By: Milan Yadav
Turning the Clock
The United States and China have historically experienced friendly relations with one another, whether it be peace treaties, trade with each other, or even fighting a global war side by side. The earliest of relations was the Treaty of Wanghia (1844), which was signed shortly after the infamous Opium Wars. This document allowed the U.S. and China to heavily bolster trade with one another and gave the U.S. access to many Chinese ports as a “favored nation” of the country. Qing authorities and U.S. Commissioner Caleb Cushing started what many believed to be a path to amnesty and dual success for both nations, however, this proved to be wrong in the coming years.
The year 1949 was a pivotal one for many reasons, principally regarding China’s shift to communism under a new dictatorship led by Chairman Mao Zedong. The Communists, led by Zedong, fought a civil war dating back to before the Second World War against the Nationalists of China, led by Chiang Kai-shek (known as the Kuomintang or KMT for short). In 1949, China underwent a seismic transformation with the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, establishing the People's Republic of China (PRC) and solidifying control over mainland China. This marked a pivotal moment, prompting the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek of the Kuomintang (KMT), to retreat to Taiwan. The Nationalists' failure to maintain control in China was multifaceted. They grappled with issues like hyperinflation, widespread corruption, desertion within their army, and a lack of support from the majority peasant population. The appeal of the Communists lay in their promises of land redistribution and improved living conditions, factors that resonated strongly with the masses.
During the Civil War era, the KMT, in a bid to eliminate Communist influence, initiated the brutal White Terror campaign from 1946 to 1949. This campaign aimed at eradicating communists and their sympathizers, resulting in the deaths of millions, particularly among the peasant class. Despite efforts by the United States to mediate between the Nationalists and Communists, exemplified by General George C. Marshall's diplomatic mission, tensions persisted, leading to an impasse. The US had initially provided military aid to the Nationalists, but Marshall's mediation efforts resulted in the halt of arms distribution without achieving a resolution.
In the aftermath, the establishment of the PRC under Communist rule led to the United States and many other nations adhering to the "One-China" policy. The PRC claimed sovereignty over Taiwan while the US, in line with this policy, did not formally recognize Taiwan as an independent state. This geopolitical stance has contributed to ongoing disputes and challenges regarding Taiwan's status and its relationship with mainland China, prolonging the lack of international recognition of Taiwan's autonomy.
A Lonely Island
Taiwan is a nation that stands at the crossroads of history, politics, and economics. Despite its relatively small size and population, Taiwan holds a profound and multifaceted significance on the global stage. The island’s autonomy, persistently challenged by the People’s Republic of China, goes beyond regional politics. Taiwan’s global significance is rooted in its strategic location in East Asia and its robust economy. Renowned for its technological prowess, Taiwan plays a critical role in the global supply chains, particularly in semiconductor manufacturing. For instance, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) holds a dominant position in chip production, contributing significantly to the world’s electronics. In 2021, TSMC alone accounted for over 50% of the global semiconductor market share.
Additionally, Taiwan's unique political status shapes international relations. Despite not being recognized as an independent nation by many due to China's claims, Taiwan operates as a thriving democracy with its government. This status quo presents diplomatic complexities, influencing global geopolitics, particularly in the context of U.S.-China relations. Taiwan's success in maintaining its autonomy while upholding democratic values and technological advancements underscores its global influence as a model for governance and economic development.
Taiwan's geographical location in the Asia-Pacific region is a crucial factor contributing to its global significance. Positioned at the crossroads of the South China Sea, East China Sea, and the Pacific Ocean, Taiwan serves as a linchpin for global maritime routes and international trade. Its proximity to major players such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam underscores its strategic importance. Taiwan's geographic significance is paramount due to its strategic location in East Asia, impacting regional stability and trade routes. Situated along key maritime routes, Taiwan controls access to the East China Sea and the South China Sea, which are crucial for global trade. Evidence of the Taiwan Strait's geopolitical importance lies in its function as a major shipping lane: approximately $5 trillion worth of trade passes through these waters annually. Moreover, Taiwan's location serves as a buffer between the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea, influencing military strategies and maritime security in the region.
Furthermore, Taiwan's geographical position has implications for geopolitical tensions, especially in the context of the Taiwan Strait. The island's proximity to China shapes defense strategies and regional dynamics, with both China and the United States asserting interests in the area. The control of this strategic passage significantly influences not only regional stability but also global economic flows, making Taiwan's geography a focal point in East Asian geopolitics. The Taiwan Strait, a narrow body of water separating Taiwan from mainland China, has historically been a contentious area. Control over this passage is instrumental in influencing access to the Pacific Ocean, with far-reaching implications for regional and global security. Disruptions or escalations of tension in this region could imperil international trade, given that a substantial portion of the world's shipping routes passes through these waters. The Taiwan Strait holds immense military and geopolitical significance due to its strategic location and its role as a critical waterway in East Asia. This narrow body of water, separating Taiwan from mainland China, serves as a potential flashpoint for regional tensions and has far-reaching implications for global geopolitics.
