The 2020 Election’s October Surprise Could Be a Crisis in the Taiwan Strait

September 30, 2020 | 8:47 am
G. Kulacki/UCS
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

Earlier this month China sent 18 military aircraft into the skies near Taiwan. This exceptional maneuver came fast on the heels of naval drills near the island and an uptick in Chinese military exercises throughout East Asia.

The Chinese Ministry of National Defense issued a stern warning to the United States and Taiwan.

 “The recent collusion between the United States and the Democratic People’s Party to stir up trouble, whether it is to use Taiwan to contain China or use Westerners for self-respect, is doomed to be a dead end. Playing with fire is bound to get one burned.”

US provocations

The admonition was directed at President Trump, who decided to upgrade the status of US relations with the Taiwan. He’s sent a number of US officials to meet with counterparts from the governing Democratic People’s Party, which views the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name) as “a functionally independent country.”

Last week, around the same time those 18 Chinese military aircraft were flying towards the island, US Under Secretary of State Keith Kratch was meeting with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ying-wen. It was the second time in a month China responded to an official US meeting with the Tsai by sending military aircraft towards the island.

The US visits are an in-your-face violation of the terms under which diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington were established in 1979. The United States agreed to sever all official relations with the Republic of China. Past US presidents bent that agreement but didn’t break it. President Trump, with the unanimous support of the US Congress, has decided to openly disregard it.

China on the campaign trail

Taking a hard line on the US relationship with China during a presidential election is nothing new. China has been a US campaign issue since the Chinese communist party took control of the country in 1949. The communist victory in the Chinese civil war was a significant factor in the 1952 contest between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. Republicans accused Democrats of “losing China” and being weak on national defense.

During the 1996 election the Republicans claimed “American foreign economic policy was put up for sale” by Democrats eager to curry favor with China. A Republican Congress spent the next four years investigating alleged Chinese influence over the Clinton White House. Among other charges, they claimed the Democrats provided classified information on US spy satellites in exchange for campaign contributions.

This election season, Trump has accused Joe Biden of complicity in Clinton-era economic policies that aided China’s rapid economic and technological development. Biden has responded by criticizing Trump for weakening the alliances the Obama administration mobilized to contain China. Both candidates appear to agree that US-China relations have entered a more confrontational era.

Past as prologue

China is unlikely to acquiesce in what it sees as a US attempt to unilaterally alter the terms of the 1979 US-China agreement. If President Trump continues to send US officials to the island, China is likely to escalate its military response. Chinese Ambassador Sha Zukang once warned a US audience–in what was the most uncomfortable and frightening moment I’ve experienced in 18 years of conversations with Chinese officials– that it would be a grave mistake to underestimate what Chinese leaders might do under these circumstances.

China has used major military provocations to protect its claim to Taiwan before. In 1954, UK Foreign Minister Anthony Eden suggested the United Nations decide the issue. China responded by shelling the Taiwan-held islands of Quemoy and Matsu. Chairman Mao wanted to send a signal Taiwan’s status was non-negotiable. President Eisenhower mistakenly believed the Chinese communists were preparing to seize the islands. This misunderstanding created a crisis that brought the two nations to the brink of nuclear war.

In 1995, President Clinton issued a visa to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. China responded with an unprecedented mobilization of its strategic rocket forces, code-named Arrows-95, that culminated in multiple missiles being launched toward the island. The United States answered with the largest display of US military power in Asia since Vietnam.

Next steps

China’s unlikely to start a war over visits by relatively low-level US government officials, but history suggests Trump’s continued disregard for the agreement on which US diplomatic relations with China is predicated will not go unanswered. As the tough talk on China heats up in the closing weeks of the US presidential campaign, there is a risk the Chinese leadership may conclude, as it did in 1955 and 1995, that China must take more dramatic steps to ensure the United States takes its concerns about Taiwan more seriously.

China’s current ambassador to the United States said his government “is not waiting for November” to consider its options. The Chinese Ministry of National Defense said the People’s Liberation Army was prepared “to pay any price” to stop what it perceives as US efforts to split Taiwan from China. The presidential candidates, and US voters, should pay closer attention.

Unfortunately, despite all the talk about China on the campaign trail, the most important issue in US-China relations isn’t being discussed. Journalists covering the campaign, including the moderators of the presidential debates, would serve the electorate well if they questioned the candidates about the dangerous situation in the Taiwan Strait. It’s always better to be prepared than surprised if a crisis comes.


The featured image in this blog is of the Hu Guo temple on Quemoy (Jinmen) Island. Source: G. Kulacki/UCS 

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is a Senior Analyst and the China Project Manager for the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Research Center for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (RECNA) at Nagasaki University. He works on improving cross-cultural communication between the United States of America, China and Japan on nuclear weapons and related security issues. Prior to joining UCS in 2002, Dr. Kulacki was the Director of External Studies at Pitzer College, an Associate Professor of Government at Green Mountain College and the China Director for the Council on International Educational Exchange. Gregory completed his doctorate in government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.