The shock provoked by the ravaging war in Ukraine along with Beijing’s intense military presence in the Taiwan Strait – following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visit to Taipei on August 2-3, 2022 and the unfortunate maintaining of the state of tension seemed to have further augmented the existing fears of an additional hot spot in Asia, i.e. the Taiwan Strait.
For some, the intense Chinese military drills in the Taiwan Strait were a reminder of the Chinese threats and movements in the area during the 1995-96 crisis, when China launched missiles into the sea near the ports of Taiwan and the then US President Bill Clinton sent two groups of aircraft carriers into the waters separating the island from mainland China.
According to the most recent high-level meetings of the Asia-Pacific leaders, the latest developments in the Taiwan Strait represent a “concern” for the region, which has the potential to lead to “serious confrontation”.
Based on the statement of the ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference (PMC) with the dialogue partners, held in Cambodia, on August 3-4, 2022, the recent cross-strait build-out “could destabilize the region and eventually could lead to miscalculation, serious confrontation. (…) The Meeting underlined the importance of maximum restraint, refrain from provocative action and adherence to the principles enshrined in United Nations Charter and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), so as to avoid open conflicts among major powers and unpredictable consequences.” The statement also read that “many countries reiterated One-China Policy”.
According to the statement of the 29thASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), an important platform for security and dialogue in the Indo-Pacific, held this year on August 5, 2022, in Phnom Penh, “the importance of maximum restraint, refrain from provocative action and adherence to the principles enshrined in United Nations Charter and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC)”have been pointed out as efforts to “avoid open conflicts among the major powers and prevent unpredictable consequences.”
The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, being positioned alongside with the United Nation Charter in such important documents, based on unanimous acceptance by the participants, among them AUSTRALIA, CANADA, CHINA, THE EUROPEAN UNION, INDIA, JAPAN, RUSSIA, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, represents a positive and promising sign that ASEAN, through its concept of ASEAN CENTRALITY, which is also recognized by the stakeholders in the area, could be a very important factor to maintain peace and stability in Asia- Pacific.
Indeed, under the provisions of TAC, the High Contracting Parties – major powers like China, India, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, United States included – agree to bind themselves to be guided, inter-alia, by the principles of “settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means” and “renunciation of the threat or use of force”. One may admit that – by closely following the provisions of TAC – open conflicts among all High Contracting Parties, ASEAN and all the signatory parties which agreed to accede to TAC, are governed by the hereby mentioned treaty, offering ASEAN a leverage in diplomatically mitigating concerning developments, such as the cross-strait crises.
In fact, the importance attached to the cross-strait developments becomes crystal-clear in the 12th East Asia Summit (EAS) Foreign Minister’s Meeting, also held in Cambodia. In the Chairman’s statement, dated August 9, the cross-strait developments occupy a comparatively higher position than in the previous communiques released by the regional Asia-Pacific bodies. Moreover, the extended membership of EAS, i.e. the ten ASEAN countries along with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Russia and the United States, signals the regional validity and importance of the statement for all EAS members. In other words, all EAS member states, US and China included, have agreed that the cross-strait developments “could destabilize the region and eventually could lead to miscalculation, serious confrontation. While many countries reiterated One-China Policy, the Meeting underlined the importance of maximum restraint, refrain from provocative action and adherence to the principles enshrined in United Nations Charter and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), so as to avoid open conflicts among major powers and unpredictable consequences.”
Certainly, ASEAN Centrality, reinforced by TAC, provides the regional association a juridical advantage in suggesting a potential solution in the current context, beside the already well-known balanced positioning – and thus credibility – of ASEAN and its member states. It could be noted that, in addressing the Taiwan crisis, all regional forums preferred the well-crafted wording of “cross-strait relations”, without explicitly referring to the island of Taiwan, China or the United States.
In fact, similarly balanced peace calls have been recorded from almost all actors in the region.
Indonesia – the driving force of ASEAN – urged, through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “all parties [involved in the cross-strait relations, a.n.] to refrain from provocative actions that may worsen the situation”, adding that “The world is in dire need of wisdom and responsibilities of all leaders to ensure peace and stability are maintained”.
Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement in a similar key: “We hope that all parties concerned exercise utmost restraint, abide by international law and principles of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and resolve their differences through peaceful means.”
The Philippines reacted through the spokeswoman for President Ferdinan Marcos Jr., who commented, rather pragmatically “Our military and our DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) are closely monitoring the situation as they would in any other similar circumstance. (…) On matters of international relations, reactions are studied. We don’t make knee-jerk reactions because they could adversely affect international relations.” It is not unlikely that, in the light of the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States, as well as China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, the Philippines would take a less nuanced position in the matter of cross-strait relations.
According to the Malaysian Foreign Minister, the Malaysian people “want everyone concerned to look at the situation and address it in the best way because we appreciate and we’ve put a lot of value in both the U.S. and China when it comes to trade and technology in the region and want to be friends to both.”
In a Facebook posting, the Laotian authorities reiterated their “support for the policy of the government of the People’s Republic of China on the national reunification by peaceful means”, a statement which could be interpreted to reflect the country’s economic and trade closeness with the People’s Republic of China.
The military government of Myanmar, which – according to analysts – relies heavily on Chinese investment in the country stated that the island of Taiwan is “an integral part of the People’s Republic of China”, expressing concern over the US House speaker’s visit, “which is causing escalation of tensions on the Taiwan Straits.”
Through the voice of the spokeswoman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Vietnam wished “all relevant parties to restrain themselves, not escalate tension in the Taiwan Strait, positively contribute to the maintenance of peace and stability, and strengthen cooperation and development in the region and the world", noting the country resolutely follows the “One-China policy”.
While not explicitly recalling the “One-China policy”, India reacted through the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, urging all parties to exercise “restraint, avoidance of unilateral actions to change the status quo, de-escalation of tensions and efforts to maintain peace and stability in the region. India's relevant policies are well known and consistent. They do not require reiteration.” According to Indian analysts, the “one-China principle” was last mentioned by India in an India-China joint statement back in 2005, despite the Chinese side having suggested the principle be included in a joint statement during the Chinese president’s visit to India in 2014.
Indeed, as another US delegation of the US Congress made a surprise visit to Taipei in the aftermath of Pelosi’s visit, one may expect the concerning developments would continue, hopefully in a more cautious manner.
Furthermore, China’s recently announced new military drills starting on August 15, 2022, are yet another reason of concern.
Clearly, the region presents clear signs of enhanced military activity; in this regard, one could also refer to the joint military drills between China and Thailand(Falcon Strike, 14-25 August, 2022), as well as between US, South Korea and Japan(8-14 August, 2022).
The European Union (EU), as a global actor, also carried a military drill with Indonesia, yet further away from the Indo-Pacific region, i.e. in the Oman Sea. EU’s member states attention to the Indo-Pacific cannot be denied; the German Defense Minister pointed out that “our current focus is clearly directed towards the east (…) But we must also direct our attention toward other regions." Indeed, Germany has also deployed six jets to the Indo-Pacific region, scheduled to participated in the "Pitch Black" training exercise, along with forces from Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
In Japan, the most geographically closed country to the island of Taiwan, the hypothesis that China could use force to "reunify" the island by 2027 (100 years after the Chinese Civil War ignited) is taken very seriously; Japan’s 2022 Defense Paper includes 10 pages – out of 500 – on Taiwan, pointing that “The stability of the situation surrounding Taiwan is also critical for Japan’s security and must be closely monitored with a sense of urgency (...) based on the recognition that changes to the status quo by coercion are globally shared challenges.”
As clearly expressed by Aso Taro, Japanese Deputy Prime Minister, Japan would intervene in defense of Taiwan together with the US “if a serious accident occurs” on Taiwan, since “Okinawa could be next”, hence presumably putting Tokyo's survival in jeopardy.
Japan has publicly expressed its red line to oversee the Nippon national security, i.e. “the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait”. The formula has been advanced by Japan to be part of the final declarations of the last meetings of the G7, Quad, NATO, the 2 + 2 (Foreign-Defense) US-Japan Ministerial Summit and the April 2021 meeting between US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide.
