The Taiwan Straits maybe the most volatile point in the Asia-Pacific. Even if this thin strip of water, separating Taiwan and China, is not the site of a great power collision this year it nevertheless will be a source of tension between Beijing and Washington.
The Communist Party of China claims Taiwan as “an inalienable” part of its own territory and has refused to rule out using force to make this a reality. Taiwan conversely wishes to continue governing itself and the island’s transformation into a vibrant liberal democracy, since the 1990s, has only reinforced this desire. While China’s political system has remained essentially the same its rapid economic rise has equipped it with the military might to actually act on its expansionist desires.
America has strong, albeit informal, ties with Taiwan and may aid it in the event of an attack by China. Although Washington is traditionally deliberately ambiguous about this under the Trump Administration America has been edging towards clarity.
Arms sales have been regularised, numerous pieces of pro-Taiwan legislation have been passed by Congress, and last year the White House authorised two high-level visits to Taipei. Not to mention this year’s last-minute ditching of self-imposed restrictions on US-Taiwan interactions by Secretary of State Pompeo. All of which signal America’s resolve. Yet, China with intensified military manoeuvres into Taiwan’s air and sea space wants to send a message too.
This will be a challenge for the incoming Biden team who already have a lot to deal with vis-à-vis China. Matters in the Taiwan Straits have heated up considerably since they were last all working in the White House. Defusing tensions seems sensible however turning back some of the recent advances made in US-Taiwan relations risks encouraging China to take its chances.