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August 31, 2022

Stability modus-vivendi around Taiwan

(The original of this thesis was published in 30th' issue of Newsweek Japan)

In early August Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, made an official visit to Taiwan. In response China started a massive military exercise, simulating a blockade of Taiwan. I assumed that China might well continue this "exercise" permanently, but it declared the end of this act in one week.

This means that China is aware of the constraints to a military solution of the Taiwan issue. And it is not only China. Taiwan's DPP government would also be unable to win US support for a full-fledged 'Taiwan independence'. Neither the DPP, the KMT, China nor the US can realise their wishes 100 per cent. The situation regarding Taiwan is a three-way or four-way stalemate, a quasi stability. This situation should be cemented by formal agreements among interested parties.

It would be very hard for China to militarily "conquer" Taiwan. Even in the war in Ukraine, Russia has failed in its landing operations from the Black Sea. Even if China attempts to blockade Taiwan by sea, the Chinese navy does not have the capability to conduct long-term operations in the Pacific Ocean off the eastern coast of Taiwan. Furthermore, if US warships or Japanese submarines threaten China's sea lanes (they are vital for Chinese economy), China will be forced to turn its forces in that direction. If China were to launch an armed invasion and be subjected to international sanctions - and be locked out of the international economy - China, which relies heavily on trade with and investment from the West, would not survive.

On the other hand, it is doubtful that Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will win over a US support to achieve a full-fledged "Taiwan independence". It is true that Taiwan's democracy is real and the Taiwanese people really love it, but that does not mean they will risk a war.

Taiwan's standard of living has been caught up by that of urban China. And 800,000 Taiwanese people (including their families) are working in factories and companies operated by Taiwanese firms in mainland China. They must have a feeling that they can fare, even under Chinese system.

In Taiwan, conscription was suspended in 2018. Today the youth avoid serving in the army, tough and low-paid profession. For them finding a good job is more important than preparing for a war to defend freedom. Furthermore, many of the military cadres are descendants of KMT (Kuomintang) military cadres who came from the mainland. They have a sense of affiliation to the mainland. If they are guaranteed a decent position even after integration, they may well "switch sides".

In the local elections this autumn, the KMT's Chiang Wan-an is currently leading in the most important Taipei City mayoral election. If he wins the mayoral election in Taipei, he will use the momentum to run for president in January 2024. However, even if the KMT comes to power, it does not mean that Taiwan will be completely swayed by China. China's economy is also in decline and no longer has the momentum to sweep Taiwan.

The role of the US would be to maintain a situation where China cannot take armed action against Taiwan - in other words, to deter the Chinese military. Beyond this, it would be hard to provoke China and drag them into a war and a defeat. Because this would appear to be an attempt to secure US interests (such as the freedom to deploy US forces in the Western Pacific) with Taiwanese blood; it would not get support of Taiwan people.

 The stalemate above should be cemented by formal agreements, as it was done in Europe in the midst of the Cold War. In 1975 the US, Europe and the USSR agreed to launch the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) under the banner of "détente" and issued the Helsinki Declaration. This fixed the borders as they were at that time, and provided for confidence-building measures and increased exchanges and cooperation.

As Taiwan is not a formal independent state, an Asian version of the CSCE is premature, but it would be possible to agree on principles such as security of the high seas (Chinese missiles launched during the exercises in early August hit Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone, jeopardizing safety of Japanese fishermen) and freedom of navigation. This would be a suitable approach for the less hawkish Kishida Government to take initiative.