From a military standpoint, the Taiwan Strait is crucial for China's military strategy, as it represents a key maritime boundary. The Chinese government considers Taiwan an integral part of its territory and has not renounced the use of force to achieve reunification. As a result, the Strait serves as a natural barrier for Taiwan's defense while also posing a potential pathway for a Chinese military invasion. According to reputable sources like the U.S. Department of Defense reports and assessments from defense think tanks such as the RAND Corporation, China has significantly enhanced its military capabilities, including its naval power, in the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait. This includes the development of advanced naval vessels, aircraft, and missiles, signifying its strategic focus on the region.
Geopolitically, control over the Taiwan Strait is intertwined with broader regional power dynamics. The United States, as a key ally of Taiwan and a major player in the Asia-Pacific region, closely monitors developments in the Strait. The U.S. maintains a policy of strategic ambiguity regarding its commitment to Taiwan's defense but has consistently supplied arms and support to Taiwan, ensuring its ability to deter potential aggression. This has led to increased tensions between the U.S. and China, with the Taiwan Strait serving as a focal point for the complex interplay between the two superpowers.
Moreover, the Taiwan Strait is a vital maritime passage for global trade, facilitating the movement of goods and energy resources. Evidence from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) highlights the economic importance of these waters, as the body of water witnesses substantial shipping traffic, carrying goods worth billions of dollars annually. Any disruption or conflict in this area could have profound implications for international trade and the global economy.
Taiwan stands as a beacon of democracy and human rights in East Asia. Its vibrant and progressive democracy, with regular, free, and fair elections, underscores the universal appeal and adaptability of democratic values. Taiwan's reputation as a champion of human rights in East Asia is bolstered by international recognition and support. Despite its lack of United Nations (UN) membership due to political constraints, Taiwan remains committed to global human rights initiatives. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has praised Taiwan for its dedication to human rights, acknowledging its efforts in promoting gender equality, supporting refugees, and advocating for marginalized communities. Additionally, Taiwan sets itself apart from other countries in the region for its favorable public attitudes toward democracy. In accordance, nearly 85% of Taiwanese express support for democratic governance—an affirmation of the country's commitment to fundamental freedoms and democratic principles, which sets it apart in East Asia.
Taiwan's commitment to the rule of law, individual freedoms, and a transparent political system makes it an exemplar of good governance, setting an example for the region and the world. Taiwan's commitment to the rule of law and democratic principles manifests prominently in various instances. Notably, its response to the COVID-19 pandemic exemplified a balance between public health measures and civil liberties through transparent communication and legal frameworks like the COVID-19 Special Relief Act, allocating funds while safeguarding individual freedoms. Taiwan's independent judiciary upheld constitutional values, as seen in the landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage in 2017, showcasing responsiveness to societal changes and dedication to human rights. Moreover, the nation's anti-corruption efforts, including the National Anti-Corruption Commission, reflect Taiwan's emphasis on governance transparency and ethical standards in public service, solidifying its reputation for valuing legal frameworks, individual rights, and the rule of law in its society.
The Issue of Autonomy
The defense of Taiwan's autonomy is not merely a matter of territorial integrity; it is also a defense of the democratic values that the free world cherishes. Supporting Taiwan's right to determine its future serves as a testament to the enduring global commitment to democratic governance, human rights, and the principle that people should have the freedom to decide their political destiny. Regarding the status of Taiwan, Xi Jinping has said, "We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means.” China's persistent assertiveness and bellicose rhetoric regarding Taiwan pose a significant threat to regional stability and global peace. The Chinese government has often issued statements indicating that any attempts by Taiwan to declare formal independence could lead to serious consequences, including the possibility of military action. China's assertive rhetoric and actions regarding Taiwan have been seen by many as a potential threat to regional stability and global peace. The Chinese government's refusal to renounce the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control and its increased military activities in the region, including airspace incursions and naval maneuvers, have raised concerns among neighboring countries and the international community about the potential for conflict escalation. The PRC has consistently refused to renounce the use of force to unify Taiwan with the mainland, raising the specter of military conflict. Such a conflict would not only draw in the U.S., which maintains longstanding security commitments to Taiwan, but it would also draw in other nations with interests in the Asia-Pacific region.
