Time for Taiwan to elevate its strategic role in northeast Asia

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Parris H. Chang

President Tsai Ing-wen’s phone call with U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump last December and his questioning of the “one China” policy have angered Beijing.

China’s foreign minister Wang Yi jeered at Tsai for playing a “petty trick;” her call, however, was planned weeks in advance and assisted by Trump’s Taiwan-friendly aides and advisers who see Taiwan as a natural ally of the U.S.

China’s J-15 jet fighters on its aircraft carrier, Liaoning.

Understandably, Chinese officials are apprehensive that the Trump administration may eliminate one of the basic elements of normal Sino-U.S. relations — U.S. policy on one China — and challenge China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The Chinese Communist Party(CCP) will convene its 19th Congress toward the end of 2017 — Xi Jinping’s first as CCP General Secretary.

In the run-up to the Congress, Xi is preoccupied with internal power struggle and consolidation of his leadership authority, he needs predictability in the Sino-U.S. relations and reassurance that there will be no surprises.

Given Trump’s remarks and the statements of his cabinet members, Beijing is uncertain and worried about the future direction of Trump’s China policy.

Meanwhile, Chinese officials have blamed Taiwan for creating trouble, as their attitudes toward Taiwan have been shifting in a more hawkish direction inside the CCP.

President Tsai’s refusal to accept Beijing’s “one China principle” and what some Party cadres see as the ongoing process of “de-Sinification” or emphasis on a distinct Taiwanese identity by Tsai ‘s government have raised concerns in Beijing that Taiwan is drifting out of China’s reach. Hence Beijing is resorting to political warfare, economic coercion and threat of force to forestall Taiwan’s pursuit of independence.

The measures the Party has employed include the divide and conquer strategy.

Xi’s meeting with the Kuomintang(KMT) chairwoman in Beijing last November was a prominent example. The CCP seeks to co-opt KMT leaders, pro-China political groups and the Fifth Columns in Taiwan to promote its agenda in Taiwan: to create chaos, undermine Tsai’s government, oppose Taiwan independence and facilitate Taiwan’s unification.

To put pressure on Tsai, Beijing has frozen official communications and engagements with Taipei, delayed meetings mandated by previous agreements and barred Taiwan’s ranking officials from attending meetings in China.

To cripple Taiwan’s economy, China has restricted Chinese tourists to Taiwan, suspended or reduced imports of Taiwan’s agricultural and industrial commodities.

As part of Beijing’s political and psychological warfare against Taiwan, it has used Western media outlets to spread Chinese propaganda and disinformation.

Reuters quoted a retired Chinese military officer as saying that China needs not fire any missiles to bring Taiwan to its knees, “we can just cut them [Taiwan] off economically, no more direct flights, no more trade, nothing. Taiwan would not last long.”

Chinese military has also stepped up intimidation by conducting military air patrols near Taiwan’s airspace.

Earlier this month, a Chinese naval fleet headed by its sole aircraft carrier, the Liaonimg, took part in drills around Taiwan.

China’s military sabre-rattling and threat of force are futile exercises as Beijing is well aware that the U.S. is committed to Taiwan’s security. As a matter of fact, the Taiwan Relations Act has put Beijing on notice that the U.S. sees economic embargo, blockade or use of force to achieve unification as a matter of “grave concern” and declared an intention to “resist any resort of force” against people on Taiwan.

With the enactment of 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, U.S.-Taiwan military ties will be elevated and broadened.

There will be senior military exchanges and enhanced military cooperation between the two nations. The Trump administration is solicitous of Taiwan’s defense needs and will likely forge closer military cooperation, including sales of sophisticated arms, such as the fifth generation warplanes — F35B fighter jets, with stealth capabilities and vertical take-off and landing systems.

It is reassuring that President Trump’s Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson has expressed his unwavering commitment to support and implement the Taiwan Relations Act and the “six assurances.”

His harsh criticism of China’s construction of artificial islands and the militarization of South China seas as well as his veiled threat to block China’s access to the islands with force provides a stark contrast the Obama administration’s muted and weak response to China’s audacious seizure of an American under-water drone in waters off the Philippines last December.

This is a powerful indication that the U.S., under Trump, is firm, resolved and ready to meet the challenge of China’s expansionism and hegemonic ambitions in Asia-Pacific.

On several occasions President Tsai has assured American friends that Taiwan will be a dependable regional security partner.

Undoubtedly, the U.S. values Taiwan’s strategic importance and welcomes Taiwan’s vital role in safeguarding peace and security in the region.

Many Americans have also urged the Tsai government to increase defense spending and make necessary investment in Taiwan’s security and national defense. First thing should come first — Taiwan must choose and act on its top priority.

Dr. Parris Chang has served on Taiwan’s National Security Council. He is professor emeritus of political science at Penn State University and President of the Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies.