Taiwan: Made in China? A war far from the Strait and narrow
As featured in Edition 41, available here.
By DANIEL SILLETT (3rd year - Politics and International Studies - Bury St Edmunds, United Kingdom)
In February 2022, I wrote an article on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. I predicted that, although stupid and reckless, war was likely. While nobody has officially declared World War III, the polarisation between the West and Russia meant we were effectively at that stage.
Now, I find myself writing about yet another potential invasion, this time concerning China’s military escalation in Taiwan. Which way will Caesar’s thumb point towards this time?
As with many modern military conflicts, understanding the background sheds light on why there is tension between China and Taiwan in the first place. The key date in the China-Taiwan story is World War II. A civil war had erupted between the Chinese nationalists and Mao’s Communists. Mao’s victory in 1949 saw the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) take control of Beijing; while the nationalists fled to Taiwan. This is the crucial part of the story. While China argues that Taiwan was originally a Chinese province merely occupied by nationalists, Taiwan claims that this marked their separation from the Chinese state.
Is Taiwan under mainland China’s jurisdiction, or is it a sovereign state?
The technicalities suggest that Taiwan is an independent sovereign state. This is because Taiwan has its own constitution, democratically elected leaders and its own military forces. Therefore, Taiwan has all the characteristics of an independent state.
There are, however, some problems with such blanket simplicity. Firstly, Taiwan’s status is highly conditioned by one’s perception of controversial history: was Taiwan a mere postwar breakaway, or a newly independent state formed by (effectively) Chinese exiles?
Second, geographical proximity conjoins the two states to some extent. While Taiwan is politically sovereign, its economy is highly dependent on China and its geographical proximity means it is within arm’s length of Beijing.
Finally, the legal waters are extremely muddy. This is not helped by the United States’ official position on the matter, which is one of “strategic ambiguity”. In other words, Washington officially recognises “One-China”, maintaining its stance that the highest Chinese governmental authority resides in Beijing. Yet, President Biden has simultaneously pledged military support to Taiwan, providing the necessary weapons in the case of a “non-peaceful” intervention by mainland China. This has kept Beijing seething as it indicates a subversion of the US’s stance - indicating Biden’s blatant lip service towards China.
China’s aggressive foreign policy
Well, as is all too familiar in what seems to be fast-becoming a 21st-century trend, China believes that history gives it the right to invade and reclaim Taiwan as part of the single Chinese state. Additionally, in what is a stinking reminder of Putin’s aggression towards Ukraine, China has demonstrated its military firepower in Taiwan’s backyard. The rile-up of increased Chinese military exercise in the Taiwan Strait has resulted in a diversion of ships and aircraft within the region.
This modern form of the cold war, reinforced too by Kim Jong-Un’s tendency to test his new atomic toys on someone else’s territory, barely infringes international law by a hair’s breadth.
The situation has been made worse by American aggravation. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, defied Beijing’s warnings and visited Taiwan at the beginning of August. This was a landmark meeting: Pelosi was the first House Speaker to visit Taipei for 25 years.
Whilst I agree with the demonstration of Western unity to Taiwan, considering that Taiwan possesses all the characteristics required to be recognised as a sovereign state, Pelosi’s move seems rather foolish. This is because it expressly violates the official American position of strategic ambiguity. This threatens another war, meaning the US would be fighting on two fronts: Russia and China. And any Tom, Dick or Harry can see why that would be a problem.
This is not to mention China’s military assets – which is what makes war with China so frightening. Taiwan only has approximately 169,000 troops at its disposal. In comparison, China boasts an army of over 2,000,000. That is without counting the 1,400,000,000-strong total population, a large proportion of whom could quite easily be drawn into any war effort under a falsified message of national need and security. Indeed, Chinese state media has pumped out reports claiming that Pelosi was touching China’s “red lines” - a nationalistic rhetoric that drums up fervent support for Xi. This retaliative propaganda is already high in circulation.
And the US wasn’t the only Western state to rile up the Chinese ivory towers. Liz Truss, currently the frontrunner to become the next UK Prime Minister, “summoned” the Chinese ambassador to explain his country’s actions, which threatens peace and stability in the region. These comments were poorly received by Beijing. Foreign ministry spokesman Weng Wenbin claimed that this was a “double standard” deriving from the UK’s hypocritical and imperial past.
Imperialism of the past cannot be justification for imperialism of the future.
It’s difficult to argue with that. Despite being a strong advocate of Britain on the global stage, I will readily concede that many stages along the road to becoming a Great Britain were violent, colonial and wrong. Having said that, two wrongs do not make a right. Imperialism of the past cannot be the justification for imperialism of the future. Societies change as humankind matures and develops with scientific and moral progress. To sail against that modernising tide is blasphemy to united human progress.
Arguments against war
For starters, war is a costly process. We have seen the implications of Putin’s blind nationalist agenda ripple across the globe. The epicentre of unjustified violence and death has produced tidal waves of soft power. The cost of living crisis currently embroiling the UK is a direct aftermath of Putin’s aggression. And that’s not to mention the monetary cost of aid and military equipment to support Ukraine’s fight.
These costs – every single one – would only be made worse by a second war frontier in China. When humankind is fighting its greatest ever existential threat – climate change – infighting and pure selfishness are not what we need.
Let’s not forget, furthermore, the significance of China and Taiwan to the world. Like Russia and Ukraine, these two countries are paramount to global trading. Leaving aside the monumental importance of the Taiwan Strait for shipping goods, China is the world’s largest exporter and, effectively, makes the world economy go round. Here we have yet another global superpower whose nationalistic greed threatens to throw a spanner in the works.
Additionally, Taiwan is the world’s largest producer of computer chips for phones and laptops. Chinese control of this would be extremely concerning, given the persistent threat of cyberwarfare that emulates from its shady operations, such as 5G technology. And any destruction of such production operations by warfare will produce yet more turmoil, waste and cost surges to a world already running on fumes.
With all this on the line and a burning desire to be the hero of any moment, it is unsurprising that the US has reacted strongly. Rightly so. But Pelosi’s personal actions are not the best way to have gone about this business. The UK didn’t send Lindsay Hoyle to Ukraine – we sent Boris Johnson, the international face of our nation. Therefore, if President Biden had gone to Taiwan, it would be a different story. But Pelosi, an individual who is not the US global diplomat-in-chief, has thrown a dagger in China’s back from her own arm. And that sort of personalised attack has provoked China early on, unnecessarily souring the already-decrepit relations between the world’s superpowers.
All things considered, will there be a war?
That, really, is the crucial question.
Interestingly, a survey implies that almost two-thirds of Taiwanese residents think there will not eventually be a war with China. This may be an understandable demonstration of strength and nonchalance, but we have already seen it is naïve to underestimate the persistence of a power-hungry state. Whether this is a reflection of newfound populism, state-media manipulation or historical gremlins coming home to roost, the 21st-century continues to produce a plethora of divisive uprisings.
That’s why I think China will invade Taiwan. But not yet. Xi Jinping will want to get over the line for a third term to put him amongst the greats of Deng and Mao, but the selection process doesn’t happen until autumn. He may also want to wait to examine his generals and ensure they are better than Putin’s, otherwise China faces humiliation.
Nevertheless, come 2023, I suspect China will move in on Taiwan. The groundwork is already in place with the so-called “ring of steel” around the island. The egoistical desire is certainly there. And China’s Western enemies are already preoccupied with one tyrant, so when better to silently attack through the back door?
But, this time, it’s not Putin’s one-man-band. It’s one-billion-strong China.
Image: Flickr/ Just Click’s With A Camera