6:01 p.m., May 23, 2022, modified at 9:50 a.m., May 24, 2022
On the occasion of a trip to Tokyo in Japan and a meeting with the Prime Minister of the country, Joe Biden, the American president, answered in the affirmative to the question of a journalist: “Are you ready to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if needed? » China considers the island as part of its territory to the point of making imaginable, for some, the landing of the army on the Taiwanese coast. Valérie Niquet*, head of the Asia division at the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS) and associate researcher at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, puts this risk into perspective and puts the American statements into context.
What should we think of Joe Biden’s statement?
It’s an ambiguous statement, as always with him. One can wonder if it is perfectly thought out because it is a total questioning of the strategy of “strategic ambiguity” of the United States vis-à-vis Taiwan. The White House later declared that American strategic policy had not changed on this issue. It is nevertheless interesting because it is the third time that Joe Biden has made these remarks and that he does it this time in Tokyo, therefore in Asia, before a meeting of the Quad (a diplomatic group bringing together Australia, India , Japan and the United States, Ed). Joe Biden does not believe China is ready to invade Taiwan. On the other hand, he must absolutely respond to the criticisms, which appeared in particular in the Republican ranks, on the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan and on the attitude of the country at the time of the war in Ukraine. The Americans both very accurately predicted the Russian offensive while quickly declaring that they would not engage militarily in the conflict anyway. This time, it’s about preventing the Chinese from thinking they can invade Taiwan because the United States won’t intervene.
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What is ” strategic ambiguity theorized by the United States vis-à-vis Taiwan?
The United States has a commitment with the island: the Taiwan Relations Act. It is a law passed by Congress in 1979. It requires providing weapons to Taiwan so that the island can defend itself and maintain a military level to prepare for a Chinese invasion. This was not the case with Ukraine, which was not part of any alliance, including NATO, to defend itself. The agreement specifies that a possible attack by China against Taiwan would be considered an extremely important element that would affect the United States directly.
In the event of a direct attack from China on Taiwan, it is possible that the Americans will come to its aid
As such, in this text, there is no promise of American intervention in the event of war in the Taiwan Strait. On the other hand, this possibility is not excluded either. The expert community has always interpreted this agreement as follows: if the conflict resulted from a Taiwanese “provocation”, that is to say a declaration of independence leading to a Chinese response, the American intervention in favor of Taiwan would be uncertain. Otherwise, in the event of a direct attack from China, it is possible that the Americans will come to its aid.
Can the course of the war in Ukraine and the resulting international protests deter China from an offensive?
This is my analysis. I am not one of those who say that China is ready to attack Taiwan or take it over within five years. But the Chinese maneuvers are made to show Taiwan that any resistance is useless in the face of its power. Even if Xi Jinping has very warm words, the Chinese capacities in a conflict to seize it are considered limited. In view of what is happening in Ukraine, the Chinese attitude is now much more cautious and the authorities realize that a landing on the island would require considerable preparation, which would be immediately detected by the United States.
Beijing realized it wouldn’t be a walk in the park
It would then be necessary to cross the 130 kilometers of the Taiwan Strait, all under American strikes and being able to organize a permanent rotation to resupply the army. Beijing realized that it would not be a walk in the park, but a very expensive operation to the point that the regime could be threatened. Especially if the population considers that it is totally risky with a considerable human cost. There is also the question of sanctions: the Chinese tended to persuade themselves, like the Russians, that the West was very weak, incapable of uniting. But they realize that the sanctions against Russia are very severe, including those taken in Asia by Japan. This fear exists while the Chinese economy, which is not doing very well at the moment, is totally dependent on the outside world. What has made it rich is access to the WTO, to the markets of developed countries and to technology transfers.
What are the positions of France and the European Union?
The position of France, the European Union and the United States is to recognize the People’s Republic of China and therefore not to have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. But since the Covid crisis, in particular, Taiwan’s image has been considerably strengthened. Statements by Josep Borrel (High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, editor’s note) and the European Parliament pushed to improve ties with Taiwan, including at the economic level. There is a real evolution.
What is Taiwan’s status?
Taiwan can be called a quasi-state even though there are only 14 countries that officially recognize it. It is a very special status: it is not a country recognized by the international community but it has all the characteristics. An ideological break within a state is a known situation in Europe, it is what existed between the FRG and the GDR until the fall of the Berlin wall. But at the time, East Germany had not put a veto against the double diplomatic representation at the UN: there were therefore two seats, that of the GDR and that of the FRG. This is the difference with the situation today: China strictly imposes that the recognition of its country leads to the termination of diplomatic relations with Taiwan. It refuses its representation at the UN and with other major bodies such as the WHO for example.
* She just posted Taiwan versus China published by Tallandier.
The agreement specifies that a possible attack by China against Taiwan would be considered an extremely important element that would affect the United States directly. As such, in this text, there is no promise of American intervention in the event of war in the Taiwan Strait. On the other hand, this possibility is not excluded either. The expert community has always interpreted this agreement as follows: if the conflict resulted from a Taiwanese “provocation”, that is to say a declaration of independence leading to a Chinese response, the American intervention in favor of Taiwan would be uncertain. Otherwise, in the event of a direct attack from China, it is possible that the Americans will come to its aid.
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