Regional Voices on Escalating Tensions in the Taiwan Strait
Asnaya Chou/AFP via Getty Images

Regional Voices on Escalating Tensions in the Taiwan Strait

by Sungmin Cho, Kei Koga, Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Yisuo Tzeng, Huong Le Thu, and Andrea Chloe Wong
December 5, 2022

Tensions in the Taiwan Strait have steadily increased over the past several years and spiked to a new level with China’s heightened diplomatic, military, and economic pressure on Taipei following U.S. speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August. China’s 20th National Party Congress in October reiterated that “reunification” with Taiwan is crucial to the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and a key strategic objective. Given that any future cross-strait contingency would have regional and global implications, it is important to understand how U.S. allies and partners in the region view escalating cross-strait tensions. With this in mind, NBR asked leading experts from countries across the Indo-Pacific to comment on their countries’ perspectives on the Taiwan Strait.

Sungmin Cho

Daniel K. Inouye Center for Security Studies

As South Korea’s military has grown stronger, the United States now expects it to play a larger role in maintaining regional stability. General Paul LaCamera, the commander of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), stated that “given the international reach of the South Korean military, opportunities are emerging for alliance cooperation beyond the Korean Peninsula.” The former secretary of defense Mark Esper was more explicit. In the event of a contingency in the Taiwan Strait, he said, “certainly there would be a support role (of South Korea) as well. I would imagine coming off the Korea Peninsula to support any type of Taiwan scenario.”

Indeed, there are important precedents. South Korea provided military support for the U.S. war efforts in Vietnam and Iraq, and its air force and navy could likewise be deployed to the Taiwan Strait to fight with the United States. But South Korea’s military involvement would surely trigger China’s retaliation. China has shown the pattern of “killing the chicken to scare the monkey” when confronted with multiple players, as seen in the South China Sea. South Korea is the chicken in this case. Chinese media publicly refers to the country as “the weakest link” of the U.S. alliance system in East Asia. China’s missiles can easily reach South Korea’s bases, and the People’s Liberation Army Navy will block or attack South Korean naval vessels in the Yellow Sea even before they sail to the Taiwan Strait.

North Korea is also likely to exploit the situation because the U.S. focus would be distracted if conflict were to occur in the Taiwan Strait. Such an event would create an opportunity for North Korea to speed up its advancement in missile and nuclear capabilities. North Korea’s concurrent military provocations may also help China divide the U.S. military assets between the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang already began to comment on the Taiwan issue. For example, Kim Jong-un sent “a letter of solidarity” to Beijing after the U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. This is North Korea’s strategic signaling of potential support for China in the event of conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

Perhaps for these reasons, the South Korean government has been cautious in clarifying its potential role in a Taiwan contingency. During the summit with President Joe Biden in May 2022, President Yoon Suk-yeol agreed to insert “the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” in the joint statement. But President Yoon did not meet with Speaker Pelosi when she visited South Korea after her trip to Taiwan. Likewise, while South Korea’s minister of defense and the U.S. secretary of defense reaffirmed the importance of peace in the Taiwan Strait in December 2021, South Korea’s vice defense minister revealed that there has been no discussion between the two governments about South Korea’s role in a Taiwan contingency.

Surprisingly, the South Korean people are ready to support South Korea’s positive contribution to the defense of Taiwan. According to a survey conducted by Joong-ang Ilbo and the East Asia Institute in August, only 18% of respondents opposed any involvement of South Korea in a Taiwan contingency, while 22.5% said they would support its participation in the joint military operation with the U.S. forces. In the same survey, 42% responded that South Korea’s military role should be limited to providing rear-area support for U.S. forces. Overall, 64.5% of South Korean respondents agreed that South Korea should provide direct or indirect support for U.S. military operations in a Taiwan contingency.

In sum, South Korea is most likely to provide indirect support for the U.S. forces in a Taiwan contingency. The USFK commander has hinted that the contingency planning for the forces’ involvement in the Taiwan Strait is under development. Due to China’s potential retaliation and North Korea’s opportunistic provocations on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea’s direct involvement in combat operations would most likely create two fronts of crises. Therefore, in the event of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, South Korea’s primary focus should be to deter North Korea’s aggression while providing rear-area support for U.S. operations—for example, through base access, provision of ammunitions, noncombatant evacuation, and noncombat operations like maintenance of weapon systems and augmentation of U.S. reconnaissance capabilities.

