At the Shangri Dialogue in Singapore earlier this June, at what has become an annual jamboree of regional Defence Ministers organised by the London-based think tank IISS, attendees, in-person and remote, witnessed a showdown between the two main global rivals, the United States and China. Some 500 delegates from 42 countries including over 60 Ministers and senior officials gathered at the event in that swanky hotel to deliberate and debate on possible solutions to regional issues. Though delegates had the Ukraine war on their minds, the centrepiece of the conference turned was a verbal duel between the Us Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and the Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe. This was Asia, hence unsurprisingly Taiwan seemed to edge out Ukraine as the main apple of discord between the two mega-rivals. The conclusion appeared to underscore the veracity of an old Talmudic adage that just because there is a problem, does not necessarily mean there is a solution.
The two mornings they spoke respectively in were, as is wont to be at this time of the year, hot in Singapore but the exchange was icy. In the debate, Austin led the way. While formally conceding the t point made with relentless persistence by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore that no nation in the region should be forced to make binary choices, Austin proceeded to argue in favour of US positions, as doubtless he was expected to do and trenchantly criticize Chinese policies. He gave a long list of problems that China had with countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and India. He concluded that China's approaches were getting" more coercive and aggressive".
On the core issue that divides the US and China, Taiwan, Austin argued that the stakes are really high. He laid down the basic American position. He said: "We do not support Taiwan independence. And we stand firmly behind the principle that cross-strait differences must be resolved by peaceful means". But then came his coup de grace with his remark that "Our policy hasn't changed. But unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be true for the PRC", using the formal name for that country-the People's Republic of China, differentiating it from 'China', a subtle jab which China cannot complain about, nor be happy with.
Minister Wei Fenghe was certainly not amused. Speaking next day he adumbrated that Beijing-Washington relations will never improve, if the US continues with its efforts to "suppress and contain China on all fronts". He accused the US of "smearing" China, and using "threats" against her. But his hardest response on the core divisive issue came when he said: "Taiwan is first and foremost China's Taiwan". Then there was the chilling repartee that deserves to be quoted in full: "If anyone dares to secede Taiwan from China...we will not hesitate to fight. We will fight at all costs, and we will fight to the end. This is the only choice for China. No one should underestimate the resolve of the Chinese armed forces to defend China's sovereignty and territorial integrity". Very strong words, showing that knuckles were bared, with no holds barred! It was well and truly a showdown in Singapore's Shangri La.
What then are the differences in approach to the Taiwan issue. China claims Taiwan as a part of its territory, viewing it as a renegade province delinked for now due to adverse historical circumstances, but viewing reunification by peaceful means as the goal, or even by force if necessary (though Beijing is circumspect enough not to emphasize that option). The US maintains its "one China" policy, basing it on three principal documents; first, the three US-China communiques reached in 1972, 1979, and 1982; second, the Taiwan Relations Act, adopted by the Congress in 1979; and third, the "Six Assurances" which President Reagan had rendered to Taiwan in 1982.
There have been some gaps in understanding and action with regard to the communiques, some small but subtle and some substantive. In the 1972 communique he US "acknowledges" the Chinese position that "Taiwan is part of China" which the Chinese translate as "renshi dao" or "takes note of". In the 1979 communique the Chinese translate "acknowledge" as "chengren", which implies agreement or acceptance, from which Beijing concludes the US accepts the ownership of Taiwan by China, which the US denies. With regard to the 1982 communique which called for gradual reduction of US arms sales to Taiwan "leading to a final solution", it simply has not happened. The US argues it is because China has reneged on its pledge for a peaceful solution.
The Taiwan Relations Act and the "Six Assurances" are internal to the US. The first authorises continued commercial, cultural and other relations" between the US and Taiwan, and obliges the US to provide weapons to Taiwan to defend itself. The "Six Assurances" include US pledges that Washington has not agreed to set a date for ending weapon transfers too Taipei, that the US will not play any mediation role between China and Taiwan and that America has not agreed to revise the Taiwan Relations Act. The "Six Assurances" were declassified by the Trump Administration in August 2020.The Chinese position is that the Taiwan Relations Act and the "Six Assurances" are in violation of China-US bilateral agreement as reflected in the three joint communiques.
On the US side the Administration argues that Washington is constitutionally obliged to provide Taiwan "", meaning ", to defend itself. So far, the US has displayed a policy of "strategic ambiguity", but now the Chinese are concerned that the US may be coming out of it. Since President Joe Biden assumed office there have been four arms deals between Washington and Taipei. Furthermore, President Biden has at times made off the -cuff remarks suggesting the US will fight to defend Taiwan, though in each case, thereafter, the Whitehouse has walked back on it. Nonetheless, a well-known Chinese analyst, Professor Shi Yinhong has extrapolated that these actions have "significantly eroded "the policy of "strategic ambiguity". A small consolation is that in an in-person interface in Luxembourg a few days later, China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi and the US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan agreed to keep lines of communication open, but nothing very positive emanated from that meeting.
In "game theory" practised in the social sciences there is a popular model called "the game of chicken". Entails two antagonists driving toward each other in a collision course. The impact which will surely destroy both, can only be avoided if one swerves. But who does so, risks being taunted as a "chicken" or coward, and risks becoming an object of contempt. On Taiwan, China and the US are set on this collision course with neither side showing any inclination to concede. The world remains on tenterhooks. Either good sense must prevail soon, a phenomenon that appears fiendishly distant, or a deus ex machina ('god out of a machine ') must emerge on the scene to turn the tide of events, as in a classical Greek drama. Should neither happen, we could all be inexorably hurtling towards a catastrophe of gargantuan proportions.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President and Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg
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