China Amps Up the Rhetoric at Shangri-La Dialogue as US Signals Closer Ties with Taiwan

China Amps Up the Rhetoric at Shangri-La Dialogue as US Signals Closer Ties with Taiwan

China Amps Up the Rhetoric at Shangri-La Dialogue as US Signals Closer Ties with Taiwan

During his address at the Shangri-La Dialogue 2019—18th Asia Security Summit, held in Singapore from May 31 to June 2, Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan touched briefly on Taiwan, mentioning it last in his list of collaboration between the United States and partners in the Indo-Pacific region. “We continue to meet our obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act [TRA] to make defense articles and defense services available to Taiwan for self-defense,” Shanahan said during the first plenary session on June 1. “This support empowers the people of Taiwan to determine their own future. We maintain that any resolution of differences across the Taiwan Strait must occur in the absence of coercion and accord with the will of the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.” [1]

Conversely, on the next day, General Wei Fenghe (魏鳳和), State Councilor and Minister of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the senior-most Chinese official to ever participate at the Dialogue, peremptorily signaled that Taiwan figured at the very top of Beijing’s priorities in the region. A few minutes into his plenary, Wei, who was leading a group of 33 Chinese delegates at the forum, warned that “[w]e hold different views with the US side on several issues regarding the wrong words and actions of the US on Taiwan and the South China Sea.”

Later in his speech, the defense minister revisited Taiwan and spent a substantial amount of time on the matter. “The Taiwan question,” Wei said, “concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Not a single country in the world would tolerate secession.” Using a skewed analogy derived from US history, he continued, “When I visited the US last year I was told by American friends that Abraham Lincoln was the greatest American president. I wondered why and they explained, ‘It is so because he led the country to victory in the Civil War and prevented the secession of the US.’ The US is indivisible and so is China.”

“China must be and will be reunified. We find no excuse not to do so. If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese military has no choice but to fight at all costs for national unity,” he said. “Hereby, I have a message for the Democratic Progressive Party authorities and the external forces. Firstly, no attempts to split China would succeed. Secondly, any foreign intervention in the Taiwan question is doomed to failure,” Wei concluded.

Wei then sought to question the very legitimacy of the TRA. “I have taken note of the US speech yesterday [by Shanahan] which mentioned Taiwan. I want to ask: is the Taiwan Relations Act a law of Taiwan or a law of the US? Is it a law of China or an international law? Is it an act of the UN? How can the US enact a law to interfere in China’s internal affairs? Is there any sense in that?” Ironically, this was the only instance in all of Wei’s address which mentioned international law.

Wei concluded with a stern warning. “Any underestimation of the People’s Liberation Army [PLA] resolve and will is extremely dangerous,” he said. “We will strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and greatest efforts, but we make no promise to renounce the use of force. Safeguarding national unity is a sacred duty of the PLA. If the PLA cannot even safeguard the unity of our motherland, then what do we need it for?”

The asymmetry of attention on Taiwan, which characterized Acting Secretary Shanahan’s address and Defense Minister Wei’s speech the following day suggests that the US side, by limiting itself to the usual careful rhetoric on Taiwan and the TRA, was seeking to avoid a direct confrontation with China at Shangri-La on that particular matter. What, then, prompted Wei to adopt such harsh rhetoric?

The answer probably lies in the release of the Department of Defense’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report” on June 1. Unlike Shanahan’s address, the report makes it clear that Taiwan is now regarded as a key partner in the US’ strategy for the Indo-Pacific. Revealingly, the report even refers to Taiwan as a country, one of four alongside Singapore, New Zealand, and Mongolia, that are “reliable, capable, and natural partners of the United States.”

“All four countries,” the report states, “contribute to US missions around the world and are actively taking steps to uphold a free and open international order. The strength of these relationships is what we hope to replicate in our new and burgeoning relationships in the Indo-Pacific.”

No sooner had the report been released than some media began speculating that the reference to Taiwan as a country could indicate that Washington was about to abandon its “one-China” policy, speculation that probably reads far too much into the language.

Still, even if, as one would expect, US-Taiwan relations continue to exist under Washington’s “one-China” policy, the report’s section on Taiwan was notable for its substance.

