China’s 1949 civil war ended with two leaders in two different territories claiming to represent the “real” China. In the state today known as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Mao Zedong established a Communist state under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). On the island now known as Taiwan (officially the Republic of China), Chiang Kai-shek and what was left of his supporters established the Kuomintang government. In the context of the Cold War when the spread of Communism was seen as a threat in the West, many countries – including the United States and its allies – refused to recognize the PRC as legitimate. Rather, they recognized the Kuomintang as the representative governing body for all of China and gave Taiwan the seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Even as two different political systems were established and Taiwan developed into a lively democratic island, Beijing has continuously referred to the dynamic as “one country, two systems.” This means that although Taiwan has a democratic political system in place, can run its own elections, and can carry out its own political and economic affairs, it is still under the authority of the CCP. The CCP promises that one day it will “reunify” Taiwan back into China’s political rule.
This attitude has affected the international community’s relations with the island as Beijing has made states choose whether or not to acknowledge its claims over Taiwan. Beijing refuses to have diplomatic ties with anyone that recognizes the island as separate from mainland China.
It was not until the 1970s that the international community began to recognize the People’s Republic of China as a legitimate country, represented by the CCP on the mainland. Canada was one of the first countries to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1970, while the United Nations Security Council seat was transferred to the CCP in 1971, followed by the United States’ recognition of the CCP as representative of China in 1979. Currently, there are only fifteen countries that recognize Taiwan as the legitimate China.
The Impact of US Involvement
The Cold War was driven by conflicting political ideologies and the US went to great lengths to disrupt the spread of Communism around the world. Although America officially changed its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to mainland China in 1979, a few months later the Taiwan Relations Act was passed, which ensured that the economic and security relationship between the two would continue. The Act establishes that “the United States shall […] enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defence capacity” and that “any effort to undermine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” would be of “grave concern.”
On the other hand, since becoming the leader of China, Xi Jinping has repeatedly mentioned the “Chinese Dream,” which he refers to as the restoration of Chinese excellence and power on the world stage. Concerningly, Xi has explicitly stated that the reunification of Taiwan into China is necessary for this dream to become a reality by the time of the PRC’s one-hundredth anniversary in 2049. Furthermore, he said that the CCP would take military action against anyone helping Taiwan separate from China.
The tension between the world’s biggest superpowers – the US and China – has risen to worrying heights over the past few years. If Xi Jinping chooses to reclaim Taiwan with force, it could have some serious repercussions for the delicate balance of global politics.
Rising Tensions in the Taiwan Strait
Since 2016, when Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen was elected to office through Taiwan’s democratic system, China has increased its military presence around the island because it sees the current government as a threat to the “one country, two systems” ideology. Tsai claims that she wishes to maintain the status quo of the Taiwan-China relationship, however, at the same time, she has significantly increased Taiwan’s defence spending. She stated that the island must continue to be as prepared as possible if the CCP does decide to use force to take Taiwan.
Over the past few weeks, tensions in the Taiwan Strait – the 177-kilometre body of water in between China and Taiwan – have further escalated. In early April, twenty-five Chinese fighter jets flew into Taiwanese air space following the announcement of increased ties between Taiwan and the US State Department. This has been just one of the many Chinese military missions that have taken place near Taiwan over the past year. This specific example is representative of a larger trend of China’s increased activity in the region as a response to actions taken by the US government. Without explicitly speaking out against the friendlier ties between the US and Taiwan, the CCP’s actions can be interpreted as a warning to the Biden administration and the world.
Will Xi Jinping Make a Move?
The CCP’s increased military presence has caused many people to question whether China is preparing to invade Taiwan in the near future. Additionally, the US’ previous deals and statements regarding its relationship with Taiwan have raised the question: if China invades Taiwan with force, will the US and China go to war over the island? This would be extremely concerning as both have nuclear weapons and a significant amount of military power; a war between the two superpowers would have severe global repercussions.
However, experts do not see the recent escalation as a sign of imminent war. While many have speculated that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would put President Joe Biden in the tough position of choosing whether to go to war, many experts have stated that the invasion would not be beneficial to the CCP either.
Despite the relative geographical proximity, transporting that many soldiers and military equipment across the Strait would not only be extremely difficult, but it could also put the Chinese Army (known as the People’s Liberation Army or PLA) at risk of being attacked en route to Taiwan. Bill Sharp, a Taiwanese expert and historian, told Al Jazeera that the PLA’s landing on the island’s shores would be “‘more difficult than a D-Day Landing’ due to Taiwan’s geography, rough waters, and unreliable weather patterns.” Furthermore, he brought up the point that if Xi Jinping chooses violence over a peaceful takeover, it would antagonize the Taiwanese even more, increasing their motivation to fight back.
The unknowns of war also force the CCP to proceed with caution, as it is unclear to what lengths the US and other powers, such as Japan, would go to if an invasion occurred. Instead of a traditional military invasion, some experts believe China will choose to increase Taiwan’s economic dependence on the mainland and continue using “psychological warfare” through the PLA’s military activity in the nearby areas to invoke fear in Taiwanese citizens. However, recent polls have shown that the majority of Taiwanese people are not yet concerned about a Chinese invasion as they have been living under the threat for forty years.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 showed that military invasions come with severe economic sanctions and consequences in today’s day and age of global affairs. If China were to take Taiwan by force, it would not only trigger the US to act but could be the worst-case scenario for the CCP as well.
China is generally known for playing the long game in global affairs and it appears it may be doing so with Taiwan as well. It is most likely increasing its military presence near the island as an intimidation tactic and to warn the US not to interfere or support Taiwanese independence in any way.
Instead of fearing a full war with China, the US government should instead pay attention to how the China-Taiwan economic relationship develops over the next few months and years. If Taiwan can diversify its trade portfolio and become less dependent on China, it will make it harder for the CCP to use Taiwanese dependence on the mainland to its advantage.
Another potential solution could be to try and shift the CCP’s idea of what unification means: for example, shifting the idea of “one China” fully under CCP leadership towards the idea of a system that resembles the likes of a commonwealth or confederation. In this way, the CCP may not view Taiwanese democracy as a direct link to independence, which could decrease the threat that Taiwanese politics imposes on Xi and his goal of achieving the “Chinese Dream.”
It is difficult to predict what the future of the Taiwan Strait will look like and how far the US and China will go for Taiwan. Although Xi Jinping has increased Chinese aggression on the world stage, such as tightening the CCP’s grip on Hong Kong, it appears that war with the US is not inevitable nor imminent if the CCP is acting in its self-interest. However, Taiwan’s independence is still considered by China a “red line” not to be crossed. Due to the impact of US foreign policy on China’s actions in the region, the Biden administration will need to be very strategic with how it carries out its next moves because the last thing anyone wants is a US-China war.