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Local residents take shelter during the Wanan Air Raid Drill, a civilian drill held on the same day of the annual Han Kuang military exercises, in Taipei on 25 July 25. (Photo by Sam Yeh, AFP)

Tensions Rise on the Tiny Island with Outsized Strategic Importance

Taiwan’s capital city of Taipei conducted air raid drills yesterday in advance of planned military mobilization exercises. The drills come amid increased tension on the island as fears that China may try to assert control have grown, and U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi is considering the controversial move of visiting the island in a show of support.

China claims dominion over Taiwan, creating a nuanced approach to the region, where businesses and countries deal with Taiwan as an autonomous state, yet most officially recognize a One China policy that advances the status quo.

The New York Times reported that the U.S. government “has grown increasingly anxious this summer about China’s statements and actions regarding Taiwan, with some officials fearing that Chinese leaders might try to move against the self-governing island over the next year and a half.”

At a press conference in May after meeting with the Japanese prime minister, U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would defend Taiwan if it was attacked by China. While the White House said the statement was not a shift in U.S. policy, it is not in line with the policy of strategic ambiguity that had prevailed previously when U.S. officials spoke about Taiwan.

Predictably, China responded to the comments with increased assertions of sovereignty over the island, and it has become more aggressive in saying the Taiwan Strait—the spit of water as small as 86 nautical miles that separates Taiwan from the Chinese mainland—is Chinese territorial water and not international water as asserted by the United States and by a United Nations Treaty. However, despite the claims, China has not tried to enforce its claim.

In this setting, reports suggest Pelosi may be planning a trip to Taiwan in August, rescheduled from April (the trip was cancelled when she tested positive for COVID-19). She would be the highest ranking U.S. official to Taiwan since then Speaker Newt Gingrich visited the island in 1997. The reports prompted the Chinese Foreign Ministry to say China would take “resolute and strong measures” should she move forward with the trip. The entire episode has created a bit of hot political football within the United States, with the Biden Administration reportedly discouraging Pelosi while Congressional Republicans show an unusual solidarity with the Democratic speaker.

Another factor contributing to the Taiwanese tensions is Beijing’s recent coziness with Moscow. Ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin declared a new era of cooperation against Western aggression, which came as Russia had planned but not executed its invasion of Ukraine, the fear has been China would see the Russian war in Eastern Europe as a blueprint for taking control of Taiwan.

While Russia has clearly struggled in Ukraine, the idea of the invasion being a blueprint for China may still be apt—just instead of a blueprint of what to do, it could be a blueprint of what not to do.

The Taipei Times covered CIA Director Bill Burns’ remarks to the Aspen Security Forum, where he said China saw “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. … 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 also said that China likely noted the sanctions enacted against Russia and would take precautions to try to minimize the damage sanctions could do to China should other nations impose them.

Taiwan has become the focal point of Sino-U.S. relations. The United States sees the status quo as vital for the stability of the region, while China has said reunification is inevitable. “There are some places in the world that are of such extraordinary military and economic importance that a change in their status might signal the end of an era, or the beginning of a new global order,” an article in Forbes reported in 2020. “For this generation, Taiwan is such a place.”

The article shows that as the largest land mass between Japan and the Philippines, the United States sees Taiwan as a critical link in a chain that constrains maritime access to China and has ensured U.S. naval dominance of the Pacific for decades. Of course China, which has designs of joining and then surpassing the United States as a world superpower, sees the advantage of being less constrained.

“So if Taiwan fell under the sway of Beijing, either peacefully or by force, the strategic balance in the Western Pacific would be irreparably changed," the article said. "Other nations in the region would see it as the end of U.S. military dominance in the region, and their interpretation would be correct.”