“Taiwan is a strategic issue from every point of view”

The United States announced Friday, September 2 the sale for 1.1 billion dollars of weapons to the Republic of China, that is to say to Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China, which considers the island part of its territory, immediately asked Washington to give up. Why such a commitment from the United States? For what risks of escalation? Interview with political scientist and sinologist Stéphane Corcuff, specialist in the Taiwan Strait.

RFI: China demanded the cancellation of the arms contract concluded between the United States and Taiwan on Friday September 2. What conclusion should be drawn from these new arms sales to Taipei, which arouse the ire of Beijing?

Stephane Corcuff: This confirms a trend that we have seen since the very end of the Trump period, and which is confirmed by the Biden presidency. The Americans no longer bother with the diplomatic precautions that were previously implied by their “one China” policy. They decide to pay more official visits to Taiwan and to deal more clearly with the military question, insofar as China is increasing its military pressure in the Taiwan Strait.

This arms sale clearly confirms the positioning of the United States within the framework, unchanged, of a one-China policy. The United States is not about to recognize the Republic of China in Taiwan. But in this context, they seize on the military question, which could, if a war were to break out, lead to a world war.

►To listen: Taiwan: towards a next major conflict?

China says it will resolutely take “ legitimate and necessary countermeasures in view of the situation. What kind of measures can be considered ?

It is almost impossible to answer this question, since it is above all an obscure, vague and systematic formula. China, as soon as it feels offended, responds with this kind of formulation, there are no specific things. And in my opinion, there will not be much.

It’s really to say ” we bang our fist on the table »?

The United States is legally obliged to sell self-defense weapons to Taiwan, having agreed to do so in 1979. The sale which was announced on Friday is precisely a sale of self-defense weapons, including missiles, ways to improve their radar capabilities – which are already extraordinary. These are precisely defensive mechanisms.

Several types of missiles will be sold and this is a key issue in Taiwan. Taiwan already has the highest density of anti-missile missiles per square kilometer in the world, as China is aiming potentially thousands of missiles at Taiwan. It would be very difficult to have an effective anti-missile umbrella in Taiwan if China decided to fire 1,700 missiles at once, but it won’t.

It is essential for Taiwan to have in its defense an extremely developed anti-missile missile battery, and it is in this direction that the sale of Friday goes.

Why is the United States investing so much in Taiwan?

The United States legally committed to selling arms to Taiwan a long time ago for several reasons. The first is that they now consider China to be not only a strategic competitor, but possibly an enemy, should it decide to attack Taiwan. The views of the United States and the People’s Republic of China on Taiwan are radically different, although, I repeat, the United States has accepted the one-China policy.

This means that the United States does not deny the sovereignty of the Republic of China in Taiwan, but that it maintains diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. But it is irredentist and considers that Taiwan belongs to it, even if no international treaty allows it to say so. The United States therefore considers that if the People’s Republic of China attacks the Republic of China in Taiwan, it is an attack on a sovereign state by another sovereign state.

Secondly, Taiwan is a beacon of freedom, democracy and human rights in Asia. Opposite Taiwan, on the other side of the strait, 300 km away, there is one of the most dictatorial countries, the most brutal in the world in terms of repression of human rights. And that counts in the United States, whether you are a bit of an isolationist or an internationalist, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican… It is a real constant in the United States in the political debate, the importance given to human rights people and the progress of democracy in the world.

Finally, the United States, and the world with them, have a vital economic interest in Taiwan: dependence on microprocessors, a good half of which are produced by Taiwanese factories. If we confine ourselves to the latest generation microprocessors, we are at about 80-90% of the world market produced by Taiwan.

So we are all dependent on them, the United States first, to the point that now one of the major challenges is to secure our access to these microprocessors and to secure their production, both so that it is not dependent on China and so that China does not capture the technology. In a more radical vision of things, such as an economic war, one of the issues may also be to deprive China of access to the latest generation microchips, or to limit it.

What are the risks of this escalation?

What you have to understand is that the United States, although some have a lot of criticism to make of them, is a democratic and liberal regime, and that we are on their side. [la France, l’Europe, NDLR] politically and militarily. On the other hand, China is a neo-totalitarian regime, extremely violent in its repression of freedoms and human rights, on its territory and on its margins: Hong Kong, Tibet, which is absolutely not historically Chinese as China says, and Xinjiang, which is not more historically for that matter.

If that comes to Taiwan, that means that this whole balance of power between a liberal world and a world that is not – it’s a bit binary, but unfortunately it’s confirmed today – would fall, and we cannot afford to let Taiwan down.

So Taiwan is a strategic issue from every point of view. Not to mention the moral issues or the legal reality, which is that Taiwan is not what China says it is, and it is a sovereign state. The Republic of China was founded in Nanjing in 1912, it preceded the People’s Republic of China and it still survives.

It is immoral to leave Taiwan out of international society. It is also an issue in terms of our fundamental interests, of progress or maintenance, of the democratic universe on the surface of the globe and of our dependence on semiconductors. It is essential to avoid a war which would not only be a local war, but a regional and world war, and which would drag with it not only the Chinese economy, but also the economy of the world.

We must be aware of this and review an issue on which, in France particularly, we have had many ideological wars inherited from the Maoist period that our country has gone through and which still leaves traces, in terms of fundamental and depressing illusions, on this what is the People’s Republic of China. It is a militaristic, totalitarian, revengeful, nationalist state that wants to reclaim Taiwan. It is therefore irredentist, and threatens, it is clear, the security of the globe.


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