Clearly, a crisis in Taiwan would inevitably affect Japan, including its trade routes and energy supply. Such a crisis could similarly generate a US armed intervention, provided the 1951 Mutual Cooperation and Security Treaty between the United States and Japan, allowing the former to maintain military bases and troops permanently “to discourage an armed attack” on its ally.
The repercussions of Taiwan becoming a next hot spot in Asia, have, in fact, been considered by Japan since 2014, in a report drafted by the Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security. The report under discussion considered the authorization of the force under art. 9, par. 1 of the Japanese Constitution, i.e. the clause establishing “pacifism” and the “forever” renunciation of the right to resort to war as a sovereign instrument of offense and dispute resolution. According to the above-mentioned study, the right to use force as a mean of self-defense extends beyond the hypothesis of an armed attack against Japan, also embracing the “situation in which an armed attack against another country in the area neighboring Japan occurs and the United States exercises the right of collective self-defense in support of that country”, since “if this situation is not addressed, the conflict would spread and, in the end, Japan itself would be affected.” Therefore, a Japanese intervention in defense of Taiwan, albeit linked to that of the United States under the right of collective self-defense, is not inconceivable. In this regard, one may consider US and Japan might be considered regional actors with a unique position and a rather similar discourse in the region.
With local elections in Taiwan scheduled for this year and the Washington and Taipei Presidential elections scheduled for 2024, the cross-strait relations are likely to be closely monitored by Beijing, yet – as long as communication lines among all parties are being maintained AN IMMEDIATE VERY DANGEROUS ESCALATION COULD NOT TAKE PLACE.
However, President Xi’s probable – and unprecedented in the line of modern Chinese leaders – third mandate in 2022 (which most analysts consider secured), may boost Beijing’s self-confidence in assuring an even more daring stance across the strait. Nonetheless, it is less likely for Beijing to assertively and pragmatically display its position on an armed attack against the island of Taiwan before the 2024 Taiwanese presidential elections.
Shall Beijing assert its military power across the strait, both Washington and Tokyo might have to choose between intervening militarily in the defense of Taipei or applying sanctions(as it happened following the Russian invasion against Ukraine).
At least not the last factor of peace or no peace is Taiwan itself, which is the owner of the peaceful key.
Under these circumstances it is necessary to underline again that ASEAN and its regional forums (EAS, ARF, e.g.) seem to represent one of the most nuanced, well-balanced vectors of peace and stability in the region. The “ASEAN Centrality” principle, as well as the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” and the juridical effects derived from the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation seem to assure the regional association all the diplomatic and juridical leverages to mitigate potential escalations of the cross-strait relations.
A first potential effect of ASEAN’s calls for “maximum restraint, refrain from provocative action” could be identified in the recently issued white paper by Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office – the first in the past two decades – titled “The Taiwan Question and China's Reunification in the New Era", proposing the “one country, two systems” principle – currently used in Hong Kong and Macau – to govern the island of Taiwan. The white paper adds that “use of force would be the last resort taken under compelling circumstances". One may note that the white paper has been issued one day after the conclusion of East Asia Summit, a regional forum of 16 East, Southeast, South Asian and Oceanian countries in which ASEAN holds the central role.
Shall ASEAN’s active diplomacy lack or not produce the desired effects, the most significant risk, of course, is that of a large-scale conflagration in the Pacific, between two world nuclear powers, with potential catastrophic consequences for the whole world. It is no coincidence that, earlier this month, the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, recalled, on the 77th anniversary of the first atomic bomb attack, that “humanity is playing with a loaded gun”.
Indeed, proliferating the Taiwan crisis, especially in the current complex international setting, could have more dire consequences for the entire humanity than the on-going war in Ukraine. As in the case of Ukraine during the Russian military exercises at the Ukrainian border, the risk of an armed attack shall never be underestimated. One could only hope that leaders of great powers and Taiwan, in this case, continue to exercise great wisdom.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.