Despite the effectiveness Chinese ‘mask diplomacy’ may has in certain countries, Xi Jinping’s party seems to be perceived as the culprit No. 1 in the coronavirus outbreak. Therefore, it makes sense that people demand governments take action against those responsible. A legal process would face many different difficulties beyond the concept of ‘sovereign immunity’ —i.e., regarding the kind of crime itself and jurisdiction— prompting other options arise in the meantime. The U.S. election campaign could make some of them interesting in terms of demagoguery, leading to a fait accompli scenario causing deeper harm to global economy by disrupting naval shipping, among other key aspects. A misperception of China’s red line scope with regard to the Taiwan question could be the case.
Even though the U.S. adopted the ‘One China’ policy after diplomatic relations with China were established on January 1st, 1979; U.S. arms sales to Taiwan remained a controversial issue over time. The U.S.-PRC Joint Communique (1982) at the beginning of Reagan presidency states the U.S. ‘does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan’, and that ‘it intends gradually’ to reduce it. Still, almost four decades after that, Donald Trump gave green light for the sale of 66 F-16 fighters to Taiwan, the largest and most significant shipment of weaponry since George H.W. Bush administration in 1992.
But arms sales are just the tip of the iceberg in Sino-U.S. relations. Because of its long-lasting nature and the variety of countries involved in it —i.e., France sold Taiwan six Lafayette-class in the 1990s which soon will be modernized— this has so far represented only a stone in China’s shoe which, after all, could be taken as ‘just business’ compared to other issues —unless in cases such as the deployment of THAAD in South Korea, which can be directly used to gather intel from China’s mainland. In fact, none of the modern operational means Taiwan has purchased so far for its self-defense can effectively deter China from its incursion into the ‘reckless island’. At least not as it does American near presence in Guam, South Korea and Japan.
Instead, the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis could be triggered by any further action leading to a gain of international recognition of the island. In recent years, Beijing focused on globally isolating Taiwan, even if that meant reaching São Tomé and Príncipe, Solomon Islands or Kiribati, to convince them to shift its diplomatic recognition to the mainland. In general, states and organizations seem to understand the scope of this policy as non-interference in China’s internal issues and, more seriously, so as to avoid what would be considered as a violation of its sovereignty. Nevertheless, after winning the elections, Trump answered a congratulations call from his counterpart Tsai Ing-wen and, more recently, he signed the TAIPEI Act (Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative) which aims to strengthen Taiwan’s diplomatic relations with other partners in the Asia-Pacific region and alter United States’ engagement with nations that undermine the security or prosperity of Taiwan.
Despite a growing economic interdependence in Sino-U.S relations, a re-assessment of the strategic posture in the Asia-Pacific region amid the rise of China’s economic and military power became necessary, making the George W. Bush administration return China to the U.S. nuclear war plan. But last year, U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) treaty, which means there is no legal boundary for this country to deploy shorter-ranged land-based missiles in the vicinity of China. Why wouldn’t it be time to at least suggest —via Twitter diplomacy or just logorrhea— its deployment in Taiwan as part of a broader policy to corner China? How would China respond to that? To begin with, that would infringe China’s sovereignty because Washington officially acknowledges that Taiwan is part of China.
Keohane considers states as unitary rational actors, carefully calculating costs of alternative courses of action and seeking to maximize their expected utility, although doing so under the conditions of uncertainty and without necessarily having sufficient information about alternatives or resources to conduct a full review of all possible courses of action. This is not the case of the U.S. under Trump administration. His revisionist poor understanding of international relations could lead him to take an inappropriate course of action that could seriously undermine U.S. long-term interests in the Asia-Pacific, even after a rhetoric escalation accompanied with a credible intention to use force —i.e., a surge in FONOPs in the South China Sea.
In many ways, Donald Trump is all mouth and no trousers. As the president of the world’s most powerful country, he said on TV he would unleash ‘fire and fury’ over North Korea and then added in his first address to the United Nations General Assembly, he would ‘totally destroy’ the Asian country. Later, it was all handshakes and smiles with the ‘short and fat’ supreme leader, also referred to as ‘Little Rocket Man’ via Twitter diplomacy. Last year, by the time everyone was in position to engage the target, he retreated from attacking Iran after the Revolutionary Guard shot down a U.S. drone which made him say the Persians had made ‘a big mistake’. Of course, leaving aside military action, Trump’s hostility continued through different means.
This time is different. It is not about a rogue state we are talking about, but the second largest economy on Earth. Nevertheless, amid COVID-19 blame game, where president Donald Trump has seized on Americans’ growing animosity towards China, he referred to the outbreak as an ‘attack’ worse than the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 events two decades ago. Hua Chunying, a spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, posted a few days later that ‘China won’t be Iraq’ in her Twitter account.
Beijing has never renounced the use of force to retake Taiwan, something which can be formally found in China’s Anti-Secession Law from 2005. Moreover, at a regional security conference in June last year, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe said: ’If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese military has no choice but to fight at all costs for national unity’. Afterwards, Taiwan separatists were described as threats in China’s White Paper, published in both Chinese and English.
Self-help in a condition of anarchy could mean a nonstop travel from China’s ‘no first use’ doctrine to a tactical nuclear onslaught across the Taiwan Strait, clearing the way for a Chinese occupation of the island. Such scenario would result in a decisive advantage, which could even forestall U.S. of any action where China would find itself cornered by a lop-sided military balance.
In his 2005 book Rising to the Challenge: China’s Grand Strategy and International Security, when talking about ‘nuclear peace theory’, Avery Goldstein wrote ‘China might rise, but the strategic consequences of the nuclear revolution that have sustained a long era of peace among the great powers would endure’. Once again, and for the sake of history, a look back on nuclear arms as weapons of mass deterrence could save the day.