Taiwan and China: a Conflict 70 Years in the Making?
Taiwan, a relatively small island approximately 160 km off the coast of China, may appear to be, at a first glance, a relatively unassuming country, but since 1949 it has become an area of great dispute and, recently, has come further under international scrutiny due to its contentious relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). To understand the current conflict involving Taiwan, it is necessary to understand the island’s controversial history from a variety of different perspectives, in order to more objectively appraise the current situation. Historical events and the important socio-economic and cultural repercussions they have are essential in being able to thoroughly understand a situation in its entirety and complexity.
A fundamental event necessary to understand the current political tensions between the PRC and China stems from the Chinese Civil War, which spanned from 1945 to 1949. The conflict was between the Nationalists, led by Jiang Kaishek and the Communists under Mao. After the end of World War II, the Nationalists, backed by American forces, were not able to secure victory against the Communist forces and after their defeat the Nationalist government and its supporters fled to Taiwan, establishing the Republic of China. The PRC’s government in Beijing has, since then, not recognised the independence of Taiwan and has maintained jurisdiction over Taiwan. Aside from ideological conflicts between the two governments, a main factor fomenting the PRC’s attitude towards Taiwan is its “One China” policy, which is the diplomatic acknowledgement that there is only one Chinese government.
Nowadays, the situation remains tense. The Chinese government requires any country that wants diplomatic relations with the PRC to not have any official ties with Taipei. This creates a difficult and tense international scenario, where Taiwan is not officially recognised by many foreign nations, thus providing less legitimacy to its independentist stance. Nevertheless, many countries, like the US have a “robust unofficial” relationship with Taiwan, indicating that in the case of aggression from China, there would be some sort of American support, not limited to the sale of military technology worth more than $25 billion between 2007 and 2018 for the purpose of developing Taiwanese defence.
In the past, there was little reason to worry about possible Chinese military action towards Taiwan, as it once appeared that not only did China lack the military capability to actually invade the island, specifically as Taiwan has access to American weaponry, but also the international cost of such an aggressive action might have been too high. This previously unlikely possibility is turning more likely as time passes, specifically after observing the events unfolding in Hong Kong. Chinese actions, such as the imposition of the Hong Kong national security law, which effectively ended its relative autonomy, raise fear with regards to China’s possible future intentions regarding Taiwan.
China’s increased aggressiveness can’t only be seen with regards to its actions in Hong Kong. The Taiwanese military has launched aircrafts to intercept Chinese planes more than twice so far in 2020 as in the whole of 2019. A report made by the Taiwanese defence ministry states that China is “testing our response, increasing pressure on our air defences and shrinking our space for activity”, indicating a marked change towards more militarily aggressive behaviour against Taiwan.
In economic terms, China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, and the two countries have reached agreements to allow financial actors to work in both markets, indicating a certain degree of interdependence, especially on Taiwan’s part. As Taiwan is so small, and the fact that China is the recipient of 30% of its total trade, it is strongly susceptible to any sort of economic aggression China might want to take. Notably, Taiwanese investment in China has declined in the last years, indicating a possible Taiwanese strategy of reducing the reliance on and vulnerability to any sort of Chinese action.
It is clear that the PRC would have both the economic and military means to carry out a re-integration of Taiwan into the mainland, and thus achieving the One China policy. This possibility is rendered even higher by the fact that the current Chinese President Xi Jinping has reversed the previous leader’s commitment to cautious foreign policy. Chinese actions in Hong Kong and conflicts with Vietnam and Malaysia in the South China Sea indicate a growing propensity towards aggression that might cause worry in Taiwan. A possible Chinese invasion is unpredictable, but it would be wise for the Taiwanese government to prepare for the worst and, based on the example provided by Hong Kong, not allow itself to rely on foreign aid to fend off the Chinese threat.