over 2 million refugees accompanying the arrival of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang in 1949. Today, Taiwan's population of 24 million is about 95% ethnically Han Chinese. That said, there is a distinctive Taiwanese identity which was reinforced in the years following 1949, during which the ruling KMT saw Taiwan as a lesser province of China and a temporary refuge.
- Taiwan was an important target during the colonial period: Dutch from 1624 to 1668; Qin Chinese from 1683 to 1895; and Japanese from 1895 to 1945. Following World War II, Taiwan was returned to the control of Chiang Kai-shek's Republic of China, a decision resented by many of the Taiwanese. Of lasting impact was the "Incident of February 28, 1947", in which the KMT-led Republic of China killed tens thousands of Taiwanese to quell an anti-government uprising.
- With both the communist People's Republic of China and the KMT-led Republic of China espousing a "One China" policy, the United Nations General Assembly voted Taiwan out in 1971, giving the Security Council seat to the PRC. In 1979, the United States under president Carter switched our recognition from Taiwan to Beijing. Since that time the American Institute in Taiwan has served as the unofficial embassy, and our attention has been focused on Beijing.
- During the period of estrangement, Taiwan has developed a vibrant democracy and a robust economy. While the KMT exercised one party rule after its retreat from the mainland in 1949, a 1979 crackdown on pro-democracy advocates in the city of Kaoshing served as a watershed. A National Assembly was democratically elected in 1991; the first direct election of a president occured in 1996 with a KMT victory; the Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate defeated the KMT candidate in 2000, for the first peaceful transition of power, and was reelected in 2004; KMT candidates won in 2008, and 2012; the DPP in 2016, and 2020. The KMT remains more favorable toward reunification but the overwhelming consensus is that status should be determined democratrically by the Taiwanese, and the younger generations are aligning more with the independence-committed DPP.
- Along the way, there have been periodic confrontations with the PRC across the 110 mile wide Taiwan Straight - at the Yijiangshan Islands in 1950 (PRC capture); at Quemoy and Matsu Islands in 1958 (PRC repelled); and with the deployment of the USS Nimitz supercarrier by president Clinton in 1996. Over the past year the Chinese have been conducting an escalating series of flights by reconaissance aircraft, fighters, and bombers near Taiwanese air space - including a simulation of an attack on the US bomber base on Guam; presidents Trump and Biden have responded with a series of transits by US destroyers throught the straits.
The Trump administration took a series of steps to move in the direction of Taiwan independence: authorizing sales of drones and missiles; sending a high level delegation for talks; loosening guidelines for state department and other government contacts with the island. To some surprise, the Biden administration has followed suit, inviting Taiwan's de facto ambassador to the inauguration, sending its own high level delegation to Taiwan, endorsing broader contacts, and advocating Taiwan's admission to the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, China's negation of "one country; two systems" in Hong Kong has done much to harden the attitude of many Taiwanese against eventual absorption.
The rhetoric on both sides has become more inflexible, from Xi Jinping's New Year's address stressing that reunification was inevitable "by all neessary means" to the exchange in Anchorage between Secretary of State Blinken and China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi. The current visit to Taiwan by former Senator Dodd and two former deputy state department secretaries is designed to further demonstrate the Biden administration's resolve.
Our Pacific rim allies would be devastated if we allow Taiwan to be incorporated unwillingly into China. Optimists would say that Xi Jinping will play the long game, that he will exhibit the Taoist philosophy of victory by maneuver without combat, and that he will not jeopardize China's global financial and political rise. Pessimists would say that the Chinese hawks will be emboldened by the absence of any real consequences for their actions in Xinjian and Hong Kong, that the full independence advocates in Taiwan will be emboldened by their support from the US, that bipartisan anti-China sentiment in the US will keep pushing the boundary, and that miscalculations are likely.
Taiwan is the most high risk element in our relationship with China. There is nothing that we can do to change Hong Kong or help the Uighurs. Fixing the trade imbalance, competing with the Belt and Road, and all of the other things in our China relationship can take place in offices or commercial settings and will play out over a long time. (Well, there is the South China Sea.) Conflict with nuclear-armed China over Taiwan is a quantum different matter. Lets hope that the Biden administration is up to the test; the status quo is OK.
One canary in the coal mine: Taiwan Semiconductor is the world's preeminent computer chip manufacturer, accounting for 22% of the world's supply. There is good reason that Biden's "infrastructure" bill contains $50 billion for the domestic semiconductor industry. This writer also believes that a portion of the current global shortage of computer chips reflects purchasing agents increasing their safety stock requirements.
bill bowen - 4/15/2021