Why is Taiwan now so important to US politicians?

US House Speaker Pelosi’s Taiwan visit led to a crisis between the US and China; now more US officials are visiting.

Honour guard members take part in a Taiwanese flag-raising ceremony at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan on August 6, 2022 [File: Jameson Wu/Reuters]

Another senior US politician is visiting Taiwan as Chinese military drills around the independent island have just wound down.

Described as rehearsals for a potential invasion of the island, the unprecedented Chinese live-fire exercises were sparked by the visit of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi in early August.

The visit by Pelosi – the highest ranking US official to travel to Taiwan in 25 years – led to a major crisis between China and the United States.

Twelve days after Pelosi’s trip, a delegation led by US Senator Ed Markey landed on the island.

On Thursday, Marsha Blackburn, a Republican senator who sits on the Senate’s commerce and armed services committees, touched down in Taipei.

“I just landed in Taiwan to send a message to Beijing – we will not be bullied,” Blackburn tweeted.

So, why are so many US politicians visiting Taiwan now?

US-China rivalry

The US views China as its main strategic rival and high-level engagement between Washington and Beijing is important to keep the difficult relationship stable.

But the US has also in the past decade placed greater emphasis on its support for Taiwan as a response to what Washington perceives as China’s increasingly assertive actions in the East Asia region.

In 2021, the US, Australia, and the United Kingdom announced a new trilateral security alliance – dubbed AUKUS – in an apparent attempt to counter China’s growth in the Asia-Pacific region.

China claims the democratically governed Taiwan as its own and has pledged to bring it under Chinese control, by force if necessary.

Beijing’s increasingly assertive stance towards Taiwan appears to signal that “future crises in the Taiwan Straits are likely”, according to professors Owen Greene and Christoph Bluth of the University of Bradford.

Without a response to such assertive posturing now, Chinese leaders could be led to believe that the US is unlikely to become militarily involved if a crisis engulfs Taiwan.

Even before Pelosi’s visit, Beijing had stepped up military activities, including regular incursions into Taiwan’s air identification zone, since President Tsai Ing-wen was first elected in 2016.

From ‘strategic ambiguity’ to strategic clarity

The US policy towards Taiwan has involved what is known as “strategic ambiguity”.

This policy approach involves the US – which is bound by a law that it must provide Taipei with means to defend itself – helping to build up Taiwan’s military defences on the island.

“Ambiguity” resides in the US not giving concrete guarantees that Washington would directly intervene if Taipei came under attack from China.

Recent events indicate that ambiguousness towards Taiwan’s defence is giving way to more candid comments by US leaders that they will support Taiwan in the face of Chinese aggression.

The strongest signal of a shift away from strategic ambiguity came in May when US President Joe Biden said he would use force to defend Taiwan if it was attacked by China.

Biden said while the US agrees with the “one China policy”, the idea that “Taiwan can be taken by force” is “not appropriate”. White House officials later told reporters there is “no change in US policy towards Taiwan”.

The US, under the one-China policy, recognises the People’s Republic of China as the “sole” and “legal” government of China. However, that policy does not mean that Washington recognises “Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan”.

Some analysts believe the US is shifting from strategic ambiguity to “strategic clarity” on Taiwan and its defence.

“This time Biden’s statement itself seems illogical but the sentiment and signal it sends are politically very useful,” Wen-ti Sung, a political scientist who teaches at Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Program, told Al Jazeera earlier this year.

During her visit, Pelosi appeared to add clarity to the debate by saying “America stands with Taiwan”.

“We are supporters of the status quo,” she said. “We don’t want anything to happen to Taiwan by force.”

The US wants Taiwan to have freedom with security and the US will not back away from that, she added.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi called Pelosi’s visit an “out-and-out farce”, and accused the US of violating his country’s “sovereignty under the guise of so-called ‘democracy’”.

War in Ukraine

The invasion of Ukraine drew attention to China’s longstanding threat to use force to annex self-governing and democratic Taiwan.

Taiwan stepped up its alert level at the start of the war in Ukraine, concerned that China might take advantage of a world distracted by Russia’s invasion to move against Taipei.

In the first week of the invasion, a delegation of former senior US defence and security officials – led by the one-time chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen – arrived in Taiwan.

In July, the head of the US Central Intelligence Service said the Russian invasion of Ukraine was affecting Beijing’s calculations on Taiwan in terms of when and how it might take place, rather than whether it might invade, CIA Director William Burns said.

China, Burns said, is likely realising from the example of Ukraine that “you don’t achieve quick, decisive victories with underwhelming force”.

“Our sense is that it probably affects less the question of whether the Chinese leadership might choose some years down the road to use force to control Taiwan, but how and when they would do it,” Burns told the Aspen Security Forum.

“I suspect the lesson that the Chinese leadership and military are drawing is that you’ve got to amass overwhelming force if you’re going to contemplate that in the future,” he said.

China has not condemned Russia’s war against Ukraine and has not joined international sanctions against Moscow.

Domestic US politics

In a Bloomberg opinion piece, historian Niall Ferguson said one reason for Biden’s more hawkish approach to Beijing on Taiwan may be domestic politics as the US heads into mid-term elections.

“That being tough on China is a vote-winner – or, to put it differently, that doing anything the Republicans can portray as ‘weak on China’ is a vote-loser,” Ferguson said.

US-based independent political fact-checking website Politifact found that US candidates are using political ads promising to be tough on China or attacking rivals as being too soft on China.

China as a theme in the election campaign coincides with an unfavourable view of China among Americans “whether because they view it as an economic or security threat, or whether they blame it for the COVID-19 pandemic”, Politifact reported.

A poll in 2021 by Gallup, found “45 percent of Americans now say China is the greatest enemy of the US, more than double the percentage who said so in 2020”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies