What the future holds: attack on Taiwan?

After the virtual meeting between Biden and Xi, there seems to be hope for a nonconfrontational relationship between the two most powerful countries on Earth. But the issue of Taiwan is an explosive problem with no clear solution in sight

The virtual meeting on November 15th between President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping came as a rainy day in the dry season. Up until that moment, the US-China relationship was at an all-time low. After the years of Trump’s administration, the relationship did not exactly restart on the right foot as Biden took office: the talks in Anchorage amounted in not much more than an insults and threatens exchange, the NATO communiqué following the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels on June 14th said that “China's stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security” and the new AUKUS agreement was seen as a measure to counter China in the Pacific (rightly so).

But cooler heads can prevail and there seem to be space for cooperation between the two nations, as the Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action showed on November 10th. The two Presidents remarks before the virtual meeting were extremely amicable: Biden started off remembering the many hours the two men spent together when they were both Vice-Presidents of their country, travelling through China, while Xi Jinping referred to Biden as his “old friend”. According to the readouts of the meeting, the two leaders had a straightforward conversation, that lasted more than three hours, about many topics, ranging from trade to climate change and human rights issues. The main idea that both parties wanted to make clear is that, regardless of their differences, their relation can be a competition, but should never degenerate to the point of conflict.

Nevertheless, one issue seems too hot for the last meeting to be reassuring: Taiwan. The People Republic of China believes the island to be a rebel province that must be brought back to the fold. After all, its military forces (People’s Liberation Army, People’s Liberation Army Navy…) still bear the “Liberation” title precisely because China will be considered fully liberated only when Taiwan will come under Beijing control. This situation came to be as a result of the Chinese Civil War between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang). At the end of that war, the defeated Kuomintang retreated to the island of Taiwan. After the diplomatic maneuvers of the seventies by President Nixon, the US recognize the PPC as the legitimate government of China, while still defending the autonomy of Taiwan.

The situation now is the recipe for the perfect storm: China cannot back down, because doing so would be a betrayal of one of its core principle (that is, the reunification after the “century of shame” of colonialism) and because, being an ascent power, it needs to demonstrate its authority in its region; the US cannot back down, because doing so would mean abandon one of the few functioning democracy in East Asia and that would undermine their relationship with their other Asian allies (especially Japan and South Korea) that feel the pressure of a growing China; and Taiwanese people do not want to back down, as the result of the 2020 election shows, in which Tsai Ing-Wen was confirmed as President with a platform of opposition to the reunification with the mainland.

What keeps increasing the hazard of the situation is Chinese military build-up: in the years after the end of the Civil War, Taiwan was safe because it was protected by the sea and the US Navy thus the PLA Navy and PLA Air Force, just created, had no hope to be effective. Now, the Chinese have the biggest navy by sheer number and in the next months they will launch their third aircraft carrier, much more advanced than the other two already at sea. Meanwhile, Taiwan has just announced the deployment of 64 F-16V jet fighter, bought from the US as part of a larger shipment of 141 total aircraft. The modernization of Taiwan Air Force is more necessary than ever, after the record number of Chinese military aircraft that have fled through Taiwan air defense zone in the past months, but the F-16V is a fourth-generation fighter jet and is not believed to be much effective against Chinese fifth-generation J-20, equipped with stealth technology and many other significant features.

China has repeated that its determination to resolve the issue in a pacific way, but at the same time has cautioned that “attempts by the Taiwan authorities to look for US support for their independence agenda as well as the intention of some Americans to use Taiwan to contain China […] are extremely dangerous, just like playing with fire. Whoever plays with fire will get burnt”. In this white-hot environment, Biden repeated gaffes - the last one just the day after the meeting when he called Taiwan independent (just to walk back immediately after) – do not help to stabilize the situation. Many experts fear that in the next five to ten years China will be able to invade Taiwan successfully, but right now the priority should be to advert an accidental start of a conflict which will surely have disastrous repercussions.

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