Taiwan is both a sacred territory and a valuable strategic asset for both the US and China. This has resulted in both the US and China giving stern warnings to each other to prevent a change in the status quo. For China, reunification of Taiwan means overcoming humiliation suffered at the hands of outside powers, by reclaiming the final piece to the glory of Chinese nationalism. Whereas for the US, preventing a non-peaceful reunification of Taiwan means standing by its old-time ally and projecting itself as a reliable partner in Southeast Asia, a region that has been experiencing a sharp decline in Washington’s stronghold. This makes a military conflict quite likely between the two sides that have, over decades, continued to engage in a soft-rivalry without an action-reaction contest. This existed between the US and USSR during the Cold War, with the emergence of deep economic interdependence and joint action plans to tackle climate change. Through this paper, I will analyse some of the reasons behind Taiwan becoming a flashpoint between the US and China.
How Taiwan Became Important for the US and China
For China, Taiwan represents something beyond territory. It is the last piece in China’s efforts to overcome the legacy of its century of humiliation spanning the 19th and early 20th centuries when it was colonized and divided by foreign powers.
After Kuomintang nationalists were defeated in the Chinese civil war by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), they fled to Taiwan in 1949, and asserted that the Republic of China (aka Taiwan), under Chiang Kai-Shek is the lawful government of all China. Thus, the CCP view Taiwan as the final stage of the civil war and consider reunification of the renegade province as vital for the regime’s legitimacy.
Affirmed through consistent official— government, media, and educational— propaganda for decades, Taiwan’s status as a part of China, and as a lingering symbol of historic victimhood, is an unquestionable article of faith and self-evident truth that resonates deeply with an overwhelming number of Chinese citizens. If the Chinese citizens think otherwise, then it is seen to question their patriotism towards their motherland and is also seen as challenging the CCP’s leadership. With the China’s 2049 reunification plan put into motion, the Chinese are more determined to uphold the one-China principle, i.e. Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are unassailable parts of China. They have maintained that no one should underestimate the resolve, will, and ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity with President Xi issuing a stern warning for a resolute action if any attempt is made towards Taiwanese independence. This is essential for the CCP to ensure that it is capable of governing China.
The rise of the Republic of China under Chiang Kai-Shek symbolized the culmination of decades of hopes and dreams of the US, to remodel China in the Western image. Thus, the defeat of the Kuomintang nationalists was looked upon as a failure for allowing the Communists to throw out an old ally, and an end to the long-standing US project to change and democratise China. However, the Kuomintang’s retreat simply tied the United States emotionally to the resettled Chinese in Taiwan.
Despite the emotional attachment to Taiwan, the State Department had determined that the United States was in no position, militarily or otherwise, to prevent Mao’s forces from finishing off the Kuomintang in Taiwan. This changed with the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. The US realized the need to demonstrate a firm commitment to defend themselves against aggressive Chinese communist expansions in the region. This led to Taiwan becoming a vital cog of the West’s containment policy against international communism in Southeast Asia, especially during the cold war era, and has continued to remain so.
The investment flows from the US began to deepen in Taiwan with the rapid expansion of its economy beginning in the 1960s, which moved the island from an agricultural economy to a flourishing industrial-based capitalist economy by the 1980s. Moreover, Americans who sought to study the Chinese language or culture travelled to Taiwan, as the mainland remained closed to outsiders. However, the geopolitical realities made it difficult to continue the diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and the isolation of the CCP in Beijing. Thus, former US President Richard Nixon made attempts to normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China. This began with the PRC being recognized as a permanent member of the UNSC in 1971, replacing the earlier Republic of China and then was followed by Nixon’s trip to the mainland in 1972. But the US recognized that it could not entirely abandon Taiwan to China without seriously damaging its international credibility and reputation, let alone as a matter of decency and fairness to an old friend.
In the bilateral communique signed between the US and PRC in 1972, the US acknowledged that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China, and that Taiwan is a part of China and reaffirmed its interest in the peaceful settlement of the ‘Taiwan question’ by the Chinese themselves. On the other hand, China affirmed that Taiwan is a province of China. The US requirement that any resolution is peaceful and achieved through dialogue, continues to this day. Though the establishment of official ties between the US and PRC led to an end of the Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan and termination of US military presence on the island, the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act on April 10, 1979, establishing a quasi-formal defence commitment to Taiwan. The Act called all non peaceful means to determine the future of Taiwan and that the US will provide necessary defence articles and defence services to ensure that Taiwan can maintain a sufficient self-defence capability. Thus, the US policy on Taiwan is defined by remaining true to its commitment to Taiwan’s security and that China not be tempted to miscalculate the US resolve against the use of force.
