Transcript: Situation in the Taiwan Strait
European Parliament, Committee on Foreign Affairs
Situation in the Taiwan Strait, 22 March 2023
Bonnie S Glaser, Managing Director, Indo-Pacific Program,
Dear Chairman McAllister and Honorable Members of the Committee, it is a great privilege and pleasure to testify before you today on the situation in the Taiwan Strait.
Although there are many areas of friction between the United States and China, Taiwan is the issue that carries the greatest risk – it could trigger a major military conflict that could escalate to use of nuclear weapons. War in the Taiwan Strait would have catastrophic consequences not only for Taiwan and China, but also for the rest of the world. In a report published last year, the Rhodium Group estimated that a PRC blockade of Taiwan – without use of force – would result in massive disruption of global economic activity: over 2 trillion dollars even before factoring in the impact of international sanctions or a military response. The costs of a US-China war are incalculable. Europe’s interests would be harmed in numerous ways: its economy is deeply enmeshed with the Indo-Pacific; It has an abiding interest in preserving the rules-based international order; and it has a stake in protecting a democracy of 23.5 million people.
War in the Taiwan Strait is neither imminent nor inevitable, but the risk of conflict is growing. The circumstances and factors that deterred a PRC attack on Taiwan and enabled the island to remain secure and prosperous for many decades are changing. The conventional military balance in the western Pacific has tipped in China’s favor, and although the PLA is not yet prepared to seize and control Taiwan, Xi Jinping has instructed that it have the capabilities to do just that by 2027. Short of kinetic force, China has amassed an extensive toolbox of gray-zone capabilities aimed at weakening Taiwan’s will to fight, undermining the confidence of the people in Taiwan’s government and in the United States, and sowing division in Taiwan’s politics. These include disinformation, cyberattacks, economic coercion, united front tactics and military pressure. China’s policy of pursuing “peaceful reunification” increasingly relies on these coercive measures.
Increasing threats to Taiwan’s security have prompted the United States, and many of its allies, to take a variety of measures to strengthen deterrence. The US is taking steps to establish a more resilient force posture in Asia. It is also providing more training and weapons to Taiwan’s armed forces. The Philippines has agreed to expand US access to key bases on its territory, which will offer U.S. forces a strategic position from which to mount operations in the event of a conflict in Taiwan or the South China Sea. Japan is ramping up construction of military bases in Okinawa and plans to acquire longer-range counterstrike capabilities, and the US-Japan Security Treaty will be extended to protect Japanese satellites. The US, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Canada, the European Union and the G7 have all affirmed their commitments to maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
Deterrence requires credibility in both of its elements: threats and assurances. In recent years, both Beijing’s and Washington’s balance of credible threats and assurances have become unstable. The PRC has failed to assure Taiwan that refraining from moving toward independence will be rewarded with restraint rather than answered by increased efforts to compel unification on mainland China’s terms. China’s ability to hold at risk US military assets deployed in the Western Pacific call into question the credibility of President Biden’s repeated statements that he would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked. And confused signals about US intentions toward Taiwan are undermining the credibility of the US “one China” policy and feeding fears in Beijing that being patient in its quest for peaceful resolution of cross-Strait differences will only result in the permanent loss of Taiwan.
Europe can play a role in preventing war. First, it can help shape Xi Jinping’s risk-benefit calculus by warning Beijing of the severe consequences that use of force against Taiwan would have for Chinese interests. Agreement on a sanctions package against China along with the US and other partners – and conveying some of the agreed-upon measures to Beijing – would enhance the credibility of the threat to impose heavy costs. Reducing Europe’s economic dependence on China will make the plan more convincing and have the added benefit of making Europe less vulnerable to possible Chinese countersanctions.
The task of strengthening military deterrence will largely fall to Taiwan, the United States, and Japan, though European countries with naval assets like the UK and France can consider sailing through the Taiwan Strait to demonstrate the importance of freedom of navigation and to signal their interest in the preservation of peace and adherence to international law. More importantly, European countries need to assume a bigger role in providing security in their own neighborhood and prepare to assume the missions performed by US military assets in the North Atlantic in the event that the US needs to transfer capabilities to the Indo-Pacific.
Europe should also consider steps it can take to strengthen Taiwan’s economic security in ways that also bring benefits to the continent. The EU could launch a mechanism similar to the US-Taiwan Initiative on 21st Century Trade which includes trade facilitation, regulatory practices, anti-corruption, supporting SMEs, digital trade, environment and climate action, standards, state-owned enterprises, agriculture, worker-centric trade, and non-market policies and practices. The European Commission should also undertake an impact assessment and scoping exercise on a Bilateral Investment Agreement.
In the past few years, Beijing has redoubled its efforts to isolate Taiwan on the international stage. China’s attempt to distort UN Resolution 2758, which gave the PRC the China seat in the United Nations, and claim that it proves that the UN and all its member states endorse Beijing’s one-China principle should not go unanswered. Like the United States, the EU and individual European countries should distinguish their one China policies from Beijing’s one-China principle and actively support Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations.
Europe should also encourage the Biden administration to speak and act with greater discipline and consistency on Taiwan. It should urge the US to articulate and carry out its policy so not only its threats, but also its assurances are more credible. [This includes reaffirming the US position that it will accept any outcome that is peacefully agreed to by Beijing and Taipei. It also includes eschewing actions and words that cast doubt on the long-standing US position that it does not support independence for Taiwan.] The PRC must believe that if it does not use force against Taiwan, it’s fear that the US will recognize an independent Taiwan will not be realized.
For deterrence to hold in the Taiwan Strait, China’s leader must be convinced that changing the status quo by using force will carry unacceptable costs. Europe can contribute to influencing Xi Jinping’s cost-benefit calculus so that he dares not make the attempt to invade Taiwan. International efforts to deter Putin from invading Ukraine failed. The cost of that failure was high. If we make the same mistake in the case of Xi Jinping and Taiwan, the cost will far greater.