EXPLAINED | The History of China-Taiwan Tensions and Role of the US

China has been aggressively conducting large-scale military sea and air drills around the island.

4 min read

Renowned American political scientist John Mearsheimer once famously said that there was no flashpoint in the Cold War as dangerous as Taiwan is today. Well, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan went on to show that Mearsheimer may not have been exaggerating.

China fired multiple missiles around Taiwan on 4 August, as it began large-scale military sea and air drills around the island. This is no small thing as the last time China fired missiles into Taiwanese waters was in 1996, around 26 years ago. Its military flexing began on the night of 2 August, immediately after Pelosi's trip commenced.

Now, we have already covered why this visit incensed the Chinese so much, leading to intense tensions with the US and Taiwan. What we’d like to explore in this video is the history behind those tensions. And what is the role of this man, Chinese President Xi Jinping?


First, A Short History

In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and his party, the Kuomintang (KMT), lost the Chinese Civil War to the communists, led by Mao Zedong. KMT 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.


How China Sees Taiwan

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, citing reasons like nationalism and territorial integrity.

The party 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. An independent Taiwan would be catastrophic for Xi 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.


How the US Sees China vs Taiwan

The US follows what is known as the One China policy, which is a policy of strategic ambiguity acknowledging “that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China" and "does not challenge that position.”

Even though the US has formal diplomatic relations with China, and not Taiwan, Washington has de facto provided economic and military support to Taipei for decades. 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.

There is an ideological aspect as well. 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.


And What About the Taiwanese?

Today, few in Taiwan support its reunification with Mainland China. The two key reasons for this are ethnonationalism. This means 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 civic nationalism, that is, the loyalty of Taiwan’s residents lie to their democratic political system.

The people of Taiwan are too attached to their democracy, and 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 the latter's recent approach to Hong Kong.


Have China and Taiwan Been Inches Away From War Before?

Yes. The First Taiwan Strait Crisis started with China shelling several groups of islands in the Taiwan Strait to deter the US administration from signing a mutual defence treaty with Chiang Kai-shek. In 1954, however, a defence treaty was signed between the US and Taiwan.

The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis was characterised by the shelling of Taiwanese islands in 1958. The US military had even planned the use of nuclear weapons against China to prevent the mainland's takeover of the Taiwan-held islands of Kinmen and Matsu, but President Dwight Eisenhower rejected the idea. Eventually, the two settled into an uneasy standoff, in which communists and nationalists shelled each other for weeks.

The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis erupted in 1995 over Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui's visit to his alma mater, Cornell University. The Bill Clinton government initially opposed the idea but was forced to give in after the US Congress passed a resolution in support of the trip. China responded with months of military exercises, including firing missiles into waters off Taiwan, and rehearsing amphibious assaults on the island.


So, Where Do We Go From Here? 

No one really knows. CIA Director Bill Burns did say recently that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is influencing China's calculations regarding a potential attack on Taiwan, and that Beijing has realised the overwhelming amount of force it needs to amass to emerge victorious.

At the same time, China has many ways short of war to pressure Taiwan and undermine US support for the island. These "grey-zone" tactics will likely represent the toughest challenge that the US will have to face in its effort to maintain Taiwan’s security.

(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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Topics:  Taiwan   China-Taiwan 

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