Tensions between China and the United States over the 'Taiwan affair' are not easing. The visit to the enclave by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, leaked in April and carried out in early August, raised hackles in Beijing, which interpreted the trip as a provocation by Washington against its "One China" policy. Within hours, Taiwan became the target of China's largest-ever live-fire military exercises. A show of force to intimidate the island's authorities.
The White House tried to dissuade Pelosi from making the move, but the Democratic representative had already made up her mind. A month after the high-profile move, it is the US Senate that is making a move in favour of Taipei. The House Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Senator Robert Menendez, also a Democrat, has approved a 6.5 billion dollar bill to fund Taiwan's arms to "support Taiwan's security and right of self-determination".
Called the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 and passed in the Senate on Wednesday by a 17-5 margin, a rare sign of bipartisan consensus in current US politics, the proposal seeks to strengthen the island's "defensive capabilities" in the event of hypothetical Chinese aggression. The text would oblige Biden to impose sanctions against five Chinese banking entities if Beijing decides to "significantly escalate tensions", a level of threat equivalent to blocking the island's connections or seizing part of its territory.
To enter into force, the proposal must first be approved by the full Senate and the House of Representatives. There is a good chance that it will pass. It would be the only major legislative measure to receive the green light before the November mid-term elections. If carried, it would also be the first time that the US has funded Taiwan's armaments. In fact, the proposal includes granting Taipei a $2 billion line of credit if it decides to arm itself in advance to deter Beijing from taking offensive action.
Menendez, who has not shied away from being critical of some of Biden's foreign policy decisions, qualified that the proposal's approach is based on deterrence, and that China has nothing to fear. "The bill we passed today makes it clear that the United States does not seek war or increased tensions with Beijing. Quite the opposite," the Democratic senator from New Jersey said in a statement.
"We must be clear about what we face, just as we must be clear in our response," Menendez added in the missive. "We are carefully and strategically downgrading the existential threats facing Taiwan, raising the cost of taking the island by force so that it becomes too high and unattainable a risk. This is how the chairman of the Congressional Foreign Relations Committee justified stepping up aid to the Taiwanese authorities.
"As China escalates its threatening rhetoric and military aggression, it is imperative that we take action now to bolster Taiwan's self-defence before it is too late," stressed Jim Risch, the Committee's Republican representative, who called for pre-empting China in a future crisis with the intention of dissuading President Xi Jinping "from invading or coercing Taiwan".
The Chinese government's reaction was swift. Hours after the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave the green light to the plan, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning spoke to the media to denounce what he described as Washington's interference in China's internal affairs, threatening to shatter the foundations of Sino-US relations.
"If the bill continues to be deliberated, pushed through or even signed into law, it will greatly shake the political foundation of Sino-US relations and cause extremely serious consequences for Sino-US relations and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait," the spokesman threatened, before stressing that "the One China principle is the political foundation of Sino-US relations".
The White House flatly rejected accusations of undermining the "One China" policy, although the Biden administration pressed Democratic senators to modify some measures in the bill that could further sour diplomatic contacts with China, according to the Associated Press.
The "One China" policy, in place since Washington and Beijing normalised relations in 1979, provides for US recognition of the Beijing government's sole authority over China, which it considers a single country. This basis has allowed diplomatic ties to be maintained, even as Washington has strengthened its ties with Taipei. For the time being, the US adopts a position of "strategic ambiguity" on Taiwan's defence, leaving open the possibility of responding militarily if the island were to come under attack.
Indeed, White House occupant Joe Biden warned earlier this year that he would defend Taiwan from any Chinese aggression. Beijing, for its part, claims sovereignty over what it calls Taiwan's "rebel island", and does not rule out regaining control of the enclave by force. Beijing and Taipei have no official relations, and since the arrival of Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwanese president in 2016, they have had no informal contacts either.
"But it is not yet time for an uncontrolled escalation because neither the US nor China wants a confrontation," writes Carlota García Encina, senior researcher on the United States and Transatlantic Relations at the Elcano Royal Institute.
Coordinator America: José Antonio Sierra