As tensions in the Asia-Pacific region heat up amid disputes involving China and a number of countries over contested islands and sovereignty over the South China Sea, there have been signs in recent months that the US may be on the brink of reassessing its strategy for the region in ways that raise questions about Taiwan’s place in it.
For almost eight years under former US president George W. Bush and the first year-and-a-half or so of the administration of US President Barack Obama, the US, preoccupied with counterinsurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq and severe economic downturn, adopted a hands-off approach to Asia, for the most part limiting itself to assuaging Beijing’s fears that Washington was seeking to contain it.
Recognizing an opportunity when it saw one, Beijing played along and, for most of that period, crafted a policy that managed to reassure the neighborhood of its “peaceful intentions” even as it continued to modernize its military. In doing so, it also successfully isolated Taipei during the eight years of former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) time in office, capitalizing on Washington’s wariness regarding an administration it saw as a potential “troublemaker.”
Beijing’s policy remained quite skillful after the election of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in 2008, unveiling a series of carrots to an administration in Taipei that was all-too-willing to please China and foster rapprochement. Not only had Taiwan been neutralized during the Chen era, but since 2008, it was pulled ever closer into its embrace, so much so that doubts emerged as to Taipei’s willingness to remain part of the unofficial US-Japan security alliance.
Then, just as Taiwan was signing the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China in late June, Tokyo announced it was extending its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) so that it now overlapped with sections of a zone controlled by Taiwan.
This was followed in July by an announcement by Japanese Minister of Defense Toshimi Kitazawa that Japan was “positively considering’’ a plan to deploy Ground Self--Defense Force troops to the Sakishima island chain southwest of Okinawa Island.
Furthermore, because of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s growing operations in waters close to the island chain, Japan said it was considering deploying a 100-troop coastal surveillance unit to Yonaguni Island and hundreds of border security troops to Miyako and Ishigaki islands in stages over a period of five to eight years.
The following month, Tokyo announced that Japan and the US planned to hold joint exercises later this year (ostensibly next month) in waters close to the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), a source of frequent clashes between China, Japan and Taiwan, which all claim sovereignty over them.
All these moves, added to a Washington that appeared to be increasingly reluctant to provide Taiwan with the advanced weapons it needed to defend itself, pointed to a possible reassessment of the line drawn by then-US secretary of state John Foster Dulles and then-assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs Dean Rusk in 1950, just as the Korean War was breaking out, which turned Taiwan into a redoubt against the communists in China. This is a line that, for all intents and purposes, remains effective today. Could this mean that Japan and the US, 50 years into their security alliance, have opted for a strategic retreat, abandoning Taiwan in order to consolidate a more easily defensible position, whose outer edge begins at the newly redrawn ADIZ?