Explained: Why US and China are at loggerheads over Taiwan


How dangerous can a trip to Taiwan be?

If you are US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a travel plan to Taiwan could be disastrous, causing a foreign policy fracas.

The California Democrat began her multi-stop tour of Asia on Monday with a visit to Singapore. The visit, as per her office, will also include Malaysia, South Korea and Japan.

The statement and Pelosi's public itinerary have made no mention of Taiwan, but a senior Taiwanese government official and a US official told CNN on Monday that she is expected to visit Taiwan and stay overnight as part of her tour of Asia. It is unclear when exactly Pelosi will land in Taipei.

China has lashed out at the potential visit, vowing to take "resolute and forceful measures" if it goes ahead. Last week, China's Defense Ministry reiterated the threat, warning: "If the US insists on taking its own course, the Chinese military will never sit idly by."

But what makes the trip so fraught with tensions. Let’s take a closer look why US and China are at loggerheads over Taiwan.

Washington’s ‘strategic ambiguity’ ploy

The US is engaging in a delicate balancing act between Taiwan and China.

Washington follows a one-China policy, which recognizes Beijing but allows informal relations and defence ties with Taipei.

It provides arms to Taiwan – it is by far the largest arms dealer for Taiwan –  and follows a ‘strategic ambiguity’ policy about how far it would be willing to go to defend Taiwan in the face of a Chinese invasion.

At the same time, it does not support Taiwanese independence.

Taiwan and China

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. Image Courtesy Twitter

Meanwhile, the relationship between Taiwan and China can best be described as “it’s complicated”.

Taiwan and China split during a civil war in 1949, but China claims the island as its own territory, and has not ruled out the use of military force to take it, while maintaining it is a domestic political issue.

Since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016, Beijing has refused all contacts with her government.

Tsai says Taiwan has no need to make such a declaration since it is already de-facto independent, and has refused to meet China’s basic demand that she recognize Taiwan as part of the Chinese nation.

She has built up Taiwan’s traditionally strong ties with the US, Japan and other allies as she has sought to boost the armed forces’ ability to resist a potential Chinese invasion.

China allows no independent polling on the question, but public sentiment tends to run strongly in favour of its arguments on the need for, and inevitability of, unification between the sides. That is solidly in line with the Communist Party’s relentless propaganda on the issue and the strongly nationalist tone it has adopted since jettisoning orthodox Marxism.

In contrast, support for unification has fallen to single digit percentages in Taiwanese public opinion polls, with the vast majority favouring a continuation of the status quo of de-facto independence. Most now identify exclusively as Taiwanese, with the government and many social organizations supporting that view. The Presbyterian church, whose parishioners were attacked in the California church, has been closely associated with the pro-democracy movement and promotion of Taiwan’s independent identity.

What do experts say?

File image of Chinese president Xi Jinping. AP

Experts say there is little cause for that a full-blown war over Taiwan will break out between the US and China.

"There's a lot of rhetoric, but the Chinese have to mind the gap very carefully if they want to launch an invasion of Taiwan, especially so close to the Ukraine crisis. The Chinese economy is far more interconnected with the global economy than Russia's is," William Choong, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, told BBC.

"Both sides are sticking to their guns on Taiwan. They need to look tough, they don't want to be seen as rolling back or stepping back," Collin Koh, research fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told BBC.

"But at the same time they are very mindful about entering an outright conflict. They're looking at each other's rhetoric with eyes wide open, and both sides are trying to temper the risk."

Escalating tensions

However, in recent times tensions seem to have escalated.

China in May made the second largest incursion into Taiwan's air defence zone this year with Taipei reporting 30 jets entering the area, including more than 20 fighters.

President Joe Biden raised eyebrows and China's pique last month saying that the US would intervene militarily if Taiwan were attacked, though the White House later said the comments did not reflect a policy shift.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month said China represented the most serious long-term challenge to the international order for the United States, with its claims to Taiwan and efforts to dominate the strategic South China Sea.

With inputs from agencies

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Explained: Why US and China are at loggerheads over Taiwan
Explained: Why US and China are at loggerheads over Taiwan
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