TOKYO - The Taiwan Strait poses the gravest threat to regional security in the event of a military accident there as tensions threaten to boil over, even if the preference may be to preserve the status quo, experts told a regional forum on Friday (May 21).
"Nobody is willing to change the status quo either for Taiwan independence or inclusion into the Chinese regime," former Japanese ambassador Kenichiro Sasae said at the 26th International Conference on The Future of Asia organised by Nikkei.
But he noted the brinkmanship in the strategic military expansionism in the region by both the United States and China.
Separately, US security ally Japan is shoring up its defences along its south-west island chain amid fears of a spillover from any conflict in Taiwan, which is just 110km off the coast of its westernmost point on Yonaguni.
The tipping point, former Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan told the same panel, may come when there's a military accident in the Taiwan Strait rather than a deliberate full-out war.
"The tempo and intensity of US-China competition will vary over time and issue. But the most extreme form of competition, which is war undertaken as an instrument of state policy, is so highly improbable as for all practical purposes to be impossible," he said.
He added that the superpowers will likely work to stave off an escalation of any fallout from a military accident in the East China Sea or the South China Sea, but Taiwan, seen by China as a renegade breakaway province, is different.
Mr Kausikan pointed to the "strongly ethno-nationalist narrative of China's humiliation and rejuvenation by which the Chinese Communist Party legitimates itself", as he said that the stakes are so high for Beijing that it will not back down.
He noted that how the situation pans out will depend on two factors: the direction of "volatile and unpredictable" Taiwanese politics and what the People's Liberation Army tells the Chinese leadership about "its capability to carry out kinetic operations against Taiwan while deterring the US from intervening".
Professor Jia Qingguo of Peking University said the situation around Taiwan was "the making of a perfect storm".
He cited such factors as the 2016 election of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who has rejected Beijing's proposal for the "one country, two systems" model, and an increase in official contact and arms sales by Washington to Taipei.
"As the US-China relationship deteriorated, the US Congress became very active in coming up with all kinds of legislation, challenging the sovereignty of China over Taiwan," Prof Jia said.
He warned that military conflict will become inevitable if Ms Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party moves in the direction of independence, or if the US encourages Taiwan to move in that direction.
Dr Evan Medeiros, former senior director for Asia at the US National Security Council, noted a convergence of perceptions both in the democratic world and in China of an increased risk of conflict and confrontation.
"China's anxiety is growing, largely driven by shifts in American policies and perceptions and Taiwan's behaviour," he said. "What we don't know is, to what extent or at what point does Chinese anxiety turn into urgency."
Taiwan is on tenterhooks because of China's actions in Hong Kong, he noted, with the adoption of the National Security Law and the "complete evisceration" of the "one country, two systems" as a viable model.
"The biggest change in American perceptions about Taiwan is that Taiwan is no longer an issue about Washington's Asia strategy. If there is war over Taiwan, the debate will not be over whether we help our 24 million friends in the democracy of Taiwan," Dr Medeiros said.
"The debate will be about the first major conflict in this era of US-China strategic competition," he added, likening such an event to the Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949, when the Western allies launched a humanitarian supply-and-rescue mission during the first major Cold War crisis with the Soviet Union.