South China Sea warning as US policy ‘under attack’ amid Joe Biden’s arms sale to Taiwan

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Mr Biden, who will mark his 200th day in office this weekend, has notified Congress of a $750million (£538million) sale of weapons to Taiwan – the first arms deal with the East Asian country his administration has approved. This latest shipment of weapons to Taiwan would include 40 M109 self-propelled howitzers and 1,700 kits to equip missiles with GPS systems. Beijing is vehemently opposed to the proposed arms sale to Taiwan, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it had presented “solemn representations” to Washington over the issue.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party views self-governing island nation Taiwan as a province and an “inalienable part of China” that will one day be re-unified with the mainland.

For diplomatic reasons the US has for decades recognised that there is only one Chinese government under its One China policy, deciding not to formally acknowledge Taiwan’s rulers.

However, Washington does have unofficial ties with Taipei and has provided it with weapons for decades under the Taiwan Relations Act, which does have bipartisan support in Congress.

But according to Dr Jonathan Sullivan, a China specialist and political scientist at the University of Nottingham, the US’ “longstanding policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’” is increasingly being challenged by lawmakers demanding a tougher stance against Beijing.

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He said the policy is “under attack from within the US, in a bipartisan way, especially from Congress, which sees the People’s Republic of China as a threat and wants ‘strategic clarity’ on Taiwan.”

He added: “They want the US to move to an explicit commitment to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression.

“This call began as a right-wing fringe position, but is increasingly seen as not crazy. Such a change would likely precipitate major problems, since Beijing would interpret it as US support for Taiwan independence.”

In recent months the question of the US’ defence of Taiwan from China has been raised amid increased Chinese naval activity in the South China Sea.

Taiwan is located to the north of the disputed ocean, which is subject to several territorial claims by countries including Vietnam and the Philippines. 

Chinese military planes entered Taiwan’s air defence identification zone dozens of times in 2020 and have done so again this year.

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Despite this, the US has still maintained some form of ambiguity in its approach to Taiwan because, according to Dr Sullivan, it is “constrained in what it can do.”

He said: “In practical terms, the US is ready and able to come to Taiwan’s aid. Whether it could do so quickly enough to prevent a fait accompli is the subject of much debate among the people who study frigates and missiles.”

Dr Sullivan explained that by not revealing in “explicit terms” whether the US would or would not defend Taiwan, Washington has been able to “circumscribe” both Beijing and Taipei’s actions.

He said: “At the extreme end of the spectrum, it has prevented China invading or Taiwan declaring independence.

“In the middle of the spectrum it has encouraged both sides to maintain the status quo and mostly enjoy productive economic relations, in spite of the rhetoric and current freeze in government communications.

“The US policy, embedded in the Taiwan Relations Act and its one China policy [distinct from Beijing’s one China principle], has been in place for 40 years and shown its utility.”
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