Explained: The China-Taiwan tussle — its history, current tensions, and why the world is worried

A statement by United States President Joe Biden at the Quad Summit in Tokyo on Monday (May 23) suggesting that any attempt by China to invade Taiwan would attract an American military intervention set off an angry response from the government in Beijing, which vowed “firm action to safeguard its sovereignty and security interests”, and warned that “we will do what we say”.

The current round of tensions between China and Taiwan began on October 1 last year, when China observes its National Day to mark the birth of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Coinciding with the 72nd anniversary celebrations, China flew over 100 fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, jangling nerves in Taiwan and setting off alarm around the world that it was prepping to take over the island by force. President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February, and Beijing’s steadfast support of Russia in the face of global criticism has heightened these fears.

Although largely unrecognised by other countries, Taiwan, officially the Republic of China (RoC), sees itself as a de jure sovereign state, and its leaders, including the fiercely pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen, have vowed to defend its sovereignty against the Chinese goal of “reunification” with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Since Taiwan is entirely dependent on the US for its defense against possible Chinese aggression, every spike in military tensions between China and Taiwan injects more hostility in the already strained relationship between Washington and Beijing.

Where does Taiwan stand in relation to China and the world?

Taiwan, earlier known as Formosa, a tiny island off the east coast of China, is where Chinese republics of the Kuomintang government retreated after the 1949 victory of the communists — and it has since continued as the Republic of China. The island is located in the East China Sea, to the northeast of Hong Kong, north of the Philippines and south of South Korea, and southwest of Japan. What happens
in and around Taiwan is of deep concern to all of East Asia.

Taiwan observes October 10 — “double 10” — as its national day; it was on this day in 1911 that sections of the Manchu army rose in rebellion, leading ultimately to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the end of 4,000 years of the monarchy. The RoC was declared on December 29, 1911, and it found its feet in the 1920s under the leadership of Dr Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Kuomintang (KMT) Party.

Sun was succeeded by General Chiang Kai-shek, whose actions against the Chinese communists, who were part of an alliance with the KMT, triggered the civil war that ended in victory for the communists and retreat from Chiang and the KMT to Taiwan.

Since its founding in 1949, the PRC has believed that Taiwan must be reunified with the mainland, while the RoC has held out as an “independent” country. The RoC became the non-communist frontier against China during the Cold War, and it was only in 1971 that the US inaugurated ties with the PRC through the secret diplomacy of Henry Kissinger, national security adviser to President Richard Nixon.

The US has a policy of “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan. This means that it maintains ties with Taipei, and sells weapons to it, but officially subscribes to the PRC’s “One China Policy” in which Taiwan does not exist as a separate entity. It is this delicate diplomatic balance that Biden’s pronouncement on Monday jolted.

Just 15 countries around the world recognise Taiwan. Most are very small, many are remote island nations.

When did the tensions with China begin to acquire a serious dimension?

In 1954-55, and in 1958, the PRC bombed the Jinmen, Mazu, and Dachen islands under Taiwan’s control, drawing in the US. Congress passed the Formosa Resolution authorising President Dwight D Eisenhower to defend RoC territory.

In 1955, Premier Zhou En-lai declared at the Bandung Conference that he wanted negotiations with the US. But as civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1958, China resumed the bombing, provoking the US to supply Taiwanese outposts on the islands. The PRC and ROC then arrived at an arrangement to bomb each other’s garrisons on alternate days – this continued until 1971. (‘Milestones in the History of US Foreign Relations’, history.state.gov)

The most serious encounter was in 1995-96, when China began testing missiles in the seas around Taiwan, triggering the biggest US mobilisation in the region since the Vietnam War. The tests led to the re-election in 1996 of President Lee Teng-hui, seen by the Chinese as a pro-independence leader.

How has Taiwan’s recent political and economic history unfolded?