Critics may argue that the diversification of the USFK’s role to the region beyond the Korean Peninsula is concerning, given North Korea’s military threats and improvement in missile and nuclear capabilities. But they need to acknowledge the new reality that the United States and South Korea must be prepared for multiple contingencies in different locations. The need to discuss the division of labor between allies should not be confused as a “decoupling” of the alliance. In this context, regardless of the real probability of China’s invasion of Taiwan, the issue is already a matter of alliance management between the United States and South Korea.

Sungmin Cho is a Professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS). The views in this commentary are his own and do not represent those of the APCSS or the U.S. Department of Defense.

Yisuo Tzeng

Institute for National Defense and Security Research

In early August, right after Taiwan’s annual HanKuang exercise, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) responded to the U.S. speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan with an aggressive military exercise surrounding Taiwan. The median line over the Taiwan Strait was crossed on a daily basis by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) warships, fighter jets, and drones; Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense and other government websites were hacked; and missiles were launched to fly and pass over Taiwan. Altogether, these actions suggest that the CCP intended to raise tensions higher than during the 1996 missile crisis and wittingly alter the status quo.

The CCP’s attempt to intimidate Taiwanese by showcasing superiority in the air and sea, coupled with a hybrid of psychological and cyber operations, nevertheless did not work out well. Surprisingly, Taiwanese went about their lives as usual during this so-called fourth Taiwan Strait crisis. According to polls conducted during and after the PLA military exercises, more than 80% of Taiwanese view the PLA’s activities as hostile and threatening, but not frightening, and over 60% are not intimidated by future escalation of PLA threats and will not succumb to the CCP’s “one China, two systems” formula.

Rising popular support for greater investment in military preparedness is undoubtedly something boosted by the continued, escalated PLA harassment, including intrusions by military and civilian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into airspace. Accordingly, Taiwan’s government in late August proposed a record defense budget for 2023 totaling $17.3 billion, a nearly 15% increase from 2022. Domestic debates on military procurement no longer focus on whether military buildup might antagonize Beijing. Instead, the discourse now centers on the question of which capabilities to build up—with multiple approaches on the table.

Civilian UAVs dispatched from China initiated repeated intrusions into the airspace of Kinmen, Taiwan’s outer island located a few miles from China’s mainland. Previous rules of engagement of Taiwan’s armed forces stand firmly with the principle of “no first shot” whatever the encounter might be, which plays into Beijing’s hands. China’s moves are widely regarded as part of the CCP’s cognitive operations toward Taiwan for the purpose of undermining the credibility of its defense capability and invited uproars from bottom up in Taiwan.

The Ministry of National Defense seized the opportunity to revise its rules of engagement so as to authorize troops to shoot down those trespassing into Taiwan’s airspace while ignoring warnings. After electronic countermeasures were used to bring down three UAVs from China in early September, civilian UAVs from China ceased to fly over Kinmen at the time of writing. The war in Ukraine had already made Taiwan take more seriously the threat from China and accelerate reserve reform, increase civilian defense, and bolster digital resilience. PLA exercises surrounding Taiwan in August further sped up the pace of those reforms. One of the key missions for the newly established Ministry of Digital Affairs is to assure that open communication channels to an international audience are available during a cross-strait contingency.

Last but not least, in early September the civilian defense group Black Bear Academy garnered a donation from Robert Tsao, a rich entrepreneur. Suspicions surfaced regarding whether enhanced civilian defense runs against Taiwan’s decades-long success story of military nationalization. That said, a shortage of manpower in the armed forces commanded society-wide attention, thereby enabling the government to bring the extension of compulsory service back to the military reform agenda as early as the end of 2022. Given that many observers now expect China to adopt an even more aggressive posture toward Taiwan in Xi Jinping’s third term, Taiwan has no alternative but to build up its resilience and military readiness in preparation for the worst-case scenario.

Yisuo Tzeng is an Assistant Research Fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taiwan.

