David and Goliath
Emboldened by US-led global support, Taiwan has threatened to strike back at China. Amit Agnihotri considers America’s ‘carrot and stick’ policy in dealing with the Asian Dragon
Taking a leaf out of the Biblical parable of David and Goliath, tiny Taiwan has vowed to hit back at its giant neighbour China, if attacked.
The Beijing-Taipei conflict has been simmering for decades but it has only really come under the spotlight over the past few years as the US became involved in an undeclared cold war for global supremacy with China.
At the root of the conflict lies Taiwan’s deep desire to remain sovereign, as the island is guided by a separate Constitution and has a democratically elected leadership.
In contrast, China is run by the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party, considers the island a ‘breakaway province’ and wants to reunite it with the mainland.
The trigger for the latest Chinese aggression against Taiwan was the August 2 visit of the US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, despite warnings from Beijing.
It was hailed among the pro-US camp as Pelosi calling China’s bluff, but the move infuriated Beijing, which threatened Taipei by conducting massive military exercises and firing ballistic missiles around the island.
On the face of it, the balance of power between China and Taiwan is asymmetrical, given the huge difference in their geographical size, as well as in their military and economic capacity.
Yet the way Taiwan stood up to Chinese aggression reminded many of the poor shepherd David, who took on his much more powerful adversary Goliath in the inspiring story.
‘The closer the incursions are to Taiwan, the stronger our countermeasures will be,’ said Major General Lin Wen-Huang, who serves as Taiwan’s deputy chief of the general staff for operations and planning. ‘For Chinese aircraft and ships that enter our territorial waters and airspace within 12 nautical miles of the island, the national army will exercise the right to self-defence and counterattack without exception.’
As expected, China played down the remarks. ‘Taiwan is a province of China and it does not have a defence ministry. The act of the Taiwan authorities to heighten tensions does not mean anything,’ Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian insisted.
Earlier, too, Beijing had provoked its tiny neighbour by flying fighter jets over its airspace, which had prompted the US to deploy aircraft carriers in the South China Sea to deter the Asian Dragon.
Taiwan’s bold stand against China was the result of support the island has been receiving from the international community in its struggle to remain independent.
At present, around 13 countries in the world recognise Taiwan but the greatest support comes from the US, which is preparing to provide direct security aid worth $4.5 billion over the next four years under the proposed Taiwan Policy Act, 2022.This will be over and above the $1.1 billion worth of military equipment America approved for Taiwan recently. In 2020, Taiwan purchased 100 Harpoon Coastal Defence Systems from the US for $2.4 billion to ramp up its security.
Besides sales of sophisticated surveillance and missile systems, the proposed legislation allows the US to accord Taiwan the status of a major non-NATO ally and impose sanctions on China, should it try to annex Taipei by force.
The Taiwan Policy Act of 2022, authored by US Senators Bob Menendez and Lindsey Graham, was passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 14.The proposed legislation provides for the US Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defence to fast track Taiwan’s defence modernisation in the event of a Chinese invasion.
Unsurprisingly, Beijing responded to the bill by saying the legislation could shake the foundations of the US-China relations and have serious consequences for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
However, the US has ignored the remarks and continues to arm Taiwan. Following Pelosi’s two-day August 2 visit, a bi-partisan delegation of the US House of Representatives, led by Stephanie Murphy, vice chair of the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations under the House Armed Services Committee, landed in Taipei on September 8 to discuss the island’s security with President Tsai Ing-wen, National Security Council Secretary-General Wellington Koo and foreign minister Jaushieh Joseph Wu.
In July, Murphy had submitted an amendment to the National Defence Authorisation Act for 2023, which urges the US government to conduct national-level war games covering possible Taiwan invasion scenarios. In April, Menendez led a Senate delegation to Taipei.
The renewed focus on Taiwan, despite the raging Russia-Ukraine war, can be gauged from the fact that this year alone, seven US delegations, comprising 28 lawmakers, have visited Taipei so far to deepen cooperation between the two countries.
The US appears to be following a carrot and stick policy in dealing with China, which is trying to replace the former as the world’s largest economy and is already the second largest military spender globally.
Recently, Washington sent its aircraft carriers in the South China Sea to deter China from attacking Taiwan but also signed a pact with Beijing to facilitate audits of Chinese companies operating in the US.
In 2020, the US-led, four-nation Quad was formalised to secure the strategic Indo-Pacific from growing Chinese aggression in the region. Beijing had then responded by terming the grouping as an ‘Asian NATO’ and accused the US of whipping up Cold War sentiments.
In fact, Beijing has been trying to expand its global footprint through the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, as well as via trade pacts with the Southeast Asian economies, a 25-year trade deal with Iran to gain a foothold in West Asia, trade with the EU, reaching out to smaller countries in South Asia, and, more recently, by forging an anti-US axis with Russia.
In February this year, Russia attacked Ukraine, a former province of the erstwhile Soviet Union, as it feared the prospect of its neighbour joining NATO, which, in effect, would have taken the US-led alliance forces right up to Moscow’s doorstep.
Since then, the West has been doing everything possible to arm Ukraine and control Russia’s aggressive President Vladimir Putin, amid concerns that Chinese President Xi Jinping may be tempted to take a cue from Moscow.
Taiwan is a major supplier of electronic chips that have become a key driver of economies worldwide and annexation of the island could provide China with an edge in the highly competitive global market.
Further, control over Taiwan could allow China to project its power in the western Pacific Ocean and present a threat to the US military base in Guam.
US President Joe Biden does not fancy either scenario. Little wonder, then, that he has vowed to defend Taiwan, should a theoretical attack by the Asian Dragon become a reality.
Amit Agnihotri is a Delhi-based journalist who has worked with several national newspapers and focuses on politics and policy issues