America’s new Focus on Taiwan

Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen made stopovers in America during her trip to Paraguay and Belize in August 2018, which China promptly complained about. China has tried to isolate Taiwan in the international society. El Salvador just cut its diplomatic relations with Taiwan in August 2018. As a consequence, merely 16 nations currently have diplomatic relations with this island nation. The US government condemned El Salvador for its political decision and later on summoned the US ambassadors to these countries, what until now the USA never responded to.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDA) 2019 was signed by US president Trump in August. It prohibits the US government and its contractors purchasing some Chinese telecommunication products.[1] Supporting Taiwan to improve its defense capabilities is also included. Besides trade conflicts between the US and China, the closing of the Chinese Confucius Institutes in US universities has also been reconsidered because of espionage suspicions and some of them are going to be closed.

The new building of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) was opened in June 2018, and the US Marine corps is reportedly deployed for its security. The number of marine corps personnel deployed has still not been disclosed yet. China’s marine corps will be three times bigger than today by 2020 according to the China Military Power Report 2018 by the Secretary of Defense.[2] China’s enhancement of the marine corps despite not possessing many islands needs to be taken very seriously. Territorially disputed islands like the Paracel and Spratly islands which are under effective control of other parties might be a possible focus for the deployment of the Chinese marine corps.

Last year’s internal Chinese Navy Bulletin introduced a research by Chinese Navy officers for military suppression in the South China Sea, which hints at the contested islands. The aim of enhancing the marine corps might also include ideas about Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands, which have been disputed among China, Taiwan and Japan. China has vigorously done military drills of late, e.g., in July 2018, large scale military exercises were held in the East China Sea, and the Chinese media reported that the drills target Taiwan separatists.[3] China also did military exercises in the Yellow Sea shortly before Tsai Ing-wen’s trip to South and Central America in August started.

Trade conflicts between the US and China continue and seem to hamper the Chinese economy. Possible sanctions by the USA due to Chinese misconduct against Uyghurs in China loom large. Over a million of Uyghurs and other minorities in China have reportedly been detained in political “re-education camps”.[4] Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Chinese communist party desperately need foreign investors to fuel the economy.

On the whole, America might start to incrementally shift its focus from the Korean peninsula to the South and East China Sea and concentrate its military powers on this region. The US might control the choke points where China can access the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. The pre-condition of carrying out the power shift might be the settlement of the North Korean nuclear program, i.e., denuclearization and abandonment of the ICBM development. Unlike the twin issues of North Korea and incidental power changes on the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan issue can lead to armed confrontation because the reintegration of Taiwan into China deeply concerns the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. An eye has to be kept on how serious the US concern with Taiwan really is and the unfolding situation has to be analyzed carefully.

[1] CNET: Trump signs defense bill with watered-down ZTE sanctions, August 13, 2018. [accessed August 25, 2018]

[2] Office of the Secretary of Defense: Annual Report to Congress, May 16, 2018. [accessed June 15, 2018]

[3] The Japan Times: China to begin large-scale military exercises ‘tailored for Taiwan separatists’ in East China Sea, July 18, 2018. [accessed August 25, 2018]

[4] Radio Free Asia: US Lawmakers Urge Sanctions Against Chinese Officials, Companies over Xinjiang Rights Violations, August 29, 2018.

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