Kei Koga

Nanyang Technological University

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan did not stir a large controversy in Japan. On the contrary, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida held a breakfast meeting with Pelosi on August 5 and even condemned China’s military exercises near Taiwan that launched the ballistic missiles into the sea, including Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Japan’s firm stance stems from its traditional opposition to any turbulences and tensions that would lead to conflict in the Taiwan Strait. But at the same time, it reflects a gradual shift in Japan’s threat perception toward China. Japanese security experts and strategists have been concerned about the changing strategic balance between China and Taiwan and China’s growing diplomatic pressure on Taiwan. It was U.S. admiral Philip Davidson’s testimony in the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2021—which stated that China is pursuing the capabilities to control Taiwan by 2027—that made Japan more alarmed about a potential Taiwan contingency and led it to publicly discuss the situation. This was reflected by Japan’s joint statement with the United States in April 2021 that underscored “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” Since then, Japan has supported joint statements regarding the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait, such as the 2022 G-7 Foreign Ministers Statement and the statement from the 2022 Trilateral Strategic Dialogue with the United States and Australia. This does not fundamentally change Japan’s position toward Taiwan—maintaining stability and encouraging a peaceful solution. But those statements clearly signal that the country is watching the situation closely with its allies and partners.

Domestically, the debate over a Taiwan contingency also draws political attention. Given the change in the strategic balance between China and Taiwan, and the likelihood of Japan’s involvement in a Taiwan contingency, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso took the conversation a step further and said in July 2021 that a Taiwan crisis would be a “situation presenting threats to Japan’s survival” and Japan may have to “defend Taiwan with the United States.” In December 2021, former prime minister Shinzo Abe also stated that “any contingency concerning Taiwan would be also an emergency for Japan and for the Japan-U.S. security alliance.” Prime Minister Kishida further emphasized the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Asian security, implicitly linking the war to a potential conflict over the Taiwan Strait.

These statements triggered debates over what role Japan would play in a Taiwan contingency and the military capabilities it needs. Although the 2014 reinterpretation of the Japanese constitution and the 2015 security legislation have relaxed constraints on Japan’s use of a right to collective self-defense, the government needs to determine the degree to which the country is able and willing to be involved in military operations. Consequently, U.S. and Japanese think tanks have conducted simulations for Taiwan contingencies, while security experts continuously discuss the adequate level of Japan’s defense capabilities/preparedness and military role in the U.S.-Japan alliance for building effective deterrence.

The trend shows that Japan’s public discussion about the Taiwan Strait is the result not of a single factor but rather of recent global developments linked to the intensification of U.S.-China rivalry. The war in Ukraine has certainly created a political and social atmosphere where the Japanese public acknowledges the reality that a war could happen not only somewhere far away but in Northeast Asia. This allows Japanese leaders to discuss how to prepare for the worst-case scenario. While much of the discussion focuses on Japan’s response to a Taiwan contingency, less attention is paid to a debate over whether there is any diplomatic role that Japan can play to mitigate tensions and prevent such a contingency from happening. This is an important topic that Japan needs to engage with further.

Kei Koga is Associate Professor in the Public Policy and Global Affairs Programme in the School of Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the book Managing Great Power Politics: ASEAN, Institutional Strategy, and the South China Sea (2022).

Andrea Chloe Wong

The visit of the U.S. congressional delegation to Taiwan headed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August sparked tensions in the Taiwan Strait that put the Philippines at risk. The Philippines’ geographic proximity to Taiwan endangered its national security during Pelosi’s stopover. Taiwan’s military held live-fire artillery drills in response to China’s air and naval exercises, which included the part of the Bashi Channel that sits in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Philippine president Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., however, believed that Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan did not escalate tensions but merely reflected the already strained relations between the United States and China. “It actually has been at that level for a good while, but we got used to it and put it aside,” the president said. Nonetheless, the Department of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that “the Philippines urges restraint by all parties concerned. Diplomacy and dialogue must prevail.” The Marcos administration’s calls for caution are considered tactical responses as the Philippines balances a myriad of interconnected issues and interests in its relations with the United States, China, and Taiwan.

