Tensions between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have gotten more extreme in recent decades. After Taiwan gained functional independence from Japanese rule in 1945, it was occupied by the Republic of China (ROC), rivaling its Communist neighbour, the PRC, which was also formed right after the Second World War. The ROC, led by Chiang Kai Shek, fled the mainland to the island of Taiwan during its civil war against Mao’s Communists. In a Cold War context, there was fierce competition between the ‘two Chinas’ as many Western countries continued to recognize Taiwan as the one and true China meanwhile, the Soviet Bloc backed the PRC until the Sino-Soviet split in the mid-1950s, in which the two countries severed ties due to ideological and policy differences between Khrushchev and Mao.
Canada recognized and established diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1970, under the leadership of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The United Kingdom quickly followed suit in 1972. The United States sent National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger on an undisclosed trip to China in 1971, and President Richard Nixon later visited in 1972. Relations were fully established in 1979, and the US severed governmental ties with Taiwan, while sustaining trade. The strategic motives behind this process were centred around the premise that China could be integrated into the global capitalist economy and liberal international order, rather than swallow them whole. Such an integration would be done in a way that would make China adapt to those Western-led global governance systems. This calculation was also shared by later US administrations, including the George W. Bush administration, which decided to support China’s membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). This, however, completely backfired.
Increased Global Leverage
As a result, the West has, in broad terms, abandoned the idea of supporting the Two Chinas policy in Taiwan. In summary, the One China policy is a policy adopted by the PRC to claim that it is the only China, as opposed to the Two Chinas policy; which recognizes both the PRC and the ROC as legitimate entities. This recognition of the PRC has given it significant international leverage, which it has used to influence and exert its power over inter-governmental bodies like the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Maritime Organization, and the WTO. The PRC’s growing legitimacy and power in these bodies has allowed it to justify and legalize its policies both at home and abroad, including its currency manipulation in regional and global financial markets and its aggression in the South China Sea. These policies, emboldened by newly-gained international legitimacy, have had disastrous consequences for security, individual liberty, and prosperity in the region and the world.
Since the Cold War
Since the end of the Cold War, the PRC has been subtly deemed the winner of this dispute, as it is widely called ‘China,’ while the ROC is simply known as Taiwan. Neither the US, Canada, nor the UK officially recognize Taiwan, insisting on the concept of “functional independence,” which is a non-starter, meant to appease both sides. This notion is shared by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. The absence of official recognition shows the power of the PRC’s direct and indirect influence on Western policy in Taiwan. Only hardline Cold Warriors, like some members of the Kuomintang in Taiwan, seem to have not adapted their language, instead insisting on calling Taiwan the “Real China.” Taiwanese residents have rejected this nationalistic vision, instead electing Tsai, a social democrat, for the second time as their president.
With that, some defence and intelligence analysts, like American Navy Admirals Philip Davidson and John Aquilino, have argued that China’s military superiority in the South China Sea will lead to a direct takeover of Taiwan by the PRC in the next few years. An invasion would be facilitated by the massive power imbalance between Taiwan and the PRC. Without external support from the US and its allies, an invasion of Taiwan by the PRC would likely occur and become successful. The PRC could go about the invasion in one of two ways. The first would be much more indirect and subtle and would resemble its progressive takeover of Hong Kong since 1997. In this scenario, Taiwan will be overrun with investment, and the PRC will incentivize the nation’s immigration and tourism programs, as well as build Chinese schools and universities on the island. Although the lower strategic risk of this plan would seem attractive to the Communist Party leadership, this process would be lengthy and meticulous.
The second option, much more delicate, would be a full-on ground invasion by the PRC. This method of invasion would be much more sudden, but it could happen at any opportune moment deemed appropriate by the Communist Party leadership. This invasion could be triggered by tensions with Taiwan and the West, which would force a strong and bold response by the PRC. Another factor that could play into choosing this option is whether the government in Taipei is hardline and hawkish. Both extremes would certainly help justify a ground invasion. An ultra-nationalist government, like that offered by some members of the Kuomintang, would trigger an offensive response from the PRC, and a generally pacifistic government would give an opening to the PRC. This option goes against the interests of the Allies and Taiwan.
