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Interview Courtesy: Foreign Policy Research Centre Journal | Issue (48) | Focus: Taiwan
(The following interview was first published on Foreign Policy Research Centre Journal | Issue (48) | Focus: Taiwan)
1. Do you believe China seems eager for Taiwan to go the way of once-autonomous Tibet in the early 1950s? Is the timing of China’s muscle-flexing by display of air power against Taiwan recently significant?
There has been no change in the stance of the PRC on Taiwan. It has been identified as one of the core interests along with Tibet, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea. The recent sabre rattling is alarming and there are concerns on possible escalation. Mao has to his credit the takeover of Tibet and Xinjiang, Deng Xiaping likewise has Hong Kong and Macau which were taken over. Xi, who is now looking to a third term and an extension for life term, will look to cement his place in the CCP as the leader who took over Taiwan. So, it is clear that Xi would be working with a single minded purpose to achieve this aim. However, the global climate is not favourable and any misadventure as of now is a risky proposition that has the potential to explode into a full-fledged war depending on the response of the USA which even under Joe Biden has made it clear that there would be no compromise in supporting Taiwan. Yes, there is an escalation in the number of incursions and ADIZ violations by China of Taiwan air space to put pressure on the small neighbour. However, Taiwan has stood firm and has been preparing for a misadventure by China. Taiwan will be taken over by China only if the rest of the world led by the USA abandons Taiwan. If China tries to take over Taiwan, the only thing that will prevent it is an all-out war which both China and USA would not like to be drawn into. So, what the world will witness is the increased demonstration by China to break the status quo including a war which at least by the statement of Xi is not a remote possibility.
2. Has US President Joe Biden’s recent shift to a more conciliatory approach toward China probably bolstered Xi’s confidence further ? Is Taiwan really a “Difficult Choice “for US?
The recent meeting showed that both sides are trying to find common ground to de-escalate and resume better bilateral relations which includes Trade and Tariff, Taiwan, and Human rights issues. However, going by the statement of the officials post the meeting, it appears that Taiwan will remain a sore point with both sides unlikely to soften their stand. Taiwan, while being a difficult choice for the USA, from all the indications it appears that the USA would be prepared to intervene on behalf of Taiwan which has been supported to the hilt by both Trump and now Joe Biden. The domestic ratings of Joe Biden have dropped, and he cannot be seen as a weak leader incapable of supporting Taiwan. Joe Biden is quite aware of the pitfalls of a policy that is seen as encouraging China to be more aggressive in the South China Sea and more specifically in terms of its plans to invade Taiwan. So, there are multiple factors that would determine whether there would be further escalation or some more reconciliation. The war over Taiwan is unlikely to be waged soon though there are expectations that perhaps next year will be a litmus test on how both sides would manage Taiwan.
3. Do you agree the risks are particularly acute for Japan, whose southernmost islands are adjacent to Taiwan? – “Okinawa could be next.” Other US allies – such as South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand – would likely be brought into China’s sphere of influence.
From the recent statements of Japan, it is clear that they are also factoring the worst-case scenario in their calculus. Xi has already indicated that those who would interfere in Taiwan will have their heads bashed against the steel wall. With such audacious and undiplomatic statements being made by the Chinese leadership, Japan and other powers have no choice but to spend more on their military preparedness. This has already been identified as Cold War 2.0 with signs of increased aggression by China in contested fishing zones causing tensions in the Pacific. While China would like to use the arm-twisting strategy on those with strong links with the USA, this ploy is unlikely to yield results for China in the hostile environment created by China at multiple levels.