Why is Taiwan a flashpoint?
For China, the reunification of Taiwan to the mainland is to make sure that no rival great power dominates their region. According to their national leaders, Taiwan stands vulnerable to the United States’ strategy of encirclement and containment and thus, acting as a roadblock to their goal of establishing their hegemony in the region. Moreover, Taiwan is effectively a ‘giant aircraft carrier’ sitting off China’s coast; and acquiring that aircraft carrier would enhance China’s ability to project military power into the western Pacific Ocean. This is crucial as it would give them control of the first island chain. They view Taiwan as part of a band of territory around China’s eastern maritime periphery that includes US allies Japan, Korea, and the Philippines and thus is of strategic importance. This makes it utmost necessary for the US to check the rise of China and maintain its commanding position in the global balance of power
To prevent the shifting of the balance of power in Asia even further in China’s direction, the US for all the above geostrategic reasons needs Taiwan’s assets on its side. Secondly, America’s commitment to Taiwan is inextricably bound up with U.S. credibility in the region, which matters greatly to policymakers in Washington. If the US gives up Taiwan or fails to defend it in a crisis with China, then it will have to work hard to convince its Asian allies – especially Japan and South Korea – that it will be able to back them up in the event they are threatened by China. These allies already doubt the US’s commitment due to its lack of geographical proximity and constant diplomatic engagement with them over the decades. Thus, the US needs to back Taiwan, despite not being obliged to come to its defence as per the TRA, to maintain itself as a reliable partner for Southeast Asian countries.
With its export led-growth strategy, Taiwan has emerged as one of the Asian economic tigers. Taiwanese multinational corporations such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) and Foxconn have controlled the largest manufacturing supply chain of semiconductors, which is an essential component for the manufacture of computer and telecommunication technology. Taiwan is the United States’ ninth-largest trade partner, with nearly $65 billion in bilateral trade in 2007. Over time, several automobile companies had their manufacturing centres set up in Taiwan. To check Taiwan’s growing economic relations with the West, China tried to integrate Taiwan’s economy with its own. Though it seemed to be successful with more than $188 billion of Taiwanese investment into China since 1991, the situation seems to be changing now.
Taiwan’s economic growth surpassed China for the first time in 30 years in 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit alongside the US imposition of tariffs on China starting in 2018, many multinational corporations have adopted a China+1 strategy to shift their global supply chains and move out of China. Taiwan has seemed to benefit the most from it. Due to all of this, China has increased its threats to re-unify Taiwan through regular cross-strait incursions. The United States and its allies would prevent any such move as it would mean being entirely dependent on China for crucial economic supplies.
The bloom of a vibrant democracy in Taiwan has made the island nation harder and harder for Beijing to understand. Where the CCP has strengthened its grip over mainland China, a participatory society has developed in Taiwan that makes the relations between two adversaries more incomprehensible. This is because public sentiment has gained a strong influence over the affairs of administration. If elected officials in Taiwan are not more receptive to public input then it might alienate voters and not be able to stay in office for long. There is always fear for protests that may hurt the ruling party’s position to govern effectively as it happened in the Sunflower Movement — a massive student-led protest against the KMT’s violations of democratic norms in the party’s headlong pursuit of further agreements with China.
The Chinese government firmly rests on the notion that the public needs to be loyal towards the CCP’s Politburo. Thus, it feels oblivious and dismayed by the development of multi-party democracy in Taiwan. To raise a voice of dissent in China means being unpatriotic and facing a brutal crackdown by the government, as during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Moreover, due to the generational shift in Taiwan, most of the citizens identify themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese which is something unacceptable. Lastly, a breeding vibrant democracy in such proximity makes the CCP fear the rise of dissent and questioning of their legitimacy to rule in the mainland. Besides, the recent crackdown on Hong Kong protests, which broke out over fears of undermining judicial independence and endangering dissidents, has made Taiwan wary of reunification with China.
On the other hand, the development of multiparty democracy and open society in Taiwan adds more to US interest in the security and viability of Taiwan. It stands for the symbolic success of the long project undertaken by the US to westernize China. It makes Taiwan more approachable and amenable in the US’s eyes amidst a rising China. Thus, the US will make every attempt to salvage democracy in Taiwan despite facing opposition from China.
In conclusion, Taiwan represents an area of emotional attachment and strategic importance for both the United States and the People’s Republic of China, due to the reasons highlighted above. They make Taiwan the most sensitive issue in US-China relations and likely will remain so for many years to come which may likely lead to a war between two global superpowers.
Pratul Chaturvedi is a third- year student at Ashoka University, pursuing History and International Relations with a minor in Political Science.