The United States sends two warships through the Taiwan Straits. Washington is thus reacting to the “military exercises” that the People’s Republic has carried out around the democratic island republic in the past few weeks. This escalation was preceded by a visit by the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi.
The People’s Republic says Taiwan is part of its territory. That’s why Beijing is trying to isolate the country internationally and ban other countries from sending visiting delegations to Taiwan. In the past week, however, another delegation of politicians from the USA arrived in Taiwan, whereupon Beijing increased the use of patrol boats around the island.
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The two US warships in the Taiwan Strait underscore Washington’s solidarity with Taiwan and commemorate the last escalation of this kind between the two countries: In 1995, then-Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui visited Cornell University, where he had studied and gave a lecture there on the democratization of Taiwan.
Beijing foamed and blockaded the island with warships. Missiles flew and landed off the coast. The blockade of Taiwan lasted eight months, then Washington sent an aircraft carrier through the waters separating the two countries. Beijing then had to back down.
Over a quarter of a century later, China has grown into a major military power with a fleet of warships and submarines rivaled only by the United States. The naval blockade at the beginning of August was intended to illustrate Beijing’s will to power. The fact that the USA has now decided on this reaction, a few weeks after Chinese missiles flew over Taiwan for the first time since 1995/96 and detonated in Japanese waters, can be seen as the next step in the escalation.
Red Alert: How China’s aggressive foreign policy in the Pacific is leading to a global war
Japan is also a close US ally. Together with Taiwan and the Philippines, the islands form a first line of defense that the partners want to hold in an alliance against China. Should Beijing, as threatened by ruler Xi Jinping, really want to conquer and annex the island, Beijing’s nomenklatura would open the Pacific for further conquests.
The US warships sail through international waters that belong neither to China nor to Taiwan. Beijing’s goal is to seize and control all international waters. The government is already claiming that the Taiwan Strait is some kind of inland waterway. A “Sea Safety Law” enacted by Beijing gives the Chinese naval force the right to shoot down any ship crossing the Taiwan Strait. Should Beijing really appropriate the western Pacific, it would have serious consequences for all world trade that passes through this region.
It is not only the USA that underlines the current legal situation, according to which the Taiwan Strait is an international body of water. France and Germany have also sent warships through this waterway. The frigate Bayern was not allowed to dock in China after the passage, which Beijing wanted to see as a punishment against Berlin.
The Chinese army command reacted promptly and brusquely to the passage of the US ships: they would reject any provocation. Beijing’s ideology is not shaped by the rule of law, but rather by the idea that the stronger makes the law. The confrontation today will therefore not have been the last between the USA and China.
Alexander Görlach is Honorary Professor of Ethics at Leuphana University in Lüneburg and Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. The PhD linguist and theologian is currently working on a project on “digital cosmopolitanism” at the Internet Institute of the University of Oxford and the Faculty of Philosophy at New York University.
Alexander Görlach was a Fellow and Visiting Scholar at Harvard University in the USA and Cambridge University in England. After stints in Taiwan and Hong Kong, he has focused on the rise of China and what it means for East Asian democracies in particular. He has recently published the following titles: “Red Alert: Why China’s Aggressive Foreign Policy in the Western Pacific Is Leading to a Global War” (Hoffmann
From 2009 to 2015, Alexander Görlach was also the publisher and editor-in-chief of the debate magazine The European, which he founded. Today he is a columnist and author for various media such as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the New York Times. He lives in New York and Berlin.