Peter Kagwanja: America’s ‘Taiwan card’ to contain confident China could hurt Africa

Presidents William Ruto (Kenya) and Joe Biden (US) hold talks at the White House, Washington, DC. 

Photo credit: PCS

What you need to know:

  • A new, fiery anti-China leadership in Taipei is beating the drums of war.
  • “Stop threatening Taiwan politically and militarily,” the island’s new pro-American ruler, President Lai Ching-te (64), warned China during his inaugural speech on May 20, 2024.

Undoubtedly, Taiwan is more dangerous today than it was three years ago when the Economist Magazine (May 1, 2021) dubbed it “the most dangerous place on Earth.” In many ways, Taiwan is the Pacific region’s equivalent of Ukraine, the theater of an ongoing deadly proxy war between Russia and NATO now in its third year.

It is the epicenter of a new Cold War in the 21st century, a smoldering superpower rivalry and maneuvering between the US and rising China. A new, fiery anti-China leadership in Taipei is beating the drums of war. “Stop threatening Taiwan politically and militarily,” the island’s new pro-American ruler, President Lai Ching-te (64), warned China during his inaugural speech on May 20, 2024.

China, which has branded Lai a “dangerous separatist”, embarked on mock military drills in the 180-km Taiwan Strait to “inflict punishment for separatist acts” and test Beijing’s ability to “seize power” and ultimately annex Taiwan.

But the real target of the war games is Washington, which has been aiding and abetting Taiwan’s separatists. A likely superpower war over Taiwan will hurt Africa. To be sure, Taiwan, located 160km off mainland China, is China in all but name. Over 97 percent of its 24 million inhabitants are ethnic Han who speak standard Chinese.

Also, 98.4% of Taiwanese follow traditional Chinese faiths and philosophies [Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism]. However, for 75 long years, reunifying Taiwan with mainland China has been an unfinished agendum of the Chinese Revolution.

The Mao Zedong-led People’s Liberation Army routed the Nationalist Kuomintang party of Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to Taiwan and declared it ‘the Republic of China’ (RoC) and continued to rule. Strategically, a war-weary and weak China delayed invading the US-backed Taiwan, playing a waiting game until it becomes strong enough to face its demons.

Since then, the ultimate goal of winning back Taiwan has been engraved in the Chinese constitution and visions of all its leaders from Mao to Xi Jinping.

The game is rapidly changing. Joe Biden’s White House has recognised China as “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.”

With the world’s second largest economy and the largest and fastest modernising military force boasting the world’s second largest defence budget ($296 billion), China can potentially reunify Taiwan — by war or peace — with mainland China.

Over the last 75 years, China has played a long game to pre-empt America’s diplomatic game to replicate the Korean scenario in the China-Taiwan conflict where Korea was split into two countries — North and South — both claiming the entire Korean Peninsula and outlying islands and are members of the UN.

Beijing waged an unrelenting war in the UN and other diplomatic corridors — and won.

In 1971, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 2758, which restored “all rights to the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations” — including a veto in the UN Security Council — and expelled Taiwan’s representatives.

By 2024, its ‘One-China Principle’ had the backing of 183 out of 195 UN member states. America bowed to the hard realities of Cold War-era geopolitics, publicly nodded to Beijing’s One-China Principle and adopted its own ‘One-China Policy”. But in reality, America has spent the past seven decades pursuing a policy of deliberate ambiguity to ensure two Chinas — like the two Koreas — continue to exist side by side.

Washington’s strategic ambiguity transformed its “One China Policy” vis-àvis Beijing’s “One-China Principle” into what a “hot dog” is to a “dog”: a quick snack for a dangerous canine! The rise of Donald Trump as America’s 45th President (2017-2020) abruptly ended America’s strategic ambiguity.

In January 2021, Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, cast away all the rules prohibiting interactions between US and Taiwanese diplomats and restored open relations with Taipei.

Since then, US high-profile officials visited Taipei to “reaffirm US support and express solidarity in our shared commitment to democratic values”. While primarily designed to outcompete, contain and eclipse China in global leadership, America’s ‘Taiwan card’ has two aims.

One is to hollow out the one-China principle by pushing for “Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the UN system.” The other is to actively aid and abet “Taiwan independence” by arming and funding Taipei’s separatists and bolstering capacity for self-defence against China.

In this context, on April 29, 2024, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and Coordinator of China affairs, Mark Lambert, sensationally accused China of distorting Resolution 2758 to justify its claim over Taiwan. Speaking recently at the Washington-based German Marshall Fund of the US, Lambert chipped away at Resolution 2758, making four arguments that form the pillars of America’s new ‘Two-China” doctrine.

(i) UN Resolution 2758 does not justify international consensus on the One-China Principle.

(ii) establishing relationships with Taiwan is the sovereignty choice of each country.

(iii) the resolution precludes Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the UN system and other multilateral fora.

(iv) the resolution doesn’t constitute a UN institutional position on the political (or diplomatic) status of Taiwan.

In a nutshell, Taiwan is a sovereign actor on the global stage! On its part, Taiwan’s power elite is sharply divided on relations with China. One faction has called for neutrality, “maintaining cordial relations with both China and the US”.

The more radical, assertive belligerent faction is vying for dominance, increasingly relying on the US to counter China’s reunification agenda and push for Taipei’s independence. Lai urges Taiwanese not to be “swayed by external forces.” China has drawn a line in the sand, warning USA against supporting “Taiwan independence” and has not ruled out the use of force to ‘bring Taiwan and outlying Islands home’.

The rumbling in the Taiwan Strait risks have devastating impact on Africa, China’s staunch ally. In 1971, Africa supported China to regain the seat in the UN. Today, China has relations with 54 countries out of 55 African Union member states. Eswatini is Taiwan’s only ally here.

In the coming years, Africa might be the new frontier of Taiwan’s diplomatic offensive and might come under intense pressure and economic incentives to re-establish diplomatic ties with Taiwan to counter China. 

Peter Kagwanja