China has sent a forceful message to the West, in fact the United States. It has been lost in all the other rhetoric that Chinese leader Xi Jinping thundered in the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China. President Jinping said that the party will ‘complete reunification of Taiwan with the mainland’ and hinted it could be by force. If China ends up doing this, it will be symbolic end of ‘American century’.
China has made similar reference to Taiwan every time a new leader takes over and repeated it almost every year. However, this year there is a seriousness that seems to have replaced caution that marked previous policy. Under President Xi there has been escalation of incursions into Taiwan air and sea territory, gradually encircling Taiwan or testing its defences.
Taiwan is a small State of some 35 million people, one of the densest populated in the world. China on the other hand has 1.4 Billion people and the world’s largest army. In a straight war, Taiwan would not last a day. But Taiwan has a sort of guarantor, that is the United States. This is perhaps the only reason Chinese troops haven’t walked into Taiwan.
The United States has a complex relationship with Taiwan. It has an ambiguous treaty with Taiwan called the Taiwan Relations Act that ensure that Taiwan can defend itself against any aggression by China. The treaty does not commit USA to defend Taiwan. The Act states “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capabilities”.
But there is an implicit threat further in the Act, It states that the United States will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States”.
And further, ‘to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.’
So the Act draws in the United States dependent on what the United States regional policy and interest are at the time rather than a defence treaty. Taiwan has relied heavily on this Act as a sort of guarantor against a forced takeover by China.
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China has to calculate what strategic importance the United States gives to the region and how important is Taiwan to USA in that regional interest at any time. China has a reputation for long thinking. Its policy is to make Taiwan of lesser value for USA so USA will avoid a full frontal war.
That policy has already been successfully applied by China in the case of Hong Kong. It refused to accept British sovereignty in Hong Kong, claiming the Island belonged to it. It was transferred in 1997 with Britain ensuring China committed to democracy, freedoms and capitalist system in Hong Kong. China then waited till Britain’s power in the world had waned significantly to break with the one nation two systems agreement. In 2021 the commitment has all but disappeared.
In his speech, President Xi also stressed that China does not interfere in other countries nor attack them. However, China considers Taiwan to be part of China with some legitimacy.
Taiwan was part of the Qing dynasty until 1895 when Japan invaded and took over the islands. Meanwhile in mainland China, the Qing dynasty was ended by revolutions in 1912. The Republic of China was established in 1916. Following further unrest, the country was united by General Chiang Kai-Sheik under the Kuomintang in 1920s. China was called the Republic of China, ROC. But the Kuomintang faced challenge by the Communist Party of China led by Mao Zedong. During second World War, there was truce between the two. With the defeat of Japan, Taiwan was returned to China.
However, the civil war between Kuomintang and CCP continued with the later winning in 1949 and establishing its control over all of mainland China. This was now called the People’s Republic of China, PROC. Chaing Ke-Sheik and a lot of his elite escaped to Taiwan where they established their Government. They claimed that mainland China belongs to them. On the other hand mainland China claims Taiwan belongs to it.
The Taiwan Government was considered to be the legitimate Chinese Government by the West and held the seat at the UN as a veto holding power. This was mainly American policy rather than British.
The situation was absurd to say the least and a reflection of American belligerence and opposition to communism. Finally as China became more powerful and USA needed to restore relations with China, the USA recognised People’s Republic of China as the real China. Mainland China took its place and veto power at UN in 1972. Consequently, Taiwan is not recognised as a sovereign country by UN except by some 14 countries. It engages with the world through Trade Mission Offices.
Chinese policy for reunification has been multipronged. It has blocked any formal defence pact between US and Taiwan and formal recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign country. Trade with China is important for USA. Regionally China has engaged in free flow of trade and travel between mainland China and Taiwan.
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In some ways, Taiwan’s position is somewhat similar to that of Goa. Goa was a Portuguese territory. After independence, Indian request for Portugal to cede the territory to it was refused. India invaded it and annexed Goa in 1961. Portugal didn’t show up.
Will Xi invade Taiwan as India did with Goa? Xi is more likely to send the Chinese Army into Taiwan to annexe it than any other Chinese leader in recent history. His incursions in Indian territory are a testament to that.
Currently the Chinese Government is still attempting to influence the democratic vote in Taiwan in its favour and peaceful annexation. There is also brain drain from Taiwan to mainland China as there are more opportunities in China for skilled and professional Taiwanese. Lifestyle is better and China is a highly developed country now.
However Xi’s patience will run out at some stage and the prospect of invasion will become imminent.
There is considerable debate within United States to shore up its presence in Taiwan. United States think tanks are divided between letting Taiwan go or US defending it. Those promoting defence of Taiwan think that a showdown in Taiwan will contain Chinese power. The pragmatists say that USA has to come to terms with Chinese power.
If there is a showdown between China and US, it will not affect China but Taiwan might not recover, even possibly be decimated. If US lets Taiwan be taken over, it will affect American prestige, for what is left after defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq. The best possible way forward is to avoid a war, have a hands off approach and let a peaceful process determine gradual entry of Taiwan into China.