US, Taiwan to grow closer amid China tensions: Experts

The United States is likely to move closer to Taiwan as Washington hardens its attitude towards Beijing, while China is likely to continue to ratchet up its pressure on Taiwan as part of its campaign for eventual reunification, American foreign policy watchers said.

Despite these pressures, the peaceful stalemate that has held for the past four decades is likely to continue, they said at an event marking the 40th anniversary of a US law governing America's unofficial relations with Taiwan.

The Taiwan Relations Act allows the US to continue its commercial, cultural and other relations with Taiwan while recognising it as a part of China.

China has recently stepped up a diplomatic and economic pressure campaign - ranging from reducing tourist visits to Taiwan to chipping away at its international allies - to coerce Taiwan into being more compliant and accepting of reunification, said senior political scientist Michael Chase at Rand Corporation.

Two Chinese jets crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait on March 31. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, speaking via a video link at the event, said the unusual move broke China and Taiwan's "tacit agreement" to respect the boundary to reduce the risk of conflict.

Brookings Institution foreign policy fellow Ryan Hass said: "Beijing appears very determined to instil a sense of vulnerability and inevitability in the people of Taiwan. They want to convince the people of Taiwan that their future lies with the mainland - the answers to their problems are in Beijing."

China will become more aggressive as it gains strength and confidence in its approach, said Mr Hass, a former China director in the National Security Council under the Obama administration. "But as long as it believes that time is on its side, it will avoid using force to compel unification, given both the cost and risk of military operations and the lasting resentment that such actions would stir in Taiwan."

Recently retired senior Asia diplomat Susan Thornton also rejected the notion that China is in a hurry for reunification. She said: "China has a lot more urgent issues on its plate and can still afford to take a good long time to consider the resolution of cross-strait issues."

America cannot back down, nor does it want to, the experts said.

According to Mr Hass, the US would remain vigorously engaged in supporting the maintenance of the cross-strait status quo, not in an effort to use Taiwan to challenge China but out of recognition that America's global standing was linked to the future of Taiwan.

"If the US were to capitulate to Chinese pressure and turn its back on our friends in Taiwan, it would crater the credibility of America's security commitments, not just in Asia but around the world. Even as America's politics change, I don't think this will," he said.

Ms Thornton argued that the cross-strait status quo of "constrained coexistence" can continue because it was built on a stable foundation.

This foundation, she said, consists of the realities that Taiwan is in practice a self-governing polity, that there is a global consensus around the One China principle, and that there are de facto two systems in operation on either side of the Taiwan Strait.

Given its tensions and continued wariness towards China, Washington is less likely to worry that moving towards Taiwan will spoil the US-China relationship, said George Washington University international affairs professor Robert Sutter. Neither is it likely to fret that doing so will make its partners in the Asia-Pacific region anxious.

The US remains committed to supporting Taiwan under the One China policy, said State Department Asia diplomat W. Patrick Murphy at the event, adding that the US rejects the threat of the use of force to compel the people of Taiwan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2019, with the headline 'US, Taiwan to grow closer amid China tensions: Experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe