Taiwan: the red line for China and the US

Once again, the interests of the two superpowers are now being disputed on a new chessboard that has always been latent


The year 2022 is proving to be one of the most relevant years in terms of geopolitical changes. First, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has meant that, at the international level, both the European Union and NATO member states have made unprecedented changes in arms and common defence policies in record time. The West's unification as a common bloc is now being joined by a threatening situation that has been years in the making. The international spotlight is now on Taiwan. The recent visit by the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has prompted China to set its arms machine in motion in an attempt to demonstrate that the Asian giant is not going to back down on its idea of being "one China". 

Last November, through an online meeting, US President Joe Biden held a face-to-face meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in which their conclusions were hardly made public. What did become known is that Taiwan continues to be one of the most tense points between Beijing and Washington. The island, which for China remains a "rebel province" but is part of its territory, has its own political autonomy, which in turn is defended by the United States, although Washington does not support its total independence. In this sense, the US government is the main arms supplier to Taipei, something that China has harshly criticised and a situation that has generated continuous threats from Beijing, warning on more than one occasion that "whoever plays with fire will get burned"

PHOTO/ARCHIVO - US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan

Likewise, the new incursions into Taiwan's air and maritime space, which have multiplied since Pelosi's visit and have managed to increase tension to almost bellicose levels, are by no means the first to take place. Over the past year, the Chinese military has also conducted a series of military manoeuvres around the island in an attempt to demonstrate Chinese influence and power, something that has been repeatedly criticised by the United States. However, the new manoeuvres that have been carried out under the pretext of Pelosi's visit have been characterised by being more powerful, faster and stronger, as well as having used live fire for the first time in their military exercises, which has led to international fears of an "unprecedented" escalation.  

Taiwan: the former refuge of the Kuomintang  

But what is Taiwan's history and why is it so important for China that it is part of its territory? To understand this, we must go back to October 1949 when the People's Republic of China was founded with the victory of the Communists in the Chinese civil war. On 1 October, Communist leader Mao Zedong proclaimed, to applause and cheers, that "The Central People's Government of the People's Republic of China has been founded today! From this moment on, the defeated party, i.e. the members of the Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang party, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, took refuge on the island of Taiwan where a separatist regime was established through the armed forces, with the support of the United States. 

PHOTO/XINHUA  - Chinese air force soldiers during military drills

This regime eventually evolved into a democratic system in which President Lee Teng-hui, known as the "father of democracy" in Taiwan, stood out. He is said to have led the institutional changes that brought about a political opening and led to the election of the first president not elected by Kuomintang members, President Chen Shui-bian in 2000, a political figure who openly supported full independence from China.

All these developments came after Taiwan and China staged a "bridge-building" rapprochement in the 1980s. Initially, the Beijing government proposed granting significant autonomy to Taiwan, but as part of its "one country, two systems" project, if the Taiwanese government agreed to "reunification" with China. However, the proposal was rejected by Taiwan, leading to a cooling of relations between Taipei and Beijing. 

PHOTO/AP  -   Xi Jinping, President of China

In 2005, when he was re-elected as president, a year later China passed the anti-secession law that gave China "the right to resort to non-peaceful measures" against Taiwan if it decided to officially secede from Beijing.

Three years later, in 2008, it was the turn of Ma Ying-jeou's presidency, who tried to build bridges with China through economic and trade relations, although tensions between the two remained high. Finally, it was in 2016 that the current president, Tsai Ing-wen, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), officially proclaimed her support for independence from China. 

PHOTO/ARCHIVO -  The President of Taiwan
The United States in Taiwan  

After Tsai Ing-wen's election victory, then US President Donald Trump called his Taiwanese counterpart to reverse the US policy that had been in place since 1979 and openly advocated that the island's sovereignty reverted to China, which at the time led to the official severance of diplomatic relations between Taipei and Washington.

After this conversation became known, the Chinese Foreign Ministry lodged a formal complaint in Washington, which increased tensions between the two world superpowers. China has always been reluctant to allow the US government to maintain relations with Taiwan, as for China it is part of its country and Washington's influence there would curb Beijing's authority. 

PHOTO/AP  -  Xi Jinping, President of China

US interference was - and still is - frowned upon by China, and far from being reduced, it continues to increase through arms shipments. Last February, the United States approved a $100 million arms sale to Taiwan, equivalent to 87 million euros. These include the shipment of an engineering package for the Patriot missile defence system, which the US also reportedly recently sold to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. According to the Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), this arms package would support the "modernisation of the Taiwanese Armed Forces" to ensure the maintenance of a "credible defence capability". 

China, ready for war? 

