An Analysis of the Implications of Rising Taiwan-China Tensions

By Daniel Moore, BSc Economics Student at Bristol University

China and Taiwan have had exceptionally tense relations dating back to Mao Zedong’s emergence as the pre-eminent figurehead of the Chinese state, subsequent to the Chinese Communist Party’s triumph in the civil war of 1949. An intricate understanding of the history between China and Taiwan is to be considered essential when attempting to assess the foundations of the contemporary rise in tensions and the potential geopolitical consequences they may pose.

Ever since January 1912, the conception of the Republic of China, Taiwan has been considered a principality of the ROC, which governed by authoritarian decree. When the governing party of the republic (Kuomintang) was vanquished at the hands of communism, the prominent functionaries departed from the mainland to reside in Taiwan and govern the island with a despotic regime. Hence, residents of Taiwan regard themselves as independent of the People’s Republic of China, however the current Chinese government is of the persuasion that Taiwan is their property and should be annexed.

Recently, reports of escalating aggression from China in terms of an unprecedented expansion in the conduction of military exercises within Taiwan’s national territory suggest a possible conflict could be on the horizon. On the 10th of September 2020 Taiwan’s ministry of defence divulged information reporting that 24 military aircraft and 7 naval ships, from Beijing, had severely breached international security initiatives by performing military drills in Taiwanese-controlled waters of the South China Sea. A former Taiwanese military official disclosed that this provocation was the most serious security threat to Taiwan since 1996. In addition to this, the cumulative total of recorded People’s Liberation Army exercises that breached the Median Strait Line, an artificial border depicting Chinese and Taiwanese territory, was at its highest level this year in decades. The exacerbation of the conflictual disagreements also coincides with a heightened US military presence in the South China Sea. Even more recently at a national day reception in Fiji on 8th October, Taiwanese ministers have accused two Chinese officials of physically assaulting a diplomat.

There appear to be a multitude of reasons for the Chinese pursuit of annexation. Taiwan has become a hub of low-cost manufacturing in recent years and now exports $148 billion of capital goods, mainly composed of electrical equipment and machinery. Taiwan has also attracted substantial foreign investment from multinational corporations with the aim of producing computers, phones and other devices, their exports in this sector now amount to $42.7 billion.

The Covid-19 pandemic has alerted Western nations of their over-reliance on China economically and many firms can be seen leaving China and seeking other Asian nations to produce goods in. This economic distress alongside China’s rising geopolitical power could be a reason to annex Taiwan. Not only would it allow China to recapture some lost economic output but also reassert their dominance in the export market. Throughout modern history China has also never been in a better position to reclaim Taiwanese territory. Weak US foreign policy and China’s improved military strength displayed by the People’s Liberation Army provide a solid background for the expansion. Chinese skirmishes with Indian troops along the border of Nepal, in which many Indian soldiers were killed, also demonstrate that the PLA are not hesitant to use force when met with strong resistance.

At this point one might ask what the implications of a Chinese annexation of Taiwan would be. Recent statements from the US on the issue of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan lead the observer to believe that if such an event occurred the US would possibly intervene to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty. Following pressure from Taiwanese and US officials a document labelled the ‘Six Assurances’ was newly declassified and it displays the nature of the US position of Taiwanese security relations. The document was created by Ronald Reagan in 1982 in response to growing tensions between China and Taiwan. It states that the US will not exert any pressure on the Taiwanese government to negotiate with Beijing in the event of hostility and it will also not act as a mediator in disputes, indicating that the US will side with Taiwan and will not remain neutral. Another scenario could result in what would be defined as technical appeasement, where the US would not intervene to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, but it would firmly state that no more aggression should be undertaken in the South East.

What is certain is that a great degree of unpredictability surrounds the future of Taiwanese sovereignty and recent escalations indicate there is may be hostility to come.

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