[News analysis] Behind China’s criticism of US turning Taiwan into “powder keg”

Posted on : 2023-07-13 17:36 KST Modified on : 2023-07-13 17:36 KST
Despite continued dialogue between the US and China, tensions remain high amid US arms sales to Taiwan and China’s export restrictions on rare-earth materials
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense has spent around 18 million won on the US-made M136 Volcano mine dispensing system, seen here attached to a military-use truck. (Sgt. Kris Wright/Wikimedia Commons)
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense has spent around 18 million won on the US-made M136 Volcano mine dispensing system, seen here attached to a military-use truck. (Sgt. Kris Wright/Wikimedia Commons)

The US has decided to export weapons worth up to US$146 million, including anti-tank mine distribution equipment, to Taiwan. China denounced the move, accusing the US of turning Taiwan into a “powder keg.” Immediately after US Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen’s visit to China from July 6 to 9 was announced, China placed export restrictions on two rare-earth elements essential for manufacturing cutting-edge products like semiconductors. All these developments show that US and China’s mutual perception of each other as their “greatest external threat” is becoming even more entrenched.

“China sees US as biggest threat to political system too”

“Rather than real objective phenomena that weaken the patterns of globalized economic and financial relations, notions such as ‘decoupling and ‘de-risking’ are indeed political weapons used to curtail the rights of new players in the international arena. The very dynamics of globalization, although currently weaker, has given rise to a deep interdependence among economies in regions of the world. [. . .] Disconnecting the world has thus become unworkable, and any attempts to erect insurmountable barriers between nations or countries is nothing but an extraordinary return to the Iron Curtain.”

This is what Dilma Rousseff, the former president of Brazil who now serves as president of the New Development Bank, said at the 11th World Peace Forum organized by Tsinghua University and others in Beijing on July 2. Although the US and the European Union have been using the expression “de-risking” instead of “decoupling” recently, this does not change anything for newly developed countries.

The New Development Bank, formerly known as the BRICS Development Bank, was established in Shanghai in 2015 by BRICS members Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa in order to provide financial support to newly developed countries expanding their infrastructure. China wants to develop the bank into a counterbalance to the international financial system centering on the US. It seems like it will be hard to avoid bloc confrontation.

According to reports by state media such as the Chinese News Service, on July 3, the third day of the forum, a panel discussion on stabilizing US-China relations took place. Wang Jisi, a veteran of international politics in China who serves as president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, stressed that “the fantasy that the US may soon make strategic concessions must be abandoned.” Since the mid-2010s, he has been pointing to “two orders” or “two hegemonies” as the core of US-China relations, arguing that China will soon try to prevent the US from destroying its Communist Party-led domestic order while the US will try to prevent China from challenging the international order it has led, the two countries colliding. Wang made statements similar in sentiment to this argument at the forum as well.

“Personally, I think China sees the US as its greatest external threat in regard to not only national security but also its political system,” he said. While the US has emphasized that it does not mean to change China’s political system, Wang said, concern regarding the behavior the US is exhibiting and negative views regarding China’s political system within the US is inevitable.

Although progress has been made on the ties between the two countries recently, Wang argued that they remain extremely vulnerable, and bilateral relations may take a turn if something similar to the spy balloon incident happens. Despite efforts to communicate, the chance that the two countries will change their positions is slim to none. In reality, both countries are strengthening their economic and foreign policies even more with national security as pretext, according to Wang.

Just as Wang pointed out, although the US and China are engaging in dialogue, discord between them is deepening.

Announcing Yellen’s plan to visit China, the US Treasury stated that its secretary would “discuss with PRC officials the importance of our countries—as the world’s two largest economies—to responsibly manage our relationship, communicate directly about areas of concern, and work together to address global challenges.” Meanwhile, China’s Finance Ministry put out only one sentence regarding Yellen’s visit to China on July 3, remarking that “As agreed between China and the US, US Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen will visit China from July 6 to 9.”

US “grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs”

Following this announcement, China’s Ministry of Commerce took action, announcing that it would enforce export restrictions on gallium and germanium — rare-earth elements needed to manufacture cutting-edge products like semiconductors — starting Aug. 1, citing national security as the justification for this policy. In a sense, China was fighting fire with fire in response to the US blocking China from accessing cutting-edge technology and equipment for the same reason. On July 1, Reuters reported CIA Director William Burns as calling China “the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and increasingly the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to do so” during a lecture he gave in Oxfordshire.

“The US disregarded China’s core concerns and grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs. Deliberately escalating tensions across the Taiwan Strait is tantamount to turning Taiwan into a ‘powder keg’ and pushing the people of Taiwan into an abyss of disaster. The US’ attempt to use Taiwan to contain China and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s attempt to seek Taiwan independence using US weapons are both wishful thinking and doomed to fail.”

This is what Tan Kefei, the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense, claimed in a statement he released on July 5. Earlier, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported on June 29 that the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense signed a deal to purchase 14 US-made M136 Volcano anti-tank munition-laying systems among other weapons worth US$146 million. Delivered by helicopter or ground vehicles, each Volcano dispenser can lay 960 anti-tank mines in an area 1,100 meters long and 120 meters wide within 4 to 12 minutes. In other words, the system can be used to prepare for the Chinese military’s landing operations in Taiwan.

After initiating dialogue through US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972, the US and China established diplomatic relations on Jan. 1, 1979, after lengthy negotiations. During those negotiations, the biggest issue of contention was Taiwan. China demanded that the US scrap its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, withdraw its troops from Taiwan, and sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The US persuaded China by arguing that scrapping its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan was practically impossible, as it would need the approval of Congress. In the end, the US agreed to let the treaty lapse automatically one year after notifying Taiwan of its termination. The establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and China prompted China to reform and open its doors to the world.

DPP candidate says no to declaring Taiwan’s independence

In his essay “My Plan to Preserve Peace in the Taiwan Strait” published in the Wall Street Journal on July 4, Lai Ching-te, vice president of Taiwan who was elected as the DPP’s presidential candidate in April of this year, wrote that he would not declare Taiwan’s independence even if he wins the presidential election in January 2024. July 4 is Independence Day in the US.

Lai has positioned himself as a “pragmatic worker striving towards Taiwanese independence.” The fact that he stressed he wouldn’t attempt to unilaterally change the status quo even if he was elected president seems to have been intended to reassure the US regarding concerns of a contingency. The Taiwanese presidential election will coincide with the launch of presidential campaigns in the US. It seems highly likely that conflict will intensify across the Taiwan Strait.

By Jung In-hwan, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

Related stories

Most viewed articles