While the world is focused on the goodwill that this year’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea supposedly brought to the Korean Peninsula, China has been ever-so-quietly increasing its military pressure on Taiwan, causing fear that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is imminent. However, recent actions by Washington — and learning from the lessons of 1950 — make such an invasion less likely.
What China has been doing over the past few months is not any different from what it did in late 2016 and early last year when it conducted surveillance missions around Taiwan or when its aircraft carrier sailed near the nation.
Relations between China and Taiwan have not changed since the inauguration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in May 2016. What has changed, though, is US-China relations and the threat posed by North Korea.
Taiwan has done nothing out of the ordinary to cause China to increase pressure, but the US has. The US passed the Defense Authorization Act (DAA) for Fiscal Year 2018, which calls for increased military exchanges between the US and Taiwan, authorizes port calls to Taiwan for the first time and invites Taiwan to participate in bilateral naval drills.
The Taiwan Travel Act recently passed both the US House and Senate and is awaiting US President Donald Trump's signature for it to become law.
Trump’s National Security Strategy also labeled China as a competitor, which did not help the situation. These new measures have caused Taiwan, not the US, to draw the ire of China, which is normally the case.
The Chinese Communist Party understands that it is easier to pressure or target Taiwan in subtle ways than it is the US
In early December last year, Li Kexin (李克新), a minister at the Chinese embassy in Washington, said: “The day that a US Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unifies Taiwan with military force.”
With the ongoing nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula and the poor state of cross-strait relations, governments are scrambling to decrease tension in the region. The Asia-Pacific region faced similar circumstances in the early 1950s, and it is worth exploring the similarities and differences between past and present to see what the future might hold.
On Jan. 12, 1950, then-US secretary of state Dean Acheson gave a foreign policy speech on US commitments and involvements in Asia at the US National Press Club in what became one of the most controversial speeches he ever gave.
Acheson declared that Washington’s policy toward Asia at that stage of the Cold War centered on holding a “defensive perimeter” that ran from the Aleutian Islands to Japan to the Ryukyu Islands and down to the Philippines.
At the time, the US had military bases or personnel at these locations, so his statements made sense.
However, controversially, two locations were conspicuously missing from this defensive perimeter: Korea and Taiwan.
Then-US president Harry Truman’s administration’s rationale for not including Korea and Taiwan within the defense perimeter was that it was trying to develop Korea into a self-sufficient country after years of US aid.
As for Taiwan, Truman believed that Mao Zedong (毛澤東), having triumphed in China the previous autumn, would inevitably invade the nation and finally defeat the last remnants of Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) defeated forces. The speech was to solidifying the first steps in a policy shift in the region.
The US public — and the Soviets, North Koreans and Chinese — interpreted the omission of Korea and Taiwan at the time as the US not willing to get involved in military conflicts there.
As history has shown, the belief that the US was giving up Korea and Taiwan turned out to be wrong: Once then-North Korean premier Kim Il-sung received tacit approval from Joseph Stalin to launch his invasion of South Korea, the US responded with a massive intervention to preserve South Korean independence.
Korea and Taiwan’s omission from Acheson’s speech in 1950 nevertheless shaped many countries’ Asia policies for years to come.
We know that the US has stationed troops in South Korea since the end of the Korean War. We know that even though the US switched recognition from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China, the US still provides “such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capacity.” The US did not abandon Taiwan either.
What does this history lesson mean for what is happening with Korea and Taiwan today?
The geopolitical landscape in Asia right now is eerily similar to that of Acheson’s 1950: a belligerent North Korea and the belief that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is imminent. Those were in the background during Acheson’s 1950 speech, and part of the reason that speech was given.
Many fear that Trump could tweet his way into a war, but can we really expect him or anyone in his administration to give such a speech like Acheson’s, abandoning a key regional ally?
The red line has moved further into Asia. And this time, it includes South Korea and Taiwan.
Gone are the days of ambiguity over the US’ stance on defending South Korea. Although the US has a more ambiguous stance toward Taiwan, under the Trump administration, the US’ commitments — thanks to the US Congress — have increased.
As long as the North Korea issue looms large over the region and world, China will not invade Taiwan. Maintaining North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s regime and preventing a unified, pro-US South Korea on its border is a higher priority for China than retaking Taiwan.
This is not to say that peace will prevail and China will alleviate its pressure on Taiwan. No, China will continue to try to poke holes through Taiwan’s air defenses and be a general gadfly, but Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) understands — or should — that Taiwan and North Korea are linked by a speech given nearly 70 years ago.
Thomas Shattuck is the editor of Geopoliticus: The FPRI Blog and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
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