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US only uses Taiwan to fulfill its own interests

By Lau Siu-kai | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2024-01-15 16:26

Photo taken on July 21, 2019 from Xiangshan Mountain shows the Taipei 101 skyscraper in Taipei. [Photo/Xinhua]

Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party was elected the next leader of Taiwan in the local leadership election held on the Chinese island on Saturday. Compared with the 2016 and 2020 leadership elections on the island, the approach of the United States to the 2024 election has been relatively "low-key", which reflects how Washington defines its interests given the present state of Sino-US relations.

Over the years, the US has been making efforts to win over allies and partners, especially those in Asia, to build a front against China. It has been attacking China, and taking measures to contain it as well as isolate it from the international community.

Taiwan a pawn on US' strategic chessboard

The US is committed to strengthening its military and "official" ties with Taiwan, not only to bolster the island's "defense capabilities" but also to strengthen Taiwan's role as a "chess piece" which can be used to encircle the mainland. At the same time, "Taiwan independence" forces on the island have become increasingly arrogant and overbearing, not only rejecting the 1992 Consensus, the ballast of cross-Strait peace, but also challenging the one-China principle bottom line, leading to tense cross-Strait relations in recent years.

Many US officials, politicians and experts have identified Taiwan as a "flash point" between Beijing and Washington which could trigger a war between them.

Given these facts, US political circles and Western media, somewhat "unexpectedly", paid limited attention, at least outwardly, to the local leadership election in Taiwan and refrained from publicly favoring any candidate. Of course, we have no way of knowing the measures the US took behind the scenes — and therefore some secret maneuvers cannot be ruled out. Still, multiple signs indicate that no matter who becomes the island's leader, the US believes it can keep him or her under a tight leash, without allowing him/her to influence the US' policy toward the mainland or interfering with that policy, especially when the US' attention is almost wholly diverted somewhere else today.

The US is so confident because, given the fact that the power difference between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait is now a chasm and Taiwan has been increasingly isolated in the world, the island has become irrevocably dependent on Washington for security. No leader on the island can defy the will of the US, because tragically, Taiwan has no autonomy or dignity left.

In the past, former US president George W. Bush reprimanded then Taiwan leader Chen Shui-bian for his excessive provocations against the mainland, and asked him to stop doing so. This lesson is still fresh in the minds of the "Taiwan independence" forces, though the US may consider a reunified China harmful to its strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

The view that "Taiwan's status is undecided" has gained currency even among today's many US politicians. The US further insists that the reunification of the Chinese nation must be contingent on the consent of Taiwan residents and that it has no "obligation" to promote or facilitate peaceful cross-Strait reunification. The US has for long used different means to prevent the two sides of the Taiwan Strait from moving toward peaceful reunification.

But, at the same time, Washington does not want to provoke Beijing into realizing national reunification through non-peaceful means by blatantly intervening in the Taiwan island's leadership election or siding with the "Taiwan independence" forces, because that would destroy the fragile rapport between the two powers brought about by the San Francisco summit between the top leaders of China and the US in November 2023, triggering a conflict between them.

US mired in political instability, internal strife

At present and in the foreseeable future, the United States is particularly averse to militarily engaging the Chinese mainland over Taiwan, because it cannot handle such a conflict due to the lack of overwhelming military power and grave domestic and foreign troubles.

Tensions between Beijing and Washington have somewhat eased, but that does not mean Washington has substantially changed its policy toward Beijing and Taipei, even though it has perfunctorily reiterated its opposition to "Taiwan independence". It has not given any indication, though, that it does not want the Taiwan question to exacerbate tensions with Beijing.

Although some Americans still believe Washington has the military capability to defeat Beijing, many US strategists are not confident that it could do so. To be sure, China's military strength, especially its naval strength, has grown over the past couple of decades. Consequently, in the short run, reducing cross-Strait tensions and preventing the Chinese island of Taiwan from issuing provocative statements targeted at Beijing are in the US' best interests.

The US' strategy to help Ukraine in order to prolong the Moscow-Kyiv conflict and weaken Russia has been failing. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has consumed a lot of US and Western military power and brought severe economic hardships to many European countries. The war-weariness of the Western public has become increasingly evident. The US cannot continue this proxy war indefinitely, but it has no "face-saving" exit option. Failure in this proxy conflict will severely damage the international credibility and status of the US, deepen the rift between it and major European countries, and divide the Western camp. And the repercussions will hurt the US in multiple ways for a long time to come.

In the Palestine-Israel conflict, too, the US has been supporting Israel's attack of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip. As a result, it faces the threat of being politically isolated from the international community and globally condemned, which has significantly weakened its "soft power".

If the Palestine-Israel conflict were to eventually expand into a large-scale war in the Middle East, the US would be embroiled in a protracted war wherein it would be a loser in all aspects, no matter the outcome.

As the US presidential election approaches, the political struggles and divisions within the US will intensify and become intractable. Unsurprisingly, some US politicians will turn to the old trick of playing "China-bashing" card to garner votes.

But the fact is that the US is mired in political instability and severe internal strife, lacks absolute military superiority, is overburdened with debt and does not have the ability or the will power to fight for Taiwan, and US citizens are not prepared to sacrifice their lives and resources for the safety of a distant "friend".

Incontrovertibly, cross-Strait relations ultimately depend on the vicissitudes of Sino-US relations. In the foreseeable future, the US, which is afflicted by intractable internal and external troubles, including the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine conflicts, would not want to open a new military front against China, which is now a major global military power.

Even though Washington's intention to use Taiwan to contain Beijing remains unchanged, it should prevent Taiwan from triggering a Sino-US military conflict in the foreseeable future. Although the election of Lai Ching-te as the island leader will heighten the tensions and undermine cross-Strait economic ties, especially if Lai doesn't refrain from spewing toxic separatist rhetoric.

Nevertheless, at this stage, the US, acting to safeguard its interests, will likely exert pressure on Lai to not take measures that would damage Sino-US ties beyond repair.

Irrespective of what the US strategic calculations are, over the past few years, the Communist Party of China has introduced a vigorous national reunification policy. National reunification is now an irreversible process. No matter which political party is in power in Taiwan and how hard the US and its allies and partners strive to forestall it, they cannot stop China from achieving complete national reunification.

At the San Francisco summit, the top Chinese leader told his US counterpart that "the United States should back up its stance of not supporting 'Taiwan independence' with concrete actions, stop arming Taiwan, and support China's peaceful reunification. China will eventually be reunified, and it will be reunified". In this year's New Year message, the top leader declared that the reunification of the motherland is a historical necessity, and compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Straits must join hands to share the great glory of national rejuvenation.

Beijing can thus be expected to double down on efforts to use economic, political, diplomatic, and military means to realize national reunification within an appropriate period and at the least cost.

The author is emeritus professor of sociology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a consultant to the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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