A TENSE exchange of rhetoric between the Chinese defence minister and the US defence secretary over Taiwan at a recent security conference in Singapore reveals that the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its inalienable part may become a major source of conflict unless rational minds prevail. Referring to military flights, the senior US official told the gathering that China’s activities near Taiwan were “provocative and destabilising”. Meanwhile, his Chinese counterpart remarked that the People’s Republic would not “hesitate to start a war” if Taiwan declared independence, while adding later that it would be a “fight to the very end”. It would be easy to brush aside the remarks of both gentlemen as emotional observations, but as the ongoing Ukraine war has taught us, verbal jousting in the international arena can very much lead to real confrontations on the battlefield. China has been particularly piqued after US President Joe Biden last month told a questioner in Japan that his country would aid Taiwan militarily in case of offensive Chinese action. Though White House spin doctors later stressed the fact that America’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan remained, further damage to the already fragile Sino-American relationship had been done.
The fact is that the vast majority of the international community maintains official relations with Beijing and not Taiwan, while tinkering with the ‘One China’ policy would be inadvisable. Perhaps the best solution to the Beijing-Taipei imbroglio would be the ‘One country, two systems’ approach China has applied with varying degrees of success in Hong Kong and Macau. However, this is a matter for China and Taiwan to work out between themselves, and foreign states would be best advised to stay away from this delicate matter. Yet if push does come to shove over the Taiwan issue — with the US considering China its number one strategic competitor, and the latter country willing to use force to prevent Taiwanese independence — the world will again be called to take sides, just as in the case of the Ukraine conflict. This will be a considerable foreign policy challenge for Pakistan. This country maintains deep political, economic and strategic relations with China, and while relations with the US have been chequered, they cannot be termed adversarial, and it will not be in Pakistan’s interest to have strained ties with Washington. Ultimately, it is hoped diplomacy prevents a Sino-American flare-up over Taiwan, yet the world must prepare for a bumpy ride if things get ugly.
Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2022