“The United States has a vital interest in upholding the rules-based international order, which includes a strong, prosperous, and democratic Taiwan,” it said. “The United States is pursuing a strong partnership with Taiwan and will faithfully implement the Taiwan Relations Act, as part of a broader commitment to the security and stability of the Indo-Pacific. Our partnership is vital given China’s continued pressure campaign against Taiwan. Taiwan lost three diplomatic partners in 2018, and some international fora continue to deny the participation of representatives from Taiwan. Although China advocates for peaceful unification with Taiwan, China has never renounced the use of military force, and continues to develop and deploy advanced military capabilities needed for a potential military campaign.”

It continues: “The salience of defense engagements has increased as the PLA continues to prepare for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait to deter, and if necessary, compel Taiwan to abandon moves toward independence. The PLA is also preparing for a contingency to unify Taiwan with the mainland [sic] by force, while simultaneously deterring, delaying, or denying any third-party intervention on Taiwan’s behalf. As part of a comprehensive campaign to pressure Taiwan, China has increased military exercises in the vicinity of Taiwan, including circumnavigation flights by the PLA Air Force and naval exercises in the East China Sea.”

“The objective of our defense engagement with Taiwan is to ensure that Taiwan remains secure, confident, free from coercion, and able to peacefully and productively engage the mainland on its own terms,” it said. “The Department is committed to providing Taiwan with defense articles and services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability. DoD [the Department of Defense] is continually engaged in evaluating Taiwan’s defense needs to assist Taiwan in identifying capabilities that are mobile, survivable, and effective in resisting the use of force or other forms of coercion.”

Five days later, news reports stated that the United States was exploring the possible sale of USD $2 billion-plus in arms to Taiwan, as part of a package that would reportedly include 108 M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks, as well as 409 Javelin missiles, 1,240 TOW anti-tank missiles, and 250 Stinger missiles, according to unnamed sources. All these defense articles would play a major role in countering a landing force along Taiwan’s west coast. Reports earlier this year also suggested that Washington may be more amenable than it was in the past to sell Taiwan F-16 Viper aircraft, for which Taipei has made an official request, though such a sale is unlikely to materialize before the January 2020 elections in Taiwan.

Five days after the release of the report, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang (耿爽) said during a regular press conference that Beijing “urges the US to realize fully the high degree of sensitivity and severe impact of this issue, and honor its commitment to the one-China principle and the three China-US Joint Communiqués,” adding, as it normally does with every announcement of a possible arms sale, that the United States “needs to stop selling arms to or having military ties with Taiwan.” (Washington does not have a “one-China” principle, which is Beijing’s phrasing, but rather its own “one-China” policy, which acknowledges Beijing’s position on Taiwan and in no way restricts arms sales or military-to-military contact.) Geng also failed to mention among the documents that define US-Taiwan relations the TRA as well as the Six Assurances, which alongside the Joint Communiqués set the tone and direction of the overall US policy toward Taiwan, which, as per US commitments under the TRA and the Six Assurances, is bound to become more supportive toward Taiwan as China ramps up its military pressure against the island-nation.

A few days prior to Shanahan’s remarks at Shangri-La, a Taiwanese graduate was seen waving the Republic of China (Taiwan) flag at the commencement ceremony of the US Air Force Academy (USAFA) in Colorado. Moreover, Taiwan Major General Erh-Jung Liu (劉爾榮), as well as the flag of Taiwan’s Marine Corps, were also seen at the annual Pacific Amphibious Leaders Symposium (PALS-19), held in Hawaii from June 3 through June 6.

While the developments discussed above highlight several areas where closer collaboration on defense has developed between Taiwan and the United States, none of them contravenes the (self-imposed) limits on what Washington and its agencies can perform under its “one-China” policy. Nevertheless, this rapprochement, which has been accompanied by similar developments in other areas, has sparked anxieties in Beijing. This probably explains why, despite Acting Secretary Shanahan’s rather cautious remarks regarding Taiwan at the Shangri-La Dialogue, General Wei struck a belligerent note on the subject.

The main point: Despite limiting itself to signals of support and engagement with Taiwan that do not contravene Washington’s “one-China” policy, the US Department of Defense has embraced a greater role for Taiwan in recent months, and Beijing has taken notice. All of this came to a head at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

[1] Taiwan had three delegates at the Dialogue, three of them listed under “IISS Guests” and one (this author) under “Canada.” The US delegation, led by Shanahan, counted 98 members.