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China-Taiwan Dispute Explained: Invasion or Independence, What Does Future Hold?

What are the objectives of Taiwan, China, and the US, in fighting for a particular political status for Taiwan?

Updated
Explainers
6 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Tensions between China and Taiwan have surged in the past few days.&nbsp;</p></div>
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Taiwan’s defence ministry on Monday, 4 October, stated that the Chinese military – the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – flew almost 150 warplanes into its air-defence zone in the last four days, The Guardian reported.

Responding to these grey zone tactics, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, in an essay penned for Foreign Affairs magazine, warned of catastrophic consequences if the island fell to Chinese control.

The air intrusions by China led to a flurry of reactions, with Taiwan’s Premier Su Tseng-chang calling China’s actions “over the top”.

While the US urged China to end its provocative military activities, the latter’s foreign ministry accused the US of destabilising the region by selling weapons to Taiwan, Reuters reported.

All these developments have brought the Taiwan issue back into the headlines. In this explainer, we look at the historical background of the China-Taiwan-US nexus, along with the interests of all three actors involved in fighting for a particular political status for Taiwan.

China-Taiwan Dispute Explained: Invasion or Independence, What Does Future Hold?

  1. 1. How the China-Taiwan Tensions Began & the US' Role

    Taiwan’s first contact with China was in 1683 when it came under the Qing dynasty’s control. But it’s role in international politics can be traced back to the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) in which Japan defeated Qing China and made Taiwan its first colony.

    Japan, however, lost the Second World War, and Taiwan was given back to the Chinese, who, led by Chiang Kai-shek, had sided with the Allied Powers during the war.

    In 1949, Chiang and his party, the Kuomintang (KMT), lost the Chinese Civil War to the communists, led by Mao Zedong. They fled to Taiwan and maintained administrative control over it.

    Just as Mao was about to launch an assault on Taiwan to integrate it within China, the Korean War erupted in 1950. Not only did the war keep Mao busy in aiding the communists in North Korea, which prevented the invasion of Taiwan, it also forced the US to commit itself to Taiwan’s security and independence.

    Based on geostrategic calculations, Taiwan came to be an essential ally of the US in the latter’s mission of containing China’s rise in East Asia during and after the Cold War.

    All the three actors have different perspectives of what Taiwan is to them and different interests with respect to why the island is so important.

    Expand
  2. 2. Taiwan’s Present Day Concerns: Identity and Civic Nationalism

    Today, few in Taiwan support its reunification with Mainland China. The two key reasons for this are ethnonationalism, and more importantly, civic nationalism.

    According to polls conducted in 2020, almost two-thirds of Taiwan’s residents consider their identity as simply ‘Taiwanese’, while almost one-thirds consider themselves as Taiwanese and Chinese, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

    Only around three percent consider themselves simply ‘Chinese’. A strong sense of Taiwanese identity lies in the core of Taiwan’s resistance to reunification.

    These statistical findings are also consistent with the conclusions of Pew Research Centre.

    Millions of Taiwanese youth, who are the future of Taiwan, consider themselves being born as independent from China, having no cultural ties to the mainland.

    But what is even more important is the loyalty of Taiwan’s residents to their democratic political system, or what Richard Bush, an expert on Chinese affairs, calls civic nationalism.

    A vast majority of Taiwanese people are opposed to the “one country, two systems” model, in which Taiwan, like Hong Kong and Macau, would function as a Special Administrative Region of China, and maintain its own economic and administrative system, according to the CFR report.

    This is because the people of Taiwan are too attached to their democracy, summarises Richard Bush, in his book Uncharted Strait: The Future of China-Taiwan Relations.

    They simply don’t trust China to keep their promise of granting limited but significant autonomy to Taiwan after the reunification, especially in the context of China’s recent policy in Hong Kong.