The U.S., including other nations in the West, has been a longtime arms supplier of Taiwan. The U.S. approved half a billion dollars to fund Taiwan this August. China has repeatedly disliked the use of monetary support from the West to its claimed island and has called out many nations for doing so. Despite this, it seems that for the past couple of years, China and its leaders have not had many plans to invade Taiwan or annex the island. An invasion of Taiwan would have severe international repercussions, almost certainly leading to conflict with the United States, Japan, and other allies. China has been exercising caution, as such an action could result in significant economic, political, and military consequences.
Nowadays, some instances of global dominance and influence are not done through warfare but rather through other means. In accordance, China has launched a relatively unknown program called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, this international program aims to connect China with nations across the world through infrastructure and trade. David Sacks, an expert on U.S.-China relations, says how China has redrawn trade maps around the globe, putting itself at the center of almost everything. Beijing could seek geopolitical leverage over BRI countries. A 2021 study analyzed over 100 debt financing contracts China signed with foreign governments. The study found that the contracts often contain clauses that restrict restructuring with the group of twenty-two major creditor nations known as the Paris Club. China also frequently retains the right to demand repayment at any time, giving Beijing the ability to use funding as a tool to enforce controversial issues such as Taiwan. Globally, overall debt to China has skyrocketed recently and is now over 20% of GDP in some nations. In some nations, this has gone too far, like in Zambia and Pakistan, where imports to build new BRI infrastructure became too costly and a bail-out from the International Monetary Fund was in play.
The United States has been attentive to concerns shared by other countries regarding China's intentions, particularly in the context of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Under the Obama administration, the U.S. initiated the Pivot to Asia strategy, directing substantial financial resources and diplomatic efforts toward fostering infrastructure development and cooperation in low-income countries. The United States aimed to counterbalance China's influence and maintain a presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
The United States, amid concerns over China's BRI, pursued strategic initiatives to counterbalance China's growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Initiatives like the Pivot to Asia under Obama aimed to invest in infrastructure development in low-income countries, while Trump's BUILD Act consolidated resources into the Development Finance Corporation. President Biden and the G7 introduced the Build Back Better World Initiative (B3W) as an infrastructure investment program to rival the BRI. However, B3W faced limitations in financing and rebranded as the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment. Some analysts suggested the potential for the U.S. to leverage BRI projects for mutual benefit, allowing China to fund infrastructure aligned with U.S. interests, notably in Central Asia.
The role of third countries in responding to China's BRI varied. India expressed concerns about the BRI, characterizing it as a plan to exert dominance in Asia. Indian analysts cautioned against what they referred to as a "String of Pearls" geo-economic strategy, in which China leveraged unsustainable debt burdens on its Indian Ocean neighbors to gain control of regional choke points. India, in response, initiated its development assistance projects in neighboring countries, including a substantial investment in Afghanistan's infrastructure. Several countries, including India and Japan, expressed concerns about China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India saw the BRI as a strategy for regional dominance, warning against potential debt entrapment tactics, and initiated its infrastructure projects in neighboring countries. Similarly, Japan, despite investing heavily in infrastructure development across Asia, joined India in establishing the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), aiming for balanced regional development.
European nations, while largely engaging with the BRI, expressed apprehensions about potential dependence on China. President Macron of France warned against becoming subservient to China through BRI engagement, prompting the EU's launch of the Global Gateway initiative to counterbalance BRI's influence, albeit viewed as comparatively modest. Russia initially approached the BRI cautiously, wary of its impact on Russia's sphere of influence but eventually showed willingness to align its Eurasian vision with the BRI, despite skepticism over economic parity. However, the BRI's geopolitical implications raised concerns, especially in Eastern Europe, potentially impacting EU member countries' relations with China.
The Chinese president has repeatedly emphasized the critical role of reunifying Taiwan and China in his vision of the "China Dream" and national rejuvenation. President Jinping has not hesitated to instruct the Chinese military to be prepared by 2027 for a potential forcible takeover of Taiwan. China's military expansion is being used to exert pressure on Taiwan's populace, intimidating them into calling for more preparation and safeguards. Recent displays of military prowess, such as large-scale naval drills involving an aircraft carrier near Taiwan's waters and the unprecedented deployment of 103 warplanes toward the island, reflect China's assertive posture.
A Regretful Divorce
However, beneath this apparent determination lies a significant degree of apprehension within China's leadership regarding the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of such a venture. Doubts about the readiness and capability of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) to successfully seize and control Taiwan have likely intensified, particularly in light of Russia's military struggles in Ukraine. Consequently, a PLA takeover of Taiwan is far from inevitable, and perhaps even unlikely in the near future. This presents the U.S. and Taiwan with an opportunity to bolster their military capabilities and work toward preventing a conflict.
