China Power | Security | East Asia

US Brushes Off Chinese Threat That Taiwan Independence ‘Means War’

There was unfounded speculation that Joe Biden would neglect Taiwan’s defense needs, but the first week of his relationship with Taipei has shown good signs.

US Brushes Off Chinese Threat That Taiwan Independence ‘Means War’
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

Beijing’s attempts to test the United States’ relationship with Taiwan in the days after President Joe Biden’s inauguration appear only to have strengthened an unofficial alliance that has blossomed since Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016.

China sent dozens of warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) on January 23 and 24. The incursions, which increased in frequency after two high-level U.S. official visits to Taiwan, continued through the end of the month.

The ADIZ incursions are not the same as flights into Taiwan’s airspace – a country’s ADIZ can encompass areas that are not part of its territory – but the flights are intentionally provocative maneuvers, which usually lead Taiwan to scramble fighter jets in response.

The latest incursions spiked beginning on the day of Biden’s inauguration. The president took the step of inviting Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s representative to the United States, to the inauguration – the first time such an official invitation has been extended since the U.S. and Taiwan severed diplomatic ties in 1979.

On January 23, State Department spokesperson Ned Price released a statement condemning Beijing’s “attempts to intimidate its neighbors, including Taiwan.”

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“The United States will continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues, consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people on Taiwan,” the statement said.

The State Department’s language on Taiwan has thus far mirrored that of the 2020 Democratic foreign policy platform, which committed to resolving cross-strait affairs in the interest of the people of Taiwan – but, for the first time in decades, did not mention the concept of “one China” favored by Beijing, in effect leaving the door open for Taiwan’s autonomy or eventual independence.

As Biden signaled he would continue Washington’s steadfast defense of Taiwan, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian sharpened Beijing’s language toward the island, calling the incursions “a solemn response to external interference and provocations by ‘Taiwan independence’ forces.”

“We warn those ‘Taiwan independence’ elements: those who play with fire will burn themselves, and ‘Taiwan independence’ means war,” Wu said.

The Chinese Communist Party often refers to President Tsai’s democratically elected Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as “separatists” seeking independence, and refers to the U.S. as an external force guilty of “collusion” with Taiwan.

But there is next to no support in Taiwan for unification with China, and eventual unification has lost its luster as a potential solution in Washington, where members of both parties strongly support Taiwan’s autonomy.

The U.S. dramatically increased its arms sales to Taiwan during the term of former President Donald Trump. On Thursday, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said it has received no indication that arms sales will be halted or altered under Biden.

The Pentagon under Biden has also showed steady support of Taiwan. U.S. Department of Defense spokesperson John Kirby said Friday the remarks by Wu were “unfortunate and certainly not commensurate with our intention to meet our obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act.”

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken both explicitly mentioned the U.S. position to support Taiwan and assist in its defense during their confirmation hearings.