Despite its strategic goal to remain neutral, the Philippines faces complex realities that make it difficult to continue being a mere observer. For one, its proximity to Taiwan renders the Philippines vulnerable to military attacks from China and Taiwan that may reach its shores. Moreover, the U.S.-Philippines security alliance would compel the Philippines to allow the United States access to its airspace and military bases in the event of a cross-strait conflict, making the country a potential launching site for U.S. military action. Because of this obligation, the Philippines would bear the brunt of Chinese economic retaliation, which would have a significant impact on the country given its deep economic ties with China. Additionally, it would have to deal with the possibility of Chinese military aggression and maritime intrusions in the West Philippine Sea as China could hit back at the Philippines’ involvement should military combat involving the United States and Taiwan occur.

Because of these possible risks, the Philippines regards the preservation of the status quo as paramount to its national security. It is not in the county’s interest for Taiwan to become “independent” from China, as it could be dragged into a military conflict. Neither is it in the Philippines’ interest for Taiwan to reunify with China. Taiwan serves as a strategic buffer against Chinese ambitions to dominate the first island chain that overlaps with Philippine maritime claims in the South China Sea.

Thus far, Marcos has cleverly maneuvered so as not to be dragged into either the conflict between China and Taiwan or the rivalry between China and the United States. But the more important challenge for the Philippines is to formulate a contingency plan should political and military tensions be reignited and “diplomacy and dialogue” fail. A strategic plan would outline the Philippines’ response to various scenarios, including Taiwan unilaterally declaring independence, China militarily enforcing reunification, or the United States directly involving itself on issues that affect cross-strait relations. Faced with the evolving geopolitical realities and increasing political tensions, the Philippines will need to strategically prepare itself as it lives with a looming cross-strait crisis that could escalate into a direct Sino-U.S. conflict in the region.

Andrea Chloe Wong holds a PhD in political science from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. She is a former senior foreign affairs research specialist at the Foreign Service Institute of the Philippines.

Huong Le Thu

Perth USAsia Centre

The heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait following Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei were not good news for anyone, particularly nearby neighbors in Southeast Asia. Geographic proximity to the Taiwan Strait means that Vietnam would be well within the range of impact from potential escalations or miscalculations and accidents, and thus it has every reason to be concerned. Its official reaction was to call for restraint from all parties. Vietnam is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which collectively issued a statement calling for de-escalation following Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. This is not a conflict that anyone in Southeast Asia would like to see, nor discuss to the same degree that it animates the Western security debates. But the concerns about potential risks from miscalculations and accidents when there is a heightened military presence are real, and Vietnam, for one, cannot afford to dismiss the possibility of conflict.

For several weeks following Speaker Pelosi’s trip, the media closely followed China’s intensified military exercises. But Beijing’s reaction was hardly surprising for the Vietnamese public. In fact, Vietnam expected China to show off its “temper” as a response to the delegation. Despite that, Vietnam is among those countries that believe that China would not go as far as embarking on an open conflict at this juncture in time—certainly not around the 20th National Party Congress. The uncoordinated messaging from Pelosi and the White House was interpreted in two ways. Some saw a lack of cohesion and in fact strategy behind the visit. Others viewed it as a purposeful tactic to push the envelope while deliberately obfuscating by claiming that the official Washington policy had not changed. Neither argument, however, was particularly convincing. Both views were common in Vietnam.

Vietnam, not unlike other ASEAN states, wants to be seen as neutral and keep the greatest distance possible from the dispute. In reality however, in the event of an act of war, Vietnam would likely be affected by collateral damage from the military activities. Presuming China would utilize the bases it has built and armed in the South China Sea, Vietnam would lie within the artillery range. For Vietnam, the prospect of Taiwan being taken over by force is a precarious one. Given its disputes with the much larger and more powerful China, the use of force in a Taiwan contingency could heighten Vietnam’s vulnerability.

Hanoi thus takes seriously the potential implications from growing tensions and open conflict. First, there is the impact on the operations of Taiwanese businesses in Vietnam, including the expanding Foxconn Hon Hai Electronics that subcontracts to Apple. Taiwan has been one of Vietnam’s top investors for several decades. Some of its major projects include both the semiconductor and telecom industries. There is also the question of the safety of hundreds of Vietnamese people in Taiwan (both workers and foreign spouses) and the complex logistics of evacuating them from a conflict.