Notably, recent purges of senior Chinese generals (most notably the defense minister in October) and leaders overseeing the country's nuclear and missile arsenal suggest a lack of confidence in the military's preparedness for warfare. While the specific reasons for these dismissals have not been publicly disclosed, there are indications of potential corruption and its adverse impact on military readiness. Beijing has consistently emphasized the need for enhanced military training and combat readiness. New vessels in the South China Sea have brought in many troop training areas bordering other nations nearby. Air exercises have also ramped up in the area, routinely flying over these smaller nations including Taiwan.
The political risks for President Jinping associated with anything less than a swift, low-cost, and successful invasion are substantial. A prolonged stalemate could undermine the Chinese president’s narrative of China's strength, jeopardizing his goals of national rejuvenation and a formidable military. Even more disconcerting for Beijing is the prospect of defeat at the hands of a well-equipped, entrenched, and defiant Taiwan, possibly with the intervention of U.S. forces. This nightmare scenario could not only weaken Jinping’s grip on power but also pose a threat to Communist Party rule.
Furthermore, China is grappling with long-term slow economic growth, raising the specter of public dissatisfaction and potential social instability, should the government continue to prioritize security and political control over economic well-being. Recently, China has witnessed an increase in public dissent, with thousands of demonstrators protesting against strict COVID policies and demanding political change. Although terminated in 2016, China's one-child policy has resulted in its armed forces predominantly consisting of single children, whose parents expect their children to support them in their old age. The prospect of rising domestic casualties could lead to public unrest.
Another key factor that may restrain President Jinping from conducting an invasion is the prospect of the U.S. supporting Taiwan. There is strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress for Taiwan's security, and President Biden has repeatedly expressed the United States' commitment to assist Taiwan militarily in the event of a Chinese attack. For instance, in 2021, senators introduced the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act with bipartisan support, seeking to enhance Taiwan's defense capabilities and deter potential Chinese aggression. Additionally, resolutions commemorating significant events in U.S.-Taiwan relations or reaffirming support for Taiwan's participation in international organizations often garner bipartisan backing. Chinese experts reportedly believe that the U.S. views Taiwan as a strategic stronghold that is necessary for containing China and would intervene to prevent a Chinese takeover of the island.
Nonetheless, there are scenarios in which the Chinese president might feel compelled to take military action. If Taiwan’s government pushes for formal independence through a referendum or constitutional revision, this could lead President Jinping to conclude that the political risks of inaction outweigh the risks of war. Similarly, actions by the U.S. to restore diplomatic recognition to Taiwan or revisit the defense treaty could prompt Jinping to act. However, unless faced with compelling circumstances, President Jinping could conclude that the risks associated with an unsuccessful military venture are too high. This would present a strategic opportunity for the U.S. and Taiwan. The decision by China to refrain from invading Taiwan would have significant positive implications for both Taiwan and the United States. For Taiwan, it would mean the preservation of its political autonomy and stability. Avoiding an invasion would enable Taiwan to continue governing itself, safeguarding its democratic institutions, and pursuing its economic and social policies without external interference. This stability would create a conducive environment for economic growth, fostering investor confidence, encouraging foreign investment, and nurturing stronger trade relationships, ultimately contributing to Taiwan's economic prosperity.
In conclusion, the island of Taiwan stands as a globally significant and multifaceted issue, transcending its physical boundaries in the Western Pacific Ocean. The island’s strategic importance, advanced economy, unwavering commitment to democratic values, and the ever-present threat to its autonomy by the People's Republic of China collectively underscore its critical role on the world stage. Taiwan's location at the intersection of crucial maritime routes and its influence over international trade make it a linchpin for global economic stability. Furthermore, Taiwan’s thriving technological industry, home to some of the world's leading companies, feeds into a global supply chain that drives innovation and growth worldwide. Taiwan's vibrant democracy and steadfast defense of individual freedoms exemplify good governance and are a testament to the universal appeal of democratic values.
Preserving Taiwan's autonomy is not a matter of regional politics alone, but a global imperative. It embodies the defense of democratic values, human rights, and the right of people to determine their political destiny. It reflects the economic interdependence of the world and the necessity of maintaining global supply chains and financial stability. It serves as a test of the international community's commitment to peace and security and underscores the fundamental importance of safeguarding the principles and values underpinning our global society. Therefore, the world must remain vigilant in supporting Taiwan's right to exist as a self-governing nation. The stakes extend beyond territorial integrity, as they encompass the well-being and prosperity of nations and individuals far and wide. Protecting Taiwan's autonomy is not an isolated regional concern; it is an international responsibility, a testament to the values and interests of the free world, and a commitment to a more peaceful and secure global future.