In January, 2020 the Pro-independence candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, of the Democratic Progressive Party, won re-election to the presidency of Taiwan, in a landslide.
Across the Taiwan Strait, in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), just over a year later, XI Jinping solidified his rule as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), President of the People's Republic of China (PRC), and Paramount Leader.
Of course, the people were not invited to vote for Xi Jinping.
And, since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has scrapped the two-term limit rule, Xi could hold office for life.
In spite of Taiwan being a high-functioning, multiparty democracy, with its own government, currency, passport, and army, it’s only recognized as an independent country by 15 nations: Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Eswatini, Tuvalu, Nauru, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Belize, Marshall Islands, Palau, and Vatican City/Holy See.
The PRC considers Taiwan to be a renegade province, which it vows to annex. President Tsai Ing-wen’s election victory confirmed, however, that the Taiwanese have no interest in becoming part of China.
In October, 2021, on China’s National Day, 25 Chinese war planes flew into Taiwanese airspace. Taiwan immediately scrambled jets, and the US and the UK alerted its three aircraft carriers with destroyer escorts, which were patrolling, not far away, in the Philippine Sea. Less than two weeks later, on Taiwan’s National Day, Xi Jinping issued an official statement, vowing “to fulfill reunification”.
Xi aspires to be remembered as one of the three great leaders of the PRC, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and now Xi. Seizing Taiwan by force could be the single act that ensures Xi’s legacy.
President Tsai Ing-wen, however, will not be intimidated. The small, island nation of 23.5 million has an army of only 290,000, but they are committed to fight and die, rather than be absorbed into the PRC. Tsai Ing-wen’s response to the PRC’s threats was “We will no bow to Beijing pressure.” Additionally, she said that Taiwan would " stand up and speak out" over Chinese aggression.
If China invades, Taiwan will most likely not have to fight alone. The US-Taiwan relations are guided by the “One China Policy” which means that the US does not have an opinion on whether Taiwan is independent or if it is part of China.
But the situation is quite complicated.
Taiwan's military is made up of 290,000 personnel: 130,000 in the army, 45,000 in the Navy and Marine Corps; and 80,000 in the Air Force.
The US Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), obligates the US to sell defensive weapons to Taiwan. The TRA also confirms the US commitment to peace in the Pacific region, and considers aggression against the island nation as a breach of peace.
Historically, it’s been unclear if this actually commits the US to fight for Taiwan. The Act has been interpreted, however, as meaning that the US would not defend Taiwan if they unilaterally declared independence, but the US would intervene if China invades.
Other US agreements, particularly those made during the Trump years, increase the US military support for Taiwan. The Taiwan Travel Act of 2018 encouraged high‐level U.S. defense officials to meet with their Taiwanese counterparts.
The same year, the US invited two senior Taiwanese military officials to participate in a meeting of the U.S. Pacific Command.
In 2019, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton held regional security talks with David Lee, Secretary General of Taiwan’s National Security Council. While the US and the PRC have ample reason for animosity, the Taiwan issue is considered to be the one most likely to trigger a war. Beijing “firmly opposes” US-Taiwan cooperation, issuing threats each time US officials interact with Taiwanese. A Chinese government advisor, Jia Qingguo, who teaches international relations at Peking University, called the Washington-Beijing-Taipei dynamic “