April 15, 2021

Event Coverage Highlight

Expert Panel Examines Future of Taiwan-US Relations Amid Mounting Pressure from China

Left to right: Si-Fu Ou, Bonnie Glaser and Dexter Roberts.

by Chad Bouchard

U.S. President Joseph Biden’s administration and leaders in Taiwan face a prolonged period of testing and escalating pressures from China, but probably can avoid a full-scale military confrontation, particularly if they draw in key allies such as Japan into a multilateral coalition, three panelists from the U.S. and Taiwan concluded in a trans-continental video conversation that the OPC hosted on March 18.

Speaking from Taiwan was Dr. Ou Si-fu, director of the Division of Chinese Politics, Military and Warfighting Concepts at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research.

Ou presented slides and photographs showing how Chinese military aircraft routinely engage in flight paths that violate Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, often in cooperation with the naval forces of the People’s Liberation Army. Submarine maneuvering is becoming increasingly important in the southwest sector of Taiwan’s ADIZ because of deep waters, he said. The Biden Administration has signaled that it will supply submarine parts to the government of President Tsai Ing-wen.

OPC Past President William J. Holstein, a journalist and author with a focus on China and Japan who was previously based in Hong Kong and Beijing, served as moderator. He asked Ou about China’s overall strategy in ramping up threats and intimidation. Ou said China was waging a “war of attrition” on multiple fronts, a combined operation of “mixed activity” that he said includes non-military tactics like trade restrictions.

China’s Communist Party maintains that Taiwan is a province that belongs to the mainland rather than a legitimate country that enjoys a flourishing democracy. The U.S. recognized China’s government in 1979 and downgraded its diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but maintained a position of “strategic ambiguity” over whether it would respond to a Chinese military attack.

President Biden, whose envoys engaged in a testy exchange with top Chinese diplomats in Alaska, seems determined to strengthen U.S. support for Taiwan, a position that enjoys strong bipartisan support in Washington.

Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project and a Senior Adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the Biden administration’s first statement on Jan. 23 about Taiwan “noted with concern, the pattern of PRC attempts to intimidate its neighbors, including Taiwan.”

Glaser added that the statement used language that harkens back to the Clinton administration indicating the U.S. would support peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues “consistent with the wishes and best interest of the people of Taiwan.” That language had been modified under the George W. Bush administration to include the “best interest of the people on both sides of the Strait,” Glaser said.

She said that while the U.S. may undertake a trade deal with Taiwan and expand military support, the United States should not officially abandon the strategic ambiguity policy.

“The Biden administration does really want to lower the temperature in the Taiwan Strait, and it will signal that if China eases the pressure, the United States will respond. And if China does not ease the pressure, the United States will also respond,” Glaser said. “If the Chinese continue to ratchet up pressure on Taiwan, I think we are going to see many more actions by the Biden administration, once again aimed at strengthening both reassurance of Taiwan and deterrence of Beijing.”

The program also featured Dexter “Tiff” Roberts, who spent 23 years in Beijing for BusinessWeek magazine and is the author of The Myth of Chinese Capitalism. He is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Asia Security Initiative and is based at the Mansfield Center in Montana.

Roberts said his reading of Chinese politics suggested that party leader and president Xi Jinping would not wish to risk a military confrontation until after he secures his third term as China’s paramount leader in 2022.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that [Xi] has put the recovery of Taiwan, in some respect undefined, as a key priority during his reign. The good news is he’s given himself a lot of time with the abolishment of term limits,” Roberts joked. “But it does seem that this is a major priority, as he has indicated, including as part of his ’China Dream,’ to see the reunification of the mainland and Taiwan.”

Roberts said he’s concerned that while the Biden administration may be signaling a desire for a cooling of cross-Strait relations, Beijing has continued to make increasingly bold moves.

“What we’re seeing from Beijing is a willingness, consequences be damned, to go ahead with policy actions that they see as part of their core sovereignty issues. We saw it with the National Security Law in Hong Kong, which some people thought they would not do because it would be so roundly rejected by the rest of the world and by the citizens of Hong Kong. But they went ahead and did it.”

One major factor in Chinese thinking, the panelists agreed, was what role Japan is willing to play. Japan does not station any military personnel in Taiwan, but supplies intelligence about the flight patterns of Chinese aircraft. The Japanese navy also has been staging exercises in the area with the U.S. and French navies. Glaser said that if the United States and Taiwan can “multilateralize” the confrontation with China, that would serve as a major deterrent.

Click the window below to hear an audio recording of the event, or click on the video window below to watch introductory remarks.