US must stop muddying Straits waters


Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe warned the US Secretary of Defense at the just-concluded Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that the United States should respect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and not cross the redline on the Taiwan question.

Delivering a speech on Sunday, Wei said the US is acting like a bully and hijacking countries in the Asia-Pacific region, and stressed that Beijing will "fight to the very end" to prevent "Taiwan independence."

"Taiwan is first and foremost China's Taiwan," Wei told the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's premier defense conference, emphasizing that China will "not hesitate" to crush any attempt by Taiwan separatists to split the island from the motherland.

Wei's hard-hitting speech comes weeks after US President Joe Biden said the US would respond "militarily" if Beijing "attacked" Taiwan, capping a weekend of confrontational exchanges between the US and Chinese defense chiefs. On Saturday, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had said China was engaged in "coercive, aggressive and dangerous" actions that threatened to "undermine security, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific".

If the US really cares about peace and security in the Asia-Pacific, it should stop sending the wrong signals which could encourage the Taiwan authorities to make irrational moves and further heighten tensions across the Taiwan Straits.

Given the moves of the US Department of State to partly delete and insert back the statement that the US doesn't support "Taiwan independence" on its website, the US administration and officials have been going back and forth on its commitment to the one-China principle.

Although Austin reiterated the US position against "Taiwan independence" had not changed, the US' policy oscillation is dangerous, raising wide concerns over whether Washington has changed its policy toward Taiwan and whether it would further strengthen ties with the island.

The US move can be described as "tactical clarity and strategic ambiguity". Tactically, through trade, diplomacy, military and cross-Straits tensions, Washington is trying to push Beijing into a corner. Strategically, it is trying to weaken the one-China principle rather than directly refusing to recognize it, in order to create room to adjust its policy on the Taiwan question and its relations with the island in the future, since the interpretation of the Taiwan Relations Act, the three US-China Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances largely rests with the US.

The US' long-term goal is to curb China's rise, partly by playing the "Taiwan card". It has also highlighted the Russia-Ukraine conflict to warn Beijing of the cost of such conflicts, obviously as a warning against the mainland's attempt to reunify the island with the motherland.

The Biden administration's new policy toward China makes it clear that China is its main competitor in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. The US' mixed and even contradictory signals are more by design. They are aimed at freeing Washington of legal restrictions, so it could intervene in a potential cross-Straits conflict.

Yet the question is, once a military conflict breaks out across the Straits, will the US really get involved? If yes, in what capacity?

More importantly, the US' attempt to blur its stance on the one-China principle could turn out to be a curse rather than a blessing for Taiwan.

Since the one-China principle is acknowledged by the world, the US' efforts to weaken it are an exercise in futility. The principle is also the basis of the Chinese mainland's policy of peaceful reunification. But the change in the US' policy will amount to the removal of the cornerstone of peace across the Straits, which will also undermine the mutual trust between Beijing and Washington. As a result, Beijing will no longer have to tolerate the Tsai Ing-wen administration's de-Sinicization attempts.

Worse, after the change, any Taiwan secessionists' move that crosses the redline may turn the island into a battlefield. That would not be in the interests of the US either. Hence, the island's ruling Democratic Progressive Party dare not miscalculate the situation and embolden secessionists.

In short, the US' vague stance on Taiwan accompanies Biden's new China policy and his visit to the "Indo-Pacific" region. The Biden administration is showing support for Taiwan at home and abroad to deter the mainland from using force for national reunification.

The Tsai administration should realize that the overall framework of one-China principle has not changed despite the US' vague stance on Taiwan. It should also realize that the US is using it just as a pawn to check the mainland's rise, and therefore should be careful enough not to become cannon fodder in the major power competition.

The author is a professor at the Graduate Institute of China Studies, Tamkang University.

The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.