Looming Perfect Storm over Taiwan





Dr. Antonio C. Hsiang

Colaborador del programa de Doctorado en Seguridad y Defensa


In May 2021, The Economist’s article titled “The most dangerous place on Earth” raised concerns over a potential conflict between the US and the PRC over Taiwan, calling on both superpowers to avoid war. In November 2022, its Banyan columnist Dominic Ziegler warned on the special issue titled “The World Ahead 2023”, just as Russia’s war in Ukraine proved that point definitively in Europe in 2022, the coming year will see the next iteration of a great global struggle between liberalism and autocracy play out in Asia. He suggests keeping an eye on Taiwan.

During their in-person meeting held on the Indonesian island of Bali in November, Xi Jinping told Joe Biden, “the Taiwan question was the ‘very core of China’s core interests’, the bedrock of the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and the ‘first red line’ in bilateral ties that must not be crossed.”

A perfect storm looms over Taiwan for several reasons. First, at the global level, Taiwan is becoming “a reverse Cuban missile crisis” in the New Cold War. Missile Crises of 1962 in the Florida Strait and of 1996 in the Taiwan Strait are comparisons par excellence. Taiwan is becoming a new Cuban crisis and the possibility of China using force against Taiwan should not be underestimated. There is a complex mix of economic, political and strategic factors in the relationship between China and Cuba. But one important factor is the “mirror” relationship of the Americans to Taiwan and Chinese to Cuba.

The United States provides sophisticated military support for the island just off China’s coast, while China gives similar but much more limited support to Cuba, a small, threatened island off the U.S. coast. For Richard Haass and David Sacks, “ambiguity is unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive China with growing military capabilities. The time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan. It is no surprise that when asked “Should the United States Pledge to Defend Taiwan?” 39 out of 50 interviewed global experts disagree, according to a report released recently by Foreign Affairs.

Second, at the Indo-Pacific level, Taiwan’s military is too weak to play the role of “tail wag the dog.” During the so-called 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, China conducted a series of missile tests in the waters surrounding Taiwan. With live-fire drills starting on August 4, just after Pelosi leaves Taiwan, the specter of military confrontation looms large. Taiwan’s minister of defense, Chiu Kuo-cheng, told lawmakers, “this really is the grimmest time I’ve seen in my more than 40 years working in the military.” China already had the means to invade Taiwan, though still at a high price. By 2025, the cost and attrition will be squeezed lowest, and so it could be said to have “full capability”.

It is true that the US today is more dependent on Taiwan than the USSR on Cuba in the 1960s because of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). TSMC produces almost all the most advanced processors, which has made it one of the most valuable companies in the world. However, the more TSMC has become indispensable to the global economy, the more risk has risen to Taiwan. It is also true that the vibrant democracy in Taiwan is a global success story, but thumbing its nose at China and hoping the US will deal with the consequences is not the way to go.

Third, at the domestic level, President Tsai Ing-wen is too populist to prevent from China’s intimidation. Tsai may be successful in currying favor among western politicians, but she must explain to them how she will promote stability in the Taiwan Strait. Otherwise, the United States will not likely provide Taiwan any credible support and sacrifice its own national interests.

Jingoistic foreign warfare helps distract attention from domestic problems and bolster popularity. It is true of virtually all regimes, including democracies – as Margaret Thatcher would know from her escapade in the Falklands/Malvinas. In fact, both the US and China see Taiwan as their “strategic pawns.”

Over the past six years, Tsai and the DPP have become more obsessed with provoking China. The debacle of nine-in-one local elections held on November 26 shows that DPP’s strategy of “resisting mainland China and protecting Taiwan” cannot consolidate its base and expand to the younger Taiwanese. It would be tragic if a democratic Taiwan precipitates a self-destructive conflict.

Dr. Antonio C. Hsiang, professor at Chile’s ANEPE and a Board Member of Taiwan’s Society for Strategic Studies. He is co-editor of Taiwan’s Relations with Latin America: Strategic Rivalry between the US, Taiwan, and China in Latin America (2021).

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