In 1975, Chiang Kai-shek died, martial law was lifted, and Taiwan got its first democratic reforms. Starting from the 1990s, and despite the missile crisis, relations between the PRC and RoC improved, and trade ties were established. As the British prepared to exit Hong Kong in 1999, the “One China, Two Systems” solution was offered to Taiwan as well, but it was rejected by the Taiwanese.

In 2000, Taiwan got its first non-KMT government, when the Taiwanese nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the presidency. In 2004, China started drafting an anti-secession law aimed at Taiwan; trade and connectivity, however, continued to improve.

Today, the two big players in Taiwan’s politics are the DPP and KMT, broadly the parties of the island’s Hakka inhabitants and the minority mainland Chinese respectively. The 2016 election of President Tsai marked the onset of a sharp pro-independence phase in Taiwan, and the current tensions with China coincided with her re-election in 2020.

Taiwan now has massive economic interests, including investments in China, and pro-independence sections that this might come in the way of their goals. Inversely, the pro-reunification sections of the polity, as well as China, hope that economic dependence and increasing people-to-people contacts will wear out the pro-independence lobbies.

How did the current round of tensions come about?

In 2020, amid exporting US-China relations over Covid and trade, the State Department sent its highest ranking delegation till then to Taipei. During the visit, the Chinese conducted a military exercise in the Taiwan Strait, which separates Taiwan from mainland China.

In October that year, President Xi Jinping asked the PLA to prepare for war, triggering alarm in Taiwan, which read it as an open threat.

After assuming charge in January 2021, the Biden Administration declared America’s “rock solid” commitment to Taiwan. In April last year, Taiwan reported Chinese jets in its air defense zone. In July, Xi warned that he would “smash” any Taiwanese move towards independence.

At the beginning of October 2021, as the Chinese jets came back, Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told Parliament that China already has the capacity to invade Taiwan, and would be able to “bring the cost and attrition to its lowest” by 2025 .

In a speech on October 10, Xi appeared to allay fears of a forcible takeover, and spoke about “peaceful reunification”. But he underlined that “the historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland. will definitely be fulfilled.” That same day, the Taiwanese president said that while her government would not “act rashly”, the Taiwanese people would not “bow to pressure” either.

What has the US been doing as tensions rise?

As tensions rise, the world is watching the US, whose status as the world’s pre-eminent power has been dented by the messy exit from Afghanistan. In East and Southeast Asia, several countries including Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, which are sheltered under the protective umbrella of the US, are reading the tea leaves.

President Joe Biden has been seen as walking a thin line between pledging support for Taiwan, and keeping the lid on tensions with Beijing. After speaking with Xi in October 2021, he had said that they had agreed to abide by the “Taiwan Agreement”, under which US support for the “One China Policy” is premised on Beijing not invading Taiwan.

The AUKUS patch among the US, UK, and Australia, under which Australia will be supplied with nuclear submarines, imparted a new dimension to the security dynamics of the Indo-Pacific. Taiwan welcomed the pact, while China deounced it as seriously undermining regional peace.

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Following Biden’s statement in Tokyo on Monday, the White House hastened to clarify that what the President said did not amount to a “policy shift” on the question of Taiwan.

What are the implications of the rising tensions for India?

With India facing its own problems with China on the LAC, there have been suggestions that it should review its One China Policy — it has in any case long stopped reiterating this officially — and use not just the Tibet card, but also develop more robust relations with Taiwan to send a message to Beijing.

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India and Taiwan currently maintain “trade and cultural exchange” offices in each other’s capitals. In May 2020, the swearing-in of Tsai was attended virtually by BJP MPs Meenakshi Lekhi (now MoS External Affairs) and Rahul Kaswan. In 2016, New Delhi had dropped plans to send two representatives for Tsai’s first inaugural at the last minute.

India has been reported to be in talks with Taipei to bring a $7.5-billion semiconductor chip manufacturing plant to India. Chips are used in a range of devices from computers to 5G smartphones, to electric cars and medical equipment. The deal was reported on the heels of last year’s Summit of the Quad, which discussed the need to build a “safe supply chain for semiconductors”.

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