Taiwan top flashpoint in U.S.-China relations: former officials

02/19/2021 05:04 PM
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A PLA Y-8 anti-submarine plane. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of National Defense
A PLA Y-8 anti-submarine plane. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of National Defense

Washington, Feb. 18 (CNA) A number of former American officials and scholars ranked Taiwan the number one flashpoint in the United States-China relations with the potential to trigger military conflict, at a congressional commission hearing Thursday.

Thomas Shugart, former military advisor in the Office of Net Assessment at the U.S. Department of Defense, said he sees Taiwan as a potential flashpoint that could lead to U.S.-China conflict, at an online hearing on "Deterring PRC Aggression Toward Taiwan," held by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC).

Shugart said he would not put the South China Sea, an area some see as a flashpoint, anywhere close to the same level as Taiwan.

"To me, it's not really about the South China Sea itself, it's the first step in securing the broader lines of communication and ability to secure their economic means to be able to be successful in that more vital conflict over their sovereignty that they consider for Taiwan,"he elaborated.

Bonny Lin, who served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2015-2018, expressed a similar view at the hearing, saying she ranks Taiwan as the top conflict hotspot mainly because Beijing has defined Taiwan as a core interest and China is set on unification with Taiwan.

"And from our perspective, we're Taiwan's main security provider. And we're already seeing this escalation dynamic, and particularly in the last year or so, tend to be really heating up in the Taiwan Strait," she added.

From China's point of view, Taiwan is unquestionably fundamental to Beijing's legitimacy, said David Keegan, a former deputy director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy in Taiwan in the absence of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries.

"From our point of view, it's fundamental to our values and our role in the Asia Pacific region. And that's a recipe for confrontation that we're both going to have to work very carefully, with Taiwan's active participation, to avoid,"the retired diplomat said.

Repeated flights of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) planes near Taiwan and Taiwan's response also pose the risk of an accident, Keegan noted.

"In the current environment, that kind of accident probably won't play out the way the incident did in 2001, where we were able to talk our way down. That really worries me," he said.

Keegan was referring to a 2001 collision between U.S. and Chinese military aircraft, in which a U.S. surveillance plane made an emergency landing in China after being clipped by a Chinese fighter jet, which crashed resulting in the death of the pilot.

Since the beginning of the year, Beijing has been sending military aircraft into Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone almost on a daily basis.

When asked if Taiwan's role in the international arena could prompt China to resort to force, Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert with a focus on Chinese military and security policy issues, said increasing international space for Taiwan would not increase the risk of conflict.

"Until the PLA, until Xi Jinping is confident that his military can succeed, they're not going to use force unless...some major change happens like Taiwan declares independence. And I don't think increasing international space for Taiwan meets that threshold," Mastro said.

Kharis Templeman, a research Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, said the ability to deter a Taiwan Strait crisis rests crucially on the belief that the U.S. would act to counter Chinese coercion.

That belief, he said, has weakened in Asia over the last four years, in part because the previous administration put up barriers to trade and pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

"One way to reverse impressions that we will not be committed to Asia is to re-engage in regional trade negotiations," he concluded.

Established by the U.S. Congress in 2000, the USCC is comprised of 12 commissioners, who are appointed to two-year terms by the Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

(By Stacy Hsu and Chung Yu-chen)

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