U.S. concerns as China seeks to fill vacuum left by Washington

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to consolidate power and a U.S. withdrawal from a diplomatic standstill at the start of 2018 are causing concern among many regional analysts, but they also reflect growing concern…

U.S. concerns as China seeks to fill vacuum left by Washington

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to consolidate power and a U.S. withdrawal from a diplomatic standstill at the start of 2018 are causing concern among many regional analysts, but they also reflect growing concern among American officials about Beijing’s efforts to fill the vacuum left by Washington’s absence from the region.

In April, General Wei Fenghe, former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and currently the head of the China’s People Liberation Army’s (PLA) joint staff department, gave a speech at the China’s Academy of Military Sciences that for a first time referred to Taiwan as a province of China. It’s not something the U.S. or any other country has been able to say about the island for many years, and it highlights the sense of urgency that many American policymakers have about Beijing’s readiness to challenge Washington and regional leadership on issues ranging from security to economic affairs.

Furthermore, the departure of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from the government earlier this year showed there is indeed a shift in Washington’s focus on China. As the Washington Post reported, “a sweeping generational shift in the team that has led the State Department for the past four years is now under way…in part because of disagreements over U.S. strategy toward China.”

These shifts have led to fewer optimistic assessments among American officials and analysts about the consequences for Taiwan. At the end of March, the Reuters/Ipsos poll found 51 percent of Americans to say China should invade Taiwan to recover the county from its U.S.-designated Chinese Taipei to Beijing to rather suggest that the U.S. should “resist” the efforts of China and Taiwan. This sentiment held even higher among Republicans.

Amid this growing security consciousness, Taiwan would be wise to prepare for the possibility of a significant confrontation with China. President Tsai Ing-wen must be applauded for her emphasis on domestic security and the Taiwanese Defense Ministry must be applauded for its work on developing defense strategies.

According to the Ministry’s top priority report on defense policy, obtained by American University scholar Ashley Townshend, Taiwan still faces a host of security concerns, including its dependence on the U.S. for many of its defense capabilities, China’s military capabilities, the pace of advances by China, and the North Korean nuclear threat.

Townshend also noted that Taiwanese public opinion differs widely in terms of the extent to which the country views China as an existential threat. According to a 2012 CNN poll, when asked, “how important is it to Taiwan that the Chinese mainland not be an aggressor?” 33 percent of Taiwanese responded that it was “very important,” which is considerably higher than the figure for the U.S. and other countries.

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One of the most worrying developments in Taiwan since the change of government in 2016 has been the disappearance and unexplained death of its long-time spy chief last August. Although Gen. Chiang Ching-kuo’s disappearance was initially met with concern from private security companies, the official questioning of him, coupled with China’s alleged smuggling of state secrets via Singapore, has grown increasingly sensitive for the government. The May 2 anniversary of his death and the anniversary of his disappearance will once again bring global attention to Taiwan’s vulnerability.

Although Tsai Ing-wen has been taking bold steps in Taiwan’s engagement with China and in defending the country’s strategic security interests, she still has much to do to ensure the well-being of the nation and its people.

William Gauter is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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