    Yun, a digital designer in Taipei, told The Diplomat that he doesn’t hate Chinese people, but he hates the Chinese government. And he hates the Chinese government because he loves freedom and democracy. As per reports, this sentiment is echoed by a majority of the Taiwanese population.

    “They promised Hong Kong 50 years of freedom. They’re already breaking it. They couldn’t keep the promise and why would I trust them? I will never trust them,” he said.

    Expand
  3. 3. Why is Taiwan So Important to China?

    The Communist Party of China considers Taiwan to be a breakaway province, and President Xi Jinping has clearly said that Taiwan “must and will be” reunited with China, according to two separate BBC reports.

    China has always considered Taiwan to be historically a part of China and its insistence on reunification revolves mostly around nationalism and territorial integrity.

    The Communist Party of China argues that the history of the country during the two centuries preceding the 21 Century are rife with instances of national humiliation such as the Opium Wars and the defeats to Japan.

    Xi has plans for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the creation of the People’s Republic China.

    What the great rejuvenation means for him is not just economic predominance in Asia, but also regaining control of “greater China”, which includes territories like Tibet, Hong Kong, and of course Taiwan, according to an article in The Atlantic.

    Taiwanese independence would have catastrophic consequences for Xi’s and the Chinese Communist Party’s nationalist legitimacy.

    It would also promote separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang, which while not the same, would be reminiscent of the national humiliation that Xi has vowed to never let happen again.

    Due to nationalism and the promise to make China great again, Taiwan is continuously warned against the declaration of formal independence.

    The other, international factor in China’s reunification goals is its cold war with the United States.

    The US has de facto provided economic and military support to Taiwan for decades, and formal independence for the latter would mean a massive loss in prestige for China.

    Expand
  4. 4. US' Stance: How Taiwan Affects the Sino-American Relationship 

    The US stance on Taiwan has been one of strategic ambiguity, that is, it has not formally stated that it will rush to defend Taiwan should China invade it, but it nevertheless continues to provide aid to it.

    Typically, in international relations, a global power seeks to ally with and guarantee the security of a small nation for three reasons – economic, strategic, and ideological.

    In the case of the US acting as Taiwan’s patron against Chinese aggression, all three reasons matter, albeit with different magnitudes.

    Taiwan is the US’s 10th largest trading partner and losing it to China would provide the Chinese control over its $600 billion economy, high-tech industry, and semiconductor production.

    Strategically, a China-controlled Taiwan would increase its missile ranges around 150 nautical miles eastwards, according to an analysis in The Diplomat.

    This would make China the dominant power in the East China Sea and make it easier for it to strike Japan or the US island territory of Guam.

    Taiwan also acts as a pro-US aircraft carrier and is vital to the containment of China, analysed the Observer Research Foundation.

    However, while economics and security are unmistakably important, Taiwan’s democratic system, which is a symbol of resistance against China's authoritarian system, trumps the first two factors.

    Taiwan is perhaps most important to the US because the anti-communist democratic island provides the US with a huge win in the Sino-American ideological competition.

    Democracy did not always exist in Taiwan. Reforms in the late 1980s left behind the totalitarian system that Chiang Kai-shek had ruled with, and democratisation processes created the vibrant democracy that we see today.

    The US supports a healthy democracy like Taiwan from an authoritarian country like China because if it doesn’t, it will be a massive blow to the credibility of the same country that defeated communism and the Soviet Union three decades ago.

    Expand
  5. 5. Will China Invade Taiwan? Will Taiwan Declare Independence?

    The recent developments in the Indo-Pacific have shown that all three actors – China, Taiwan, and the US – are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve the above-mentioned objectives.

    There are multiple scenarios that can play out in the future, some more likely than the other.

    Firstly, will China invade Taiwan? Regardless of the whatever happens in the future, the costs of an invasion are very high, and these are not only financial costs, but also diplomatic ones.

    An invasion of the island would make China the world’s public enemy number one. Taiwan would garner global sympathy, and China’s efforts to establish itself as a responsible world leader, as is evident in their climate goals and policies, would all become worthless.

