The risk of confrontation between mainland China and the United States over Taiwan is likely to grow next year as the self-ruled island leans ever closer to Washington in a bid to counter Beijing’s rise, observers said.
Speaking at a forum in Beijing, Chinese experts on military and diplomatic issues said they expected the South China Sea to continue to be the focus of the geopolitical conflict between China and the US, but that tensions could extend into the Taiwan Strait.
“There is a possibility that the United States will use tactics regarding Taiwan to counter China that it has never used since the establishment of China-US relations,” said Wu Xinbo, director of the Centre for American Studies at Fudan University.
“China has to think whether to take pre-emptive action to stop the US, or take measures after the US action.”
The US navy has already sailed its ships through the Taiwan Strait, with the latest visit involving the USS Stockdale and USNS Pecos on November 28. Washington said the exercises were intended to demonstrate its commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Wang Hongguang, a retired lieutenant general and former deputy commander of the Nanjing Military Region – a now defunct military command of the People’s Liberation Army – said Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was keen to build closer ties with the US, and that Washington had passed acts calling for more official exchanges between the two sides.
Beijing needed to increase the pressure on Taiwan as China and the US were unlikely to find any common ground on the issue, he said.
“China has to be prepared. The US will only be become more determined on Taiwan if we do not deliver a strong response.”
In December 2016, US President Donald Trump held a telephone conversation with Tsai, breaking diplomatic protocol and triggering a warning from Beijing that China-US relations would be damaged if Washington did not respect Beijing’s sovereignty over the island under the one-China principle.
Beijing regards Taiwan as a breakaway province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary. After the meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Trump in Buenos Aires on December 1, Beijing said the US had agreed to adhere to the one-China policy, but a statement released by Washington made no mention of Taiwan, suggesting the issue will continue to be a source of tension between the two powers.
Chu Shin-min, a diplomacy professor at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, said tensions around the Taiwan Strait would increase in 2019 as Tsai was unlikely to bow to pressure from the mainland.
Similarly, Zhu Feng, dean of international relations at Nanjing University, said the US would not give up using Taiwan as a card in its power struggle with China.
But Huang Jing, a professor of international relations at Beijing Language and Culture University, said the South China Sea was still the main battleground between China and the US.
“The US is more inclined to team up with other claimants to the South China Sea to counterbalance China,” he said.
Wu, meanwhile, said China would step up its interception of US vessels and aircraft passing through the South China Sea, which would lead to a greater risk of miscalculation and military conflicts.