More indirectly, an open conflict would likely disrupt trade routes around the Taiwan Strait, as well as the digital infrastructure that depends on undersea cables, and expose Vietnam to heightened information warfare and cyberwarfare. During Pelosi’s controversial visit, thousands of civilians felt the inconvenience of flight routes redirecting to avoid the airspace over the Taiwan Strait, causing delays, cancellations, and other travel disturbance. These disruptions would be far greater in a time of war. Given that Vietnam is positioning itself as an emerging hub for semiconductor manufacturing, increased costs and bottlenecks in the supply chains of critical sectors would pose another threat. As such, the impact on Vietnam would be at least a medium to even a high level of disturbance.

With such stakes at play, Vietnam is unlikely to support Taiwan more than the rest of Southeast Asia simply because, like others, it does not want to stick its neck out. While many ASEAN countries have good relationships with Taiwan, enjoy strong economic ties, and benefit from its New Southbound Policy, none formally and diplomatically recognize Taiwan.

Huong Le Thu is a Principal Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre and a Nonresident Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She is the author of “Southeast Asia in Great-Power Competition: Between Asserting Agency and Muddling through” in Strategic Asia 2021–22, among other publications for NBR.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Observer Research Foundation

India has given only oblique hints about how it might react to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Formally, it seems to accept the “one China” policy, but India has not reiterated its position at least since 2010, despite the Chinese ambassador calling on the country to reiterate support for the policy. India adheres to the standard one-China policy, which recognizes only one sovereign state under the name China, with the People’s Republic of China serving as the sole legitimate government, and which does not recognize Taiwan or any other entity claiming to be China. India’s refusal to restate the one-China policy appears to be unrelated to Taiwan, having more to do with unmet expectations of Chinese reciprocity about Indian territorial sovereignty.

Formally, Indian policy toward Taiwan has not changed, and New Delhi has also not voiced any diplomatic support for Taipei. Informally, however, bilateral relations have improved as a result of growing commercial ties and other kinds of exchanges. Despite the one-China policy, the government has stated that it “facilitates and promotes interactions in areas of trade, investment, tourism, culture, education and other such people-to-people exchanges” with Taiwan.

While India has not extended direct support to Taiwan during the recent cross-strait tensions, it has obliquely criticized China by calling for “restraint and avoidance of unilateral actions to change the status quo.” This statement appears to blame China rather than Taiwan for the tensions. Interestingly, India did not call for restraint on both sides, as it normally does.

There has been a strong undercurrent of mutual sympathy between India and Taiwan, especially since the Sino-Indian border clash in 2020. Even though its formal position is unchanged, India has extended support to Taiwan indirectly. During the peak of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in April 2021, India obliged Taiwan by providing Covid-19 vaccines to Paraguay to prevent that country from shifting its diplomatic allegiance to China. Taiwan reciprocated by sending oxygen concentrators and cylinders to India. At the same time, India rejected China’s offers of help.

Despite these incremental changes, New Delhi will remain somewhat cautious in any future crisis in the Taiwan Strait. Considering that it has already blamed China for the recent tensions, even if obliquely, India can be expected to blame and even condemn China if the country invades Taiwan. New Delhi is unlikely to equivocate as it has been doing over Ukraine because it has been making a distinction between Russian and Chinese actions. In addition to indirectly criticizing China for tensions in the Taiwan Strait, India also used its diplomatic clout to defeat a Chinese effort in the International Atomic Energy Agency to criticize the plan to supply nuclear submarines to Australia.

India is unlikely to provide direct military support to Taiwan in the event of an invasion. Both distance and political caution will not allow New Delhi to go that far. On the other hand, India will likely provide indirect support to Taiwan and especially countries like the United States if they choose to help. For example, extending transit rights to Taiwan’s allies and partners is a distinct possibility. India could also pool its surveillance and intelligence capabilities to help other countries wishing to support Taiwan. Finally, in multilateral forums, especially the United Nations, India will likely take a strong stand, again in contrast with its position on Ukraine.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi.