- THE ATLANTIC - Oct 10, 2020 -
MICHAEL SCHUMAN -
The battle over the island may be a Cold War relic, but it will shape the future.
Taiwan is one of those flash points that has never flashed. The dispute over the island’s fate has had the potential to erupt into conflict between China and the United States for decades. But the feared Chinese invasion has never come. The situation has remained deadlocked for so long that Taiwan’s quandary often drifts into the background of Asian affairs, overshadowed by seemingly more-pressing concerns, such as North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and inflamed tensions between India and Pakistan in Kashmir.
Not now. With an erratic President Donald Trump distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as his own ill health, and already disengaged from Asian affairs, concerns have been mounting about America’s commitment to defending the region. China, by contrast, is becoming more assertive, having achieved a clampdown in Hong Kong—where it put a far-reaching and restrictive national-security law in place—with few, if any, tangible repercussions from the international community. As a result, some Taiwan watchers, and the island’s leaders themselves, are worried that the risks of war breaking out over control of the island are rising, either caused accidentally, or even purposely launched by Beijing.
“It is becoming more alarming,” Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, told me. He said he was “very concerned” that Beijing would use its long-standing claim to Taiwan as “a very good excuse … to launch an attack.” Warning lights are flashing in Washington, D.C., too: Senator Josh Hawley and Representative Mike Gallagher each introduced legislation in recent months to bolster Washington’s (rather ambiguous) defense commitment to Taiwan. “No longer can anyone harbor the illusion that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) would unify peacefully with Taiwan," Gallagher noted in a statement.
Read: Is this Taiwan’s moment?
In a confrontation as old and tense as this one, with its numerous scrapes and scares, discerning when to hit the panic button can be hard. Tensions over Taiwan date back to 1949, when Mao Zedong’s Communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists in a bloody civil war and chased them off the Chinese mainland to the island, where the Nationalists reestablished the rival Republic of China in Taipei. The Communists’ People’s Republic of China has never relinquished its claim to Taiwan, which Beijing considers no more than a wayward province, leaving the prospect of war hanging over the region. Perhaps this current bout of the jitters is just another round of political posturing and saber-rattling.
China, though, is clearly turning up the pressure on Taiwan. In recent weeks, the Chinese military has conducted exercises and drills unusually close to Taiwan, in the air and at sea. Last month, Beijing made clear it denied the existence of an unofficial boundary in the Taiwan Strait that has ensured a degree of stability along the heavily fortified waterway. “Those who play with fire are bound to get burned,” a spokesperson for China’s defense ministry recently warned Taiwan.