    The second situation is of Taiwan formally declaring independence. This is also unlikely because multiple polls have shown that most Taiwanese people support the status quo and don’t want to risk antagonising China.

    After all, China is quite clearly militarily superior to Taiwan and the US hasn’t promised anything in the case of a Chinese invasion.

    Therefore, the most likely scenario for the future, despite recent Chinese intimidation, seems like the maintenance of the status quo.

    (With inputs from The Guardian, Foreign Affairs, Reuters, Council on Foreign Relations, Pew Research Centre, The Diplomat, The Atlantic, and the Observer Research Foundation)

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

How the China-Taiwan Tensions Began & the US' Role

Taiwan’s first contact with China was in 1683 when it came under the Qing dynasty’s control. But it’s role in international politics can be traced back to the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) in which Japan defeated Qing China and made Taiwan its first colony.

Japan, however, lost the Second World War, and Taiwan was given back to the Chinese, who, led by Chiang Kai-shek, had sided with the Allied Powers during the war.

In 1949, Chiang and his party, the Kuomintang (KMT), lost the Chinese Civil War to the communists, led by Mao Zedong. They fled to Taiwan and maintained administrative control over it.

Just as Mao was about to launch an assault on Taiwan to integrate it within China, the Korean War erupted in 1950. Not only did the war keep Mao busy in aiding the communists in North Korea, which prevented the invasion of Taiwan, it also forced the US to commit itself to Taiwan’s security and independence.

Based on geostrategic calculations, Taiwan came to be an essential ally of the US in the latter’s mission of containing China’s rise in East Asia during and after the Cold War.

All the three actors have different perspectives of what Taiwan is to them and different interests with respect to why the island is so important.

ADVERTISEMENT

Taiwan’s Present Day Concerns: Identity and Civic Nationalism

Today, few in Taiwan support its reunification with Mainland China. The two key reasons for this are ethnonationalism, and more importantly, civic nationalism.

According to polls conducted in 2020, almost two-thirds of Taiwan’s residents consider their identity as simply ‘Taiwanese’, while almost one-thirds consider themselves as Taiwanese and Chinese, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Only around three percent consider themselves simply ‘Chinese’. A strong sense of Taiwanese identity lies in the core of Taiwan’s resistance to reunification.

These statistical findings are also consistent with the conclusions of Pew Research Centre.

Millions of Taiwanese youth, who are the future of Taiwan, consider themselves being born as independent from China, having no cultural ties to the mainland.

But what is even more important is the loyalty of Taiwan’s residents to their democratic political system, or what Richard Bush, an expert on Chinese affairs, calls civic nationalism.

A vast majority of Taiwanese people are opposed to the “one country, two systems” model, in which Taiwan, like Hong Kong and Macau, would function as a Special Administrative Region of China, and maintain its own economic and administrative system, according to the CFR report.

This is because the people of Taiwan are too attached to their democracy, summarises Richard Bush, in his book Uncharted Strait: The Future of China-Taiwan Relations.

They simply don’t trust China to keep their promise of granting limited but significant autonomy to Taiwan after the reunification, especially in the context of China’s recent policy in Hong Kong.

Yun, a digital designer in Taipei, told The Diplomat that he doesn’t hate Chinese people, but he hates the Chinese government. And he hates the Chinese government because he loves freedom and democracy. As per reports, this sentiment is echoed by a majority of the Taiwanese population.

“They promised Hong Kong 50 years of freedom. They’re already breaking it. They couldn’t keep the promise and why would I trust them? I will never trust them,” he said.

Why is Taiwan So Important to China?

The Communist Party of China considers Taiwan to be a breakaway province, and President Xi Jinping has clearly said that Taiwan “must and will be” reunited with China, according to two separate BBC reports.

China has always considered Taiwan to be historically a part of China and its insistence on reunification revolves mostly around nationalism and territorial integrity.

