Geopolitical tensions escalate: Concerns over US, China & Taiwan relations in a war torn world

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Us- china mischief
Representative Photo (Cartoon: Rajeev Pandey)

The past two years have been a decisive one for global politics as some dormant hotspots have become active. First the Russia-Ukraine war in Eurasia and then the Israel-Hamas conflict in West Asia. Amid all this the focus has turned, for obvious reasons, towards the Taiwan Strait, another region of contention. The region that has for long been a matter of conflict between the mainland China and Taiwan is testing the vulnerabilities of the stakeholders which also includes US.

Recently, Xi Jinping visited San Francisco for the APEC summit. The summit is considered by many as a breakthrough towards normalcy. At least the statements from both sides resonate such hypothecation. US Foreign Secretary Blinken called U.S.-China relationship “one of the most consequential” in the world, while China’s foreign ministry referred to the discussions as: “fruitful”, “good”, “in-depth”, a possible “new starting point”, a “blueprint” for future ties, and having substantive outcomes.

Besides the APEC summit, Biden and Xi also agreed to resume military level communication between both the countries. These developments have hanged Taiwan into doldrums. Just a day after the summit where Xi Jinping assured Biden that China would never wage a war against any country and that it wants stability, China continued its military buildup in South China sea. This uncertainty resonated in the mindset of the people of Taiwan. Recent survey showed growing distrust of Taiwanese people regarding the US role. So, the question remains, what exactly is happening? What is driving China and US to consider breaking of the ice? Are the attempts to return to normalcy just a deception? Or more importantly, is it a serious attempt towards normalcy? To understand it better, it is pertinent to look at the factors that led the countries to engage in constructive approach.

US’ staving off the worse

After covid-19 pandemic hit the world, there emerged new economic challenges. While the entire world was dealing with those challenges, a news conflict between Russia and Ukraine turned into a war. This protracted war disrupted even so far active supply chains, which was crucial to the larger world. This led to further economic deterioration. But there is more to it. Along with dealing with the economic headwinds, the US led West continued to exhaust money as well as defence equipment for the cause of Ukraine that put further strain on their economies. Between February 2022 to February 2023, the US provided assistance of about $29.3 billion. The cumulative figure till July is about $41 billion. Similar is the case with Europe.

Unprecedentedly, the US has provided the state-of-art weapon to Ukraine in a bid that counter offensive will be successful. The list includes T-72B tanks, 155mm M777 howitzers, 227mm HIMARS, Javelin anti-armor systems, Tube-Launched, Optically Tracked, Wire-Guided (TOW) missiles, military grade vehicles, drones among others. Furthermore, United States is to deliver 31 M1A1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine.

And just between this, the Israel-hamas conflict has escalated, further making things hard for the US. Since Washington has assured Israel of every support, it makes the best time for China to launch an attack on Taiwan.  

Considering this, US is now in no mood to escalate tensions with China, instead it wants them to ease and therefore is staving off the worse.

The Chinese concern

China, on the other hand, has its own reasons for easing out the tensions. First and foremost is its trade interest as China’s trade is its biggest weapon and deterrent. Be it decoupling or de-risking, the impacts have been felt by China. The supply chains for semiconductor, the most crucial commodity right now, are being diversified by West which China dominated so far. The trade war between US and China and the sanctions regarding the forced labour in Xinjiang have made a significant dent on Chinese trade. Also, Taiwan’s economy which was fast integrating with that of China has also shifted slightly away.

As per Taiwan government data, Taiwanese exports to the US in the first 10 months of 2023 were more than 80 per cent higher than in the same period of 2018. Also, U.S. replaced mainland China as the top buyer of Taiwanese agricultural products for the first-time last year. Additionally, China is also facing challenges with its EV industry. In prior months, EU has initiated an investigation against China on the accusations of pumping state money for introducing subsidised products to disrupt European markets. Notably, Europe is the biggest importer of EV from China.

The condition is further exacerbated by the approach of collective west to counter Chinese BRI. Considerably, the perception towards BRI is degrading in past few years while prominent members like Italy and Philippines have exit the initiative. Undoubtedly, Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment (PGII) initiative of G7 has a role in it by providing an alternative. This all is happening at a time when Chinese economy is slowing down, and the property market crisis is mounting.

Taiwan’s dilemma amid détente

So, both China and US have their reasons for returning to normalcy. However, the end goal of China regarding Taiwan is clear and so is US’ intent to contain China. That is why even after the meeting and the embellished statements thereafter, China is not refraining to act on its eastern front. So, what basically both the countries are seeking is not normalcy but a détente.

As far as Taiwan is concerned, this détente has the potential to refrain China from a probable attack in near future but its problem with Beijing don’t see an end. In fact, it has reduced to just a matter of preference for both US and China which gets reshuffled everytime.  

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