In this context, China's latest show of force is an attempt to demonstrate that the country will not back down. However, there are reasons to believe that in reality this show of force is far from a direct war offensive as China would be "unprepared". Firstly, the economic situation in China is going through difficult times in very important sectors such as construction. In fact, this economic situation in the country would have been one of the reasons why Pelosi would have travelled to Taipei.  In addition to the current economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and the progressive closures approved by the Chinese government have influenced the weakening of the country at the national level, which is why the Asian country could not afford a war.   

PHOTO/China MoD -  With a range of more than 10,000 kilometres, the DongFeng-41 (East Wind) intercontinental ballistic missile was demonstrated in 2019 at the October 1 military parade commemorating the founding of the People's Republic of China

Secondly, China is on the verge of the 20th Communist Congress, from which the Chinese president is expected to be re-elected for the third time in his mandate after Jinping reformed the Constitution in 2018 in order to benefit from this privilege, something that was only at the level of Mao Zedong, so getting into a war now would not be beneficial for the Chinese leader.

Asia analyst Toni K. tells Atalayar that he "does not believe" that these military manoeuvres will result in "an escalation into a full-scale open war over something like a previous visit". For him it is more likely to be an "escalation of the economic sanctions that China is already imposing on the island of Taiwan (the import of 100 agricultural products has been blocked, as well as the export of natural sand), as well as military deterrents such as the physical blockade of the island through live-fire military exercises in the Taiwan Strait".  

REUTERS/ALY SONG   - Street market in Wuhan, the Chinese city most affected by the outbreak of COVID-19 in Hubei province

He points out that China's actions "are not going to stop at lip service, but they are not going to go that far either. Everything will depend on what happens in Taiwan in the coming months and even years (there are elections in 2024)".

As for the sentiment among Chinese citizens regarding a possible escalation, he says that, depending on the place, "it is lived with nationalist fervour, with caution or even fear. It is a very big country. Where I am right now, the truth is that there is not much talk about it, and on social networks, the comments of the most exalted people stand out, but they do not represent the people on the street at all". 

REUTERS/ALY SONG - LY-80 surface-to-air missile weapon system on display at the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, or Airshow China, in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, China, 29 September 2021

For the people of Xiamen and Fujian province, who have seen the tanks and military convoys heading towards the coast on civilian roads and railways, this is not a good thing," he says. 

For his part, analyst and Asia expert Adrián Díaz Marró told Atalayar that "the speeches of each of the leaders are speaking to their particular audience and, when this happens, you have to know how to interpret what is being said because they are not in a negotiation. Negotiations are done in private and they are certainly already being done in parallel to public gestures".  

PHOTO/AFP  - Qingdao Port Foreign Trade Container Terminal, in the eastern province of Shandong, China.

He explains that "in China they have learned that nationalism is very profitable because you reach the most emotional part of people. It has been greatly boosted; Xi Jinping has practically taken it personally in his political career, especially in the case of Taiwan".  

For Xi Jinping not to win Taiwan "is to lose what is known in Chinese culture as a face, as well as the fact that this supposed new Chinese supremacy is being called into question". Díaz believes that the new military manoeuvres and the escalation of tension "will come to nothing, but I also thought that Russia and Ukraine would come to nothing, and I was wrong".   

AFP/NOEL CELIS  - Residents who live in or have visited Xinfadi Market, a wholesale food market where a new cluster of COVID-19 coronavirus has emerged, wait in line to be tested for the disease, in Beijing, 16 June 2020

However, he points out that "the Chinese are not warmongers. They haven't had a conflict for 45 years, the last one was with Vietnam and that was a skirmish. The only thing is that China considers Taiwan to be an internal conflict so it would not be breaking that norm of getting into foreign conflicts. It's true that Taiwan doesn't have many years left, but it doesn't have so few years left that it's going to be resolved in the short term".

"In China they have a saying about Taiwan. They say let the fruit fall when ripe, not by force or pressure. For the Chinese 15 years from now, they believe Taiwan can be part of China organically," he concludes.  

PHOTO/AP  -  Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) at the Kremlin in Moscow, in this file photo

For other analysts, the confrontation between China and the US is an "increasingly stark power competition". Although the Asian giant does not have the capacity to engage in war now, this does not mean that such a scenario cannot occur in the future. Moreover, the United States has much to lose if China decides to annex Taiwanese territory, as it would lose its influence in a region that is currently key to US foreign policy.

Moreover, after China carried out these military manoeuvres, Russia, as expected, has sided with the Chinese army, which, in the event of a major conflict, both China and Russia would be pitted against the United States in a new battle for the triumph of liberal democracies or autocratic regimes

Americas Coordinator: José Antonio Sierra.