The Communist Party of China argues that the history of the country during the two centuries preceding the 21 Century are rife with instances of national humiliation such as the Opium Wars and the defeats to Japan.

Xi has plans for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the creation of the People’s Republic China.

What the great rejuvenation means for him is not just economic predominance in Asia, but also regaining control of “greater China”, which includes territories like Tibet, Hong Kong, and of course Taiwan, according to an article in The Atlantic.

Taiwanese independence would have catastrophic consequences for Xi’s and the Chinese Communist Party’s nationalist legitimacy.

It would also promote separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang, which while not the same, would be reminiscent of the national humiliation that Xi has vowed to never let happen again.

Due to nationalism and the promise to make China great again, Taiwan is continuously warned against the declaration of formal independence.

The other, international factor in China’s reunification goals is its cold war with the United States.

The US has de facto provided economic and military support to Taiwan for decades, and formal independence for the latter would mean a massive loss in prestige for China.

ADVERTISEMENT

US' Stance: How Taiwan Affects the Sino-American Relationship 

The US stance on Taiwan has been one of strategic ambiguity, that is, it has not formally stated that it will rush to defend Taiwan should China invade it, but it nevertheless continues to provide aid to it.

Typically, in international relations, a global power seeks to ally with and guarantee the security of a small nation for three reasons – economic, strategic, and ideological.

In the case of the US acting as Taiwan’s patron against Chinese aggression, all three reasons matter, albeit with different magnitudes.

Taiwan is the US’s 10th largest trading partner and losing it to China would provide the Chinese control over its $600 billion economy, high-tech industry, and semiconductor production.

Strategically, a China-controlled Taiwan would increase its missile ranges around 150 nautical miles eastwards, according to an analysis in The Diplomat.

This would make China the dominant power in the East China Sea and make it easier for it to strike Japan or the US island territory of Guam.

Taiwan also acts as a pro-US aircraft carrier and is vital to the containment of China, analysed the Observer Research Foundation.

However, while economics and security are unmistakably important, Taiwan’s democratic system, which is a symbol of resistance against China's authoritarian system, trumps the first two factors.

Taiwan is perhaps most important to the US because the anti-communist democratic island provides the US with a huge win in the Sino-American ideological competition.

Democracy did not always exist in Taiwan. Reforms in the late 1980s left behind the totalitarian system that Chiang Kai-shek had ruled with, and democratisation processes created the vibrant democracy that we see today.

The US supports a healthy democracy like Taiwan from an authoritarian country like China because if it doesn’t, it will be a massive blow to the credibility of the same country that defeated communism and the Soviet Union three decades ago.

Will China Invade Taiwan? Will Taiwan Declare Independence?

The recent developments in the Indo-Pacific have shown that all three actors – China, Taiwan, and the US – are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve the above-mentioned objectives.

There are multiple scenarios that can play out in the future, some more likely than the other.

Firstly, will China invade Taiwan? Regardless of the whatever happens in the future, the costs of an invasion are very high, and these are not only financial costs, but also diplomatic ones.

An invasion of the island would make China the world’s public enemy number one. Taiwan would garner global sympathy, and China’s efforts to establish itself as a responsible world leader, as is evident in their climate goals and policies, would all become worthless.

The second situation is of Taiwan formally declaring independence. This is also unlikely because multiple polls have shown that most Taiwanese people support the status quo and don’t want to risk antagonising China.

After all, China is quite clearly militarily superior to Taiwan and the US hasn’t promised anything in the case of a Chinese invasion.

Therefore, the most likely scenario for the future, despite recent Chinese intimidation, seems like the maintenance of the status quo.

(With inputs from The Guardian, Foreign Affairs, Reuters, Council on Foreign Relations, Pew Research Centre, The Diplomat, The Atlantic, and the Observer Research Foundation)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Published: 
Edited By :Saundarya Talwar
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