No Desirable Outcome
To prevent either scenario from occurring, a moderately nationalistic and rational government focused on strengthening liberal and social democratic values, while also maintaining neutral relations with China, would be preferable. This solution may be what Tsai has been offering through her prudent nationalism. Yet, China has repeatedly said that it will bring Taiwan under its authority by any means necessary, including force. Some analysts believe Chinese leader Xi Jinping aims to achieve that by 2049, the deadline for the country to achieve its “great rejuvenation.”
Since the third Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996, the PRC has ramped up its military exercises and shows of force near Taiwan’s territory. The number of Chinese warplanes flying into Taiwan’s self-defence airspace have continually increased in the last ten years. The Taiwanese government has also accused the PRC of orchestrating cyberattacks against at least 6,000 government accounts in 2020 alone. A forceful takeover, while distant, would not be completely out of the question given this context. William Bratton of The Diplomat has drawn parallels between this context and that of Cuba since 1959.
The Cuba Paradigm
After 1945, tensions over Taiwan quickly escalated. In the midst of these tensions, Maoist China shelled Taiwan twice during the first two Taiwan Strait crises. However, US President Harry Truman sent military reinforcements to Taiwan and threatened to use the nuclear option against China in Korea. Truman’s successor, President Eisenhower, also threatened to nuke Korea and China in 1953 if the Communists refused to stand down and engage in bilateral negotiations. US intelligence and military officials again considered nuking China in 1958. This consideration was due to the strategic importance of the island to Mao and the Communist leadership, and Taiwan’s connections to the US, and the Western liberal democratic and capitalist bloc.
While the Cold War continued to put a strain on Taiwan-China relations and the threat of ground invasion consistently loomed on the horizon, such a threat did not come close to the late 1940s and early 1950s. As aforementioned, the state of relations and tensions has since changed. In 1996, the PRC launched a third Taiwan Strait crisis, setting off missile tests around Taiwan between 1995 and 1996. Since then, China has continued to conduct missile tests, naval exercises, and other displays of military force. Most recently, the People’s Liberation Army sent 28 military aircraft into Taiwanese airspace, a clear violation of Taiwan’s sovereignty.
The PLA’s latest operations possess offensive qualities similar to both the Bay of Pigs invasion and the subsequent Missile Crisis in Cuba. Soon after the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1962, the Soviet Union sent over 40,000 troops to Cuba as a way to prevent a ground invasion by the US or its allies. American and Allied troops have been deployed numerous times to Taiwan to protect it from an invasion from the mainland. In both cases, tensions escalated. The stationing of Soviet troops in Cuba was one of the root causes of the Cuban missile crisis, which came soon after. In Taiwan, the two Taiwan Strait crises, where the PRC shelled Taiwan and engaged in military exercises near Taiwan’s territory, occurred a few months after US troops were stationed in Taiwan. Moreover, Cuba and Taiwan have experienced the recurring threat of nuclear armageddon, increased displays of force leading to a potential ground invasion, and, in geographic terms, both countries represent a strategic base for a superpower’s interests near a competing superpower’s territory.
What’s To Be Done?
Now, the important part: what should the US and Canada do about this? Well, simply put, both countries should support liberal, democratic, and capitalist values in Taiwan, while also not exacerbating tensions with China. Elections in Taiwan can continuously be supported and monitored, and mutual cooperation and diplomacy with current and ensuing governments in Taipei should be sustained. However, aggressive security policy should be considered, but not pursued unless absolutely necessary. This includes economic warfare, such as broad sanctions against either Taiwan or China. A supply of troops by the US, Canada, or other Allies to Taiwan should only be provided if China makes an explicit move to directly and unequivocally invade Taiwan and if civilians or local citizens (Canadian, American, and Allied citizens) are under threat of targeted assault and subjugation. Further exacerbating tensions would only push Xi into a corner and force him and the CCP to react aggressively, a response which might include full-scale ground invasion. In this scenario, war, either civil or international, would be unavoidable. Given the strategic involvement of most of the world in Taiwan and China, the potential loss of life, especially civilian life, remains beyond comprehension.