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An Update On Taiwan And China's Troubled Relationship


Tensions are high between China, Taiwan and the United States. This comes after the U.S. said it would move forward with a deal to sell advanced weapons systems to Taiwan. Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited a military base and gave a speech to Chinese Marines to, quote, "focus your minds and energy on preparing to go to war." Now, China claims Taiwan as its territory and has vowed to bring the nation under its own rule.

Oriana Skylar Mastro is a fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford and a China military analyst. She joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

ORIANA SKYLAR MASTRO: Yeah, thank you for having me.

SIMON: Has Taiwan become a bigger priority for China?

MASTRO: It's hard to say that it's a bigger priority. Taiwan has always been the No. 1 priority. But the military's role in promoting their views on Taiwan have increased this year.

SIMON: What are they eager for the Chinese government to do?

MASTRO: Well, Xi Jinping almost two years ago gave this speech in which he said that he wanted to see concrete progress towards reunification with Taiwan. Now, before, the position of Beijing had always been to prevent independence. Now, my view is that this speech basically changed what the standard is. Now it's not enough for Taiwan not to be independent. They have to be making moves towards reunification. And so, more and more, they're using military forms of coercion to get Taiwan there.

SIMON: Let me ask you about life across the straits because to much of the world, Taiwan has a conspicuously successful society, including, by the way, they've handled the coronavirus. Would they want to inflame the situation by declaring independence?

MASTRO: No. I don't think the current threat comes from a Taiwan declaration of independence. I think the current threat is that the CCP is running out of patience, and their military is becoming more and more capable. So for the first time in its history, there's the option of taking Taiwan by force. And even if China doesn't take that option, it's obviously going to color their behavior and how they act if they feel confident that that is an option that they can now use that they couldn't use before.

SIMON: And what kind of effect does this have in Taiwan?

MASTRO: Well, I think, in general, the constant military movements and exercises that we see across the strait do create a threatening environment. Just between September 15 and September 24, Chinese aircraft entered Taiwan's airspace 46 times. China is now saying that they no longer respect the median line, which was a boundary, an air boundary, that existed across the strait for decades and decades. We see China doing large-scale military exercises across the strait. They're trying to show probably Taiwan and also the United States that this isn't 1996. They now have the capability, or they believe they have the capability, to take the island by force. So President Tsai of Taiwan and President Trump or whatever president may or may not follow should not push the envelope on this issue.

SIMON: President Trump has criticized China publicly, though apparently - certainly hasn't pressured the country on its treatment of the Uighurs and Muslim minorities. Joe Biden calls President Xi a thug. Do you see any differences in their potential approaches to Taiwan and China?

MASTRO: I do. There are two fundamental differences. The first is, what is the source of the threat? The Trump administration has been very clear that China is an inherent threat because it is communist. I think the Democrats take a more nuanced view, and they think Xi Jinping is pursuing a certain strategy and has in mind certain goals that conflict with those of the United States. And for that reason, we have to push back. And the second issue is, what are we trying to accomplish? I think Republicans, and especially this administration, the view is to undermine Chinese power. That is the goal in and of itself, while a Biden administration, I think, would want to, you know, lead with diplomacy, as he says, and shape Chinese behavior more. So it's OK for China to continue to be powerful; it's how they use their power that is important.

So what this means for Taiwan - I think that President Obama perhaps was very good at the assurance side of things - right? - assuring Beijing that the United States wouldn't do anything to unnecessarily undermine their interests across the strait. President Trump has been much better at the threat component - right? - of showing through military force, through action that the United States is willing and able to defend Taiwan. But deterrence requires both assurance and threat. And so hopefully the next administration, you know, regardless if it's Trump or Biden, will combine these approaches and do both well, which is what we need to prevent conflict.

SIMON: Oriana Skylar Mastro is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and focuses on Chinese military and security policy. Thank you so much for being with us.

MASTRO: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.