The Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised many questions about global security. The fact that Russia resorted to all-out war to achieve its geopolitical aims, destabilised other regional conflicts which were ‘frozen’ for a long time. One such region of potential instability is Taiwan. After the 24th of February, the threat of Taiwan being taken over by mainland China by force was once again, actively discussed in expert circles. The fear of a Chinese ‘special operation’ makes the Chinese Republic (i.e. Taiwan’s official name) one of Ukraine’s biggest allies. The scenario in which Russia loses the war and its economy is destroyed by sanctions, is the most desirable for Taiwan as such a turn of events will force the CCP to think twice before sending its forces across the Pacific Ocean.
The roots of Chinese persistence
The Taiwanese crisis is the only case of its kind in which both sides claim the entirety of the other’s territory. Such tenseness of the conflict can be explained by history. During the Chinese civil war there were two belligerents of the conflict: communists and the national-democratic party Kuomintang. After the victory of Mao Zedong, the leaders of Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan. The emigrants looked at the island as a temporary base from which a future liberation and cleansing of China from the communist ‘plague’ would occur. The party which established itself as the initiator of Taiwanese statehood has never abandoned the plan of taking back control of China – this was reiterated in Taiwan’s constitution and its name.
From the point of view of the official Taipei, mainland China is temporarily occupied by the communists. Similarly, the CCP considers the island of Taiwan an integral part of its China. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of mainland China consider the potential takeover of Taiwan very psychologically important. In China, public expression of doubt on the issue of Taiwan belonging to China is instantly met with repression – which is in fact, supported by the majority. A similar system existed in Taiwan and in a way, this united the two Chinese republics. In everything else, diametrical opposition remained in place. In the 1970s, after the liberal and democratic reforms, Taiwan became an example of a new path of development which mainland China could take note of. This, ofcourse, became an additional factor in antagonising Beijing.
Economics and Geography
The conflict becomes even more tense when looking at Taiwan’s political role on the global scale. This nation is the biggest exporter of semiconductors, a vital element in the production chain of technological industries. Moreover, Taiwan manufactures the most sophisticated microchips in the world. The paradox lies within the fact that both Chinese and American high tech giants and even their militaries rely on Taiwan in this regard. Hence, in the scenario where China takes over Taiwan, the US will suffer a colossal political loss.
Furthermore, Taiwan is situated in a crucial geographical location. Most of the Chinese sea trade goes through water near the island. Taiwan also sits at the end of a ‘chain’ of pro-American nations (Japan, Philippines, South Korea) which are lined up along the Chinese coast. The potential ability of the US and its allies to close off the Chinese coast and block Chinese trade is considered a national threat in China. This gave rise to the thesis that China will not truly be a superpower without integrating Taiwan.
Defence and Identity
This was always understood by the people of Taiwan themselves. Thanks to this as well as a close relationship with the US, France, Israel and Japan, the armed forces of Taiwan are very capable. A few decades after the end of the Chinese civil war, Taiwan abandoned hopes of revenge and switched to a defensive strategy instead. This is why Taiwan has recently gained interest in forming a defensive strategy similar to the Territorial Defence in Ukraine. In a society deeply concerned about the war in Ukraine, preparations are under way for a possible invasion of their country.
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However, a defensive strategy should not only be in terms of its military capacity. There comes a point when those who were born during the times of the old Kuomintang party elites would lose power and most of the population would be those who were born in the era of Taiwanisation. The process of Taiwanisation would entail changes such as in its name (from Chinese republic to Taiwanese republic), and basically, a rebuttal of the idea that Taiwan and mainland China are rightfully one. In essence, this is the formation of a new idea – a Taiwanese identity. One that is neither pro-Chinese or anti-Chinese. The foreign policy consequence here could be a proposal of ‘friendship’ to mainland China. According to this logic, there would be no possible unification of the two as they are two completely different people (the Chinese and the Taiwanese). This rhetoric is no longer marginal and has gained widespread popularity. Kuomintang is no longer in power in Taipei, but rather the ‘Green coalition’, led by the Democratic Progressive party, which promotes the idea of Taiwanisation, as the main focus of their programme.
What is Beijing’s Plan?
Meanwhile, China, unlike the hysterical and irrational behaviour of Russia, acts brutally but does not rush with its actions. Despite that this conflict has been ‘frozen’ for 73 years, Beijing has constantly reminded the rest of the world about its territorial claims. For China, any type of normalisation will essentially give them reasons to use the estoppel principle. According to this principle of international law, if a government lays certain claims but acts to receive maximum benefit from the status quo, its claims are deemed unjust. Hence, China reacts swiftly to countries that recognise Taiwan as independent and always speaks of Taiwan as only a province of its own (and often threatens Taiwan directly). Quite often, China carries out deliberate Taiwanese airspace violations with the last of such being on the 6th of May when a total of 18 military aircraft passed the border and flew over Taiwan. It is also important to note that China does not portray such actions as provocations but simply as patrolling of their own territory.
As China grew stronger, various developments accompanied this – border clashes became more frequent while the list of countries willing to trade with China as a giant economy, subsequently shortened the list of countries which recognised Taiwan. There are only 23 countries who recognise Taiwan currently. However, the strengthening of China’s position was met with a strong reaction and hostility from the US: in 2021, Joe Biden declared that he would support Taiwan if it was met with military aggression. After the 24th of February, the Asian continent was left wondering if the US would be ready to confront the Chinese over Taiwan. Bonnie Glaser, the deputy adviser and leader of the China Power Project, is convinced that Taiwan is more important for the US than Ukraine is. However, the question still remains – are the Chinese ready to cross the red line here?
‘Taiwan is not Ukraine’
These are the words of the press secretary of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs when replying on whether Taiwan and Ukraine can be seen as analogous situations – and he does have a point. Besides the many differences that are evident when comparing Ukraine and Taiwan, it is also crucial to see that China and Russia are also very different. One can endlessly talk about the reasons that compelled Putin to order the suicidal war: the absence of qualified experts, the lack of adequate officials in the government and more. China does not have these drawbacks. China is much better at calculating which of their actions will backfire and which will be beneficial. Beijing understands that the global importance of Taiwan means that taking over the island without serious repercussions will be impossible. China’s economy which is heavily export-oriented will suffer enormous losses. By some estimations, this could cause deeper political instability domestically.
Moreover, despite Putin’s efforts, the US considers China, not Russia, as its main geopolitical opponent. Therefore, the Chinese takeover of Taiwan would basically mean the capitulation of the US as the global leader. The US does not have such plans. Hence, the strong reaction to Russia in terms of sanctions initiated by the West must deter China from any military ‘operations’ and have it stay with the occasional demands and aerial provocations. It is likely China will stick to this strategy, at least for the time being.