While Japan is an active participant of QUAD, and it will now be a credible confluence of like-minded nations to look at issues which are in the domain of “other than war’. There has been a constant refrain from the members to say that this is not a NATO like military alliance but is the coming together of the democracies who need to work together to prevent China from deriving undue advantage and obtain leverages through its predatory strategic, economic, and political policies. If one were to look at Australia’s example, any such efforts by China to subjugate others by coercion, threats and economic sanctions are doomed to fail. In the case of Australia, not only has Australia withstood the pressures by China but has become quite vocal in terms of how it would like to take on the bigger adversary by joining alliances and looking at alternatives. So, from all indications, China will not succeed in trying to break the traditional partners of the USA. a global power which would do everything in its means to ensure that it retains its supremacy both military and non-military. Japan appears to have adopted proactive policies vis-a-vis China by investing more to shore up its defence capabilities and to expand its relations with the like-minded. Japan, which faces a hostile maritime militia in the fishing zones of the East China Sea, is investing in developing credible response structures.
Economically, it is willing to go the extra mile to join any initiative such as the AAGC to provide alternatives to the developing world which is in dire need of investments. By all indications, Japan will not bow down the aggressive stance of China in its areas of interest.
4. Do you agree Taiwan faces a lengthy—and growing—list of challenges, both internal and external. How can international community help Taiwan in meeting these challenges?
By all indications Taiwan is going through a very tough period which is testing its strength. Taiwan is clear that any of its efforts to stand on its own can only be achieved with the support of the USA and other players. Many of the wrongs of the past which allowed PRC to replace Taiwan in many international institutions including UNSC, unfortunately cannot be undone immediately. However, a small country like Lithuania has demonstrated its resolve by allowing Taiwan to set up an office in Lithuania earning the wrath of China. This should be the template adopted by those who want Taiwan to continue as an independent country that is to be integrated in the global systems. Organisations such as ICAO, WHO and others which are important for the world need to allow Taiwan to be a member. Taiwan has proven technical ability and infrastructure to meet the advanced technical needs of the world be it semiconductors or modern resilient systems.
The QUAD is already looking at the Resilience Supply Chain Initiative (RSCI). There is also an effort to provide benign alternatives to the BRI through the Blue dot network, an initiative led by USA. These need to have Taiwan actively involved and to support the aspirations of its citizens who do not want to be under subjugation of China needs to be respected. It is also obvious that the USA is central to the discussions on Taiwan and any slackening of support by the USA to Taiwan would be an opportunity for China to usurp Taiwan and its people. The leaders of the free world have a great responsibility to ensure that China does not have its way, more so, when the Taiwanese people have lived and administered themselves in a democratic manner independently since the move to Taiwan (then Formosa) to escape communism. The rest of the world has a responsibility to correct the wrongs of the past.
5. It’s said: India risks China’s wrath for stronger ties with Taipei. Do you agree?
Whether India has stronger ties with Taipei or otherwise, China does not have a favourable equation with India as demonstrated post Covid when China unilaterally tried to redraw the border and has been applying pressure along the border. India should not be worried about whether its increasing engagement with Taipei would anger China. If it is not relations with Taipei, it is the QUAD, non-endorsement of BRI by India, or Arunachal Pradesh or any other invented reason that will make China angry. It is this needless pandering to China’s ways that has brought India to this state and there is no need for India to go out of its way to please China which does not have any positive benefits for India.
So, it is for India to stand firm on all these issues as it has done in the past and not come under any undue pressure despite the threat of war. Both the countries do not want war while being prepared for one. The failure of the border talks including the recent fourteenth round of talks is illustrative of the unreasonable stand of China which has violated all agreements of the past on peace and tranquillity along the border. There is a harsh winter ahead with some 60,000 troops amassed on both sides. So, India along with the USA and other democracies will need to stand firm on the issue of independent Taiwan and engage more freely with Taipei which offers many advantages for developments in S&T, investments, exchange of students, training, and manufacture of critical technology components. India hardly needs to worry about whether China would be angered with increased engagement of Taiwan when there are multiple long-term benefits for India’s growth and prosperity.
(Commodore (Retd) R. S Vasan, Former Regional Commander Coast Guard Region East, Indian Navy and is currently the Director-General of Chennai Centre for China Studies and Regional Director National Maritime Foundation Tamil Nadu Chapter. The views expressed in the interview are personal and do not reflect the view of C3S or the Government of India.)