The South China Sea has become one of the world’s most volatile regions and a nuclear flashpoint. With Chinese assertiveness and American activeness, the regional countries have become increasingly alarmed and feel threatened. Having a strategic location, the South China Sea hosts one of the most prominent trade routes in the world — up to a third of the world’s trade goes through these waters. Thus, having its control is of the utmost importance for both China and the US.
However, it is widely believed that the confrontation between US and China is not only due to whoever controls the resources and routes. With the world’s geopolitical centre decidedly veering towards the Indo-Pacific, control of these sea routes will determine who obtains the ultimate hegemonic status. Meanwhile, Southeast Asian nations are caught in the middle and looking to appease any possible escalation between both superpowers. Taking into account that, as a rule, most of these countries rely heavily on China for trade and on the US for defence, it is most likely that these countries will continue to strike a balance between Washington and Beijing, despite China’s aggressive policies with the 9-dash line.
The current crisis started with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 19-hour visit to Taiwan on August 2. In a Washington Post op-ed published after Pelosi’s visit, she justified her visit as a step to uphold Taiwan’s democracy and fulfil the commitment that the US made with Taipei. She further endorsed her visit by citing the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), a law that promotes economic, cultural, and commercial ties between the US and Taiwan. It also dictates the US’ course of action, would Beijing attack Taiwan. Despite not guaranteeing US military intervention in case of invasion, Washington could supply Taiwan with all the necessary means to protect itself.
Conversely, for Beijing, any US approach to Taiwan is considered an offence to its national sovereignty. Beijing’s standpoint on Taiwan is based on the One China Principle, which states that Taiwan is an absolute part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Although the US acknowledged Beijing’s One China Policy, they have never agreed with it. The PRC has sought Washington’s recognition of Beijing’s sovereignty over Taiwan through the Shanghai Communiqué (1972) and two later joint communiqués signed in 1979 and 1982. However, these have not prevented the US from passing the TRA, signing six assurances with Taipei and deepening military ties, which is unacceptable for China. The US may have had official diplomatic relations with China since 1979; however, the passing of the TRA that same year proves Washington’s unwavering albeit unofficial support for Taiwan.
Since Pelosi’s visit, Beijing has ramped up the number of fighter jet incursions over Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). From August 4-7, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) executed live-fire military drills in six areas around Taiwan, some overlapping Taiwanese-controlled waters. Moreover, the PRC delved into cyberspace fighting and economic pressure: Beijing announced they were cutting trade ties with the island and clamping down on tourism. According to the Taiwanese government, the PLA’s show of strength and Beijing’s measures are a clear sign that the PRC could be preparing for a forced unification with Taiwan if the US keeps meddling in the region.
The US has been present in the Indo-Pacific since World War II’s end. However, decades of focusing on combating the War on Terror in the Middle East left the Indo-Pacific under relative neglect from Washington. It was China’s exponential influence growth in the region in the last decades which made the US reshift its foreign policy focus back to the region.
Congress has started participating more actively in the security matters of the Indo-Pacific. For instance, the 1947 USPACOM (US Pacific Command) was rebranded as US INDOPACOM (US Indo-Pacific Command) in 2018 to acknowledge the increasing relevance of the region. Likewise, the revival of the Quad, the creation of AUKUS, and the celebration of periodical joint military exercises are some signs that point to Washington’s aim to strengthen its ties with like-minded regional powers, becoming a major powerbroker in the region and counter China’s growing influence.
US Strategy to Defend Taiwan’s Sovereignty
US President Joe Biden has signalled twice that the US will intervene militarily if China starts a war in Taiwan. To deter Chinese aggressive military behaviour and prevent an all-out invasion from China, the United States must keep assisting its allies in the region. Washington recently approved the sale of $1.1B worth of weapons to Taiwan, including anti-sea mines, anti-ship and anti-air missiles, and radar systems. The US has applied the “strategic ambiguity” tactics over Taiwan for decades, but the bonhomie among China and Russia seems to end this status quo.
US Strategy in Southeast Asia to Counter China
Now America’s fifth-largest trading partner, the Southeast Asia region, is critical for Washington to deter Beijing. The feeling is mutual. Most countries rely on the US for defence and Chinese hedge influence. Despite this bond, some Southeast Asian countries continue to keep a neutral stance over the conflict, following their trademark hedging strategy between the US and China. Washington must continue engaging these countries despite their policy choices towards Beijing. Additionally, the US should use China’s encroachment in these countries’ territorial waters and territory in the South China Sea, like the Paracel islands with Vietnam and the Spratly islands with the Philippines, to foster more robust bilateral alignments to counter China.
In 1995-96, when the third Taiwan strait crisis occurred, the US was more powerful, and China backed off. However, there is no chance of backing off this time as China is at a very similar military level to the US. Tensions between US and China are not new; they have been growing gradually over a long time, particularly this last year. Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit skyrocketed cross-strait tensions, but China did so too when it signed a “no-limit friendship” with Russia. The US “strategic ambiguity” approach seems to be fading.
China will not tolerate more overstepping into what it considers national territory. Whether it is the South China Sea or Taiwan, Beijing brings history into its claims. Hence, Taiwan’s independence or US direct intervention in its claims in the South China Sea would mean war. High-level dangers and alerts in the Asia-Pacific do not seem to be chilling off anytime soon. If anyone is good at playing long games, that is China.