Written By: Adhara Ayndrila
The commencement of this new decade permanently marked China’s importance in the world, both economically and politically. Its hegemony, particularly in Asia, is unquestionable. However, this predominance comes at the expense of smaller nations that are yet to distance themselves from the control of Xi Jinping and his government. Among those nations, Taiwan has been a critical hotspot of international politics. Moreover, in recent years, it can be inferred that the country has found itself in the midst of growing tensions between historical opponents, namely China and the United States of America.
Taiwan’s formal name is the “Republic of China.” This is due to its origins in the country that developed in China following the Xinhai Revolution of 1912, which resulted in the downfall of the Qing Dynasty. Several years later, the Japanese Empire invaded China, gaining control of the richest and most influential regions of the young country. The Japanese Empire’s defeat in 1945 acted as a catalyst for the outbreak of a new power struggle between Mao’s communists and the republicans of the Kuomintang nationalists. After defeating Chiang Kai-Kuomintang shek’s (KMT) nationalists in a civil war, Mao Zedong’s communists seized control of Beijing in October 1949. In December, the KMT cut off ties with the mainland Chinese government and fled to the island of Taiwan, where they established their own government in Taipei. For decades, this state was seen as the genuine successor to the model government that existed in Mainland China before to the Japanese invasion and the subsequent communist revolution. For more than 30 years the nationalist government of Taiwan was, for many countries, the valid interlocutor, the Government of China. In 1950, Taiwan became an ally of the United States, which was at war with Communist China in Korea. It deployed a fleet in the Taiwan Strait between the two to safeguard its ally from a possible mainland attack.
Chiang’s ROC government-in-exile first claimed to represent the entire country of China, which it intended to re-occupy. It held China’s seat on the United Nations Security Council and was recognized as the sole Chinese government by several Western nations. However, during the 1970s, some countries argued that the Taipei government could no longer be regarded a true representative of the hundreds of millions of people living on the Chinese mainland. The UN then transferred diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1971, forcing the ROC government to resign. Taiwan’s worldwide status and global influence have steadily declined since then. Following the course of geopolitics, in 1979, the United States established diplomatic relations with China while also pledging to aid in Taiwan’s defense. It has supported the “one China” policy, recognizing Beijing as the legitimate government, but has maintained trade and military ties with Taipei. Since then, Taiwan has relaxed its efforts on recognition and has opted for a strategy that is becoming increasingly clear and is gaining more support over time: Not to be recognized as the Republic of China, but only as Taiwan.
China and Taiwan’s relation have been nothing short of a rollercoaster ride. When in 1991, Taiwan claimed that the war with People’s Republic of China was over, China proposed the so-called “one country, two systems” option. Under this agreement, China would have allowed Taiwan significant autonomy if it agreed to come under Beijing’s control. But the island had already evolved into self-ruled democracy that did not want to let go of its de facto operational independence. In 2000, when Chen Shui-bian from Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was eventually elected as the Taiwanese President, the dialogue of ‘independence’ within the country officially took off. Following that, China passed a so-called anti-secession law, stating China’s right to use “non-peaceful means” against Taiwan if it tried to “secede” from China. China’s pressure and influence brought fruitful outcomes in creating a political bloc named the Kuomintang (KMT), that heavily sided with Beijing and succeeded overthrowing DPP from power. It is the same party that was founded by the nationalist republican leaders who fought against the Chinese communist revolution and established the present Taiwan. But in the most recent political landscape of the past 7 years, Taiwan is being led by Tsai Ing-wen, who also leads the efforts for independence and DPP.
Before the latest election in Taiwan in 2020, Xi-Jinping had said “Taiwan must and will be reunited with China. Independence will only bring hardship and the re-unification with the mainland was an inevitable requirement for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.” Despite such warnings, Tsai Ing-wen won by an overwhelming majority of 58%. This is because due to the rise of political unrest in Hong Kong, the Taiwanese population was more aware of the protection of their sovereignty than any other lucrative economic policies on the table. However, rejecting the ‘one country, two systems model’ came at the expense of international isolation and economic blockade.
There are many reasons why China wants to unify Taiwan with its mainland. The key ones are that China wants to reinforce its dominance as a global superpower and consolidate its power. There’s also the matter of Taiwan’s geography — being able to set up bases further into the Pacific Ocean would extend China’s military reach and intimidate nations in the region. Controlling Taiwan would disrupt the US geographical security concept known as the “island chain strategy”, which is essentially a barrier of islands between the Chinese mainland and the Western Pacific ocean. And obviously money is an added benefit given that Taiwan’s gross domestic product was nearly $US790 billion in 2021. Moreover, Taiwan’s semi-conductor and microchip industry has over half of the global market. These incentives have been pushing Beijing to take up hardline Chinese diplomatic and military actions towards the island in response to Taiwanese policies that Beijing finds objectionable. Beijing poached seven of Taipei’s diplomatic allies during Tsai’s first four-year term. Despite the pandemic, it has barred Taiwan from participating in the World Health Assembly, the World Health Organization’s decision-making body. Since March 2019, Chinese jets have routinely violated Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and crossed the Taiwan Strait’s centerline, which the People’s Liberation Army Air Force has implicitly respected for 20 years. Threats of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan are frequently seen in China’s state media. Some observers see China’s increasing pressure as an indication that Beijing is losing faith in the passage of time and that Chinese tolerance for reunification is becoming thin.
In the recent months, this whole issue escalated to another paradigm following USA House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island. Beijing sees Pelosi’s trip as a “serious violation” of historical US-China agreements governing their relations and as an encouragement to make the island’s decades-old de facto independence permanent, a step U.S. leaders say they do not support. China promised to take “resolute and powerful actions” if Pelosi went through with her visit, and soon after she arrived, it announced a number of military exercises and activities. Fortunately, China’s actions in this crisis have been muscular but calibrated-designed to show its anger and while avoiding escalation. The danger is that China uses the crisis to set new boundaries for its encroachments into what Taiwan considers its airspace and territorial waters. It could also attempt to impose even stricter limits on the island’s dealings with the rest of the world. Taiwan might count on USA for all the foreseeable as well as unforeseeable responses from China. But it is also a matter of fact that Washington wouldn’t want to further worsen its ties with China at the moment. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Biden both have made clear that war is not inevitable. However, that does not spare Taiwan of the historic tension with China that is at an all time high.
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Featured Illustration Courtesy: ABC