[Guest essay] Crisis and opportunity for Taiwan, the “most dangerous place on Earth”

Posted on : 2022-08-02 17:16 KST Modified on : 2022-08-02 17:16 KST
Taiwan has emerged as the most important security issue between powerful nations
A person holds up two Taiwanese flags during an event marking Taiwan National Day on Oct. 10, 2021, in Taipei. (AP/Yonhap News)
A person holds up two Taiwanese flags during an event marking Taiwan National Day on Oct. 10, 2021, in Taipei. (AP/Yonhap News)

Wang Hsin-Hsien
Wang Hsin-Hsien
By Wang Hsin-Hsien, professor at the Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies at National Chengchi University

The Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait have collectively been referred to as the three major powder kegs of East Asia. These days, the world’s attention has been focusing on the Taiwan Strait in particular.

In April 2021, the British weekly The Economist published a cover story on Taiwan, which it called the “most dangerous place on Earth.” For the past two years, Japan has stressed in its defense white papers that “stabilizing the situation surrounding Taiwan is important for Japan’s security and the stability of the international community.”

During his time in office, the late former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stressed that an “emergency for Taiwan is an emergency for Japan,” and US President Joe Biden has spoken several times about defending Taiwan. The European Parliament has underscored the importance of peace in the Taiwan Strait.

The Taiwan issue has only intensified in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. The idea of “today Ukraine, tomorrow Taiwan” has become a key theme in domestic and international public opinion and in political battles within Taiwan.

As for my opinion about the issue, I would first note how cross-strait relations have been in a deep chill since the 2016 presidential election in Taiwan, which was won by the “anti-China” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The DPP claimed another victory in January 2020, and with the COVID-19 pandemic erupting as well, Chinese authorities began criticizing Taiwan for “building itself up by latching on to the West” and “using the pandemic as an excuse to pursue independence.”

Statements by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders about Taiwan remain focused on “peaceful reunification.” But for the past several years, People’s Liberation Army aircraft and ships have been circling Taiwan, with military aircraft traveling along the centerline of the Taiwan Strait.

As Chinese military planes have made a habit of entering the southwestern part of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, this and the ongoing calls for “armed unification” with Taiwan that have been coming from China have only fanned tensions in cross-strait relations.

Second, China is viewing cross-straits issues as no longer being a China-Taiwan matter alone. It sees them as part of its own national development strategy and its strategy vis-a-vis the US. It also perceives them as connected with its own overall national security.

After coming to power, Chinese President Xi Jinping presented his so-called “Two Centenaries” goals. The first centenary marked the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s establishment in 2021, and the second referred to the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 2049. The aims of the plan involve establishing China as a “strong modern socialist country” and completing a great revival of the Chinese people.

The Taiwan question has especially become a key measure for the second centenary goal. Xi has said that Taiwan should consider its status and role when it comes to national rejuvenation, saying, “The Taiwan question arose out of the weakness and chaos of our nation, and it will be resolved as national rejuvenation becomes a reality.” The CCP has designated the Taiwan question as part of its strategy for national development, meaning dropping the issue is out of the question for the party.

The US and China have been engaged in full-on competition concerning the economy, trade, technology, and strategy since March 2018, even going so far as to compete in “vaccine diplomacy.” As the Taiwan question is an important part of the strategic competition between the US and China as well as its outpost, China is regarding the Taiwan question as the highest priority issue in US-China relations.

This is why the CCP has repeatedly emphasized its opposition to “outside interference” when it comes to its Taiwan policy. A significant portion of the phone call between Biden and Xi was spent discussing tensions across the Taiwan Strait, and whether Taiwan will be included as an itinerary in US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Asia has become another major issue between the US and China.

Taiwan has emerged as the most important security issue between powerful nations, and the Taiwan Strait is known as “the most dangerous place on Earth.” While this is ideal for Taiwan, it is also the source of the biggest threat Taiwan faces. Taiwan must tread cautiously and carefully, as if walking on thin ice. In the competition between the US and China, the Taiwan question is related to China’s key interests such as sovereignty, security and development.

The Taiwan question is a sensitive concern that can be most easily disturbed, and thus is being paid close attention by the international community. On the other hand, the various problems that are contested as part of a competition between powerful nations are akin to chips that can be easily traded for each country’s interests. The biggest risk faced by Taiwan is the alliance security dilemma, which posits that small countries like itself could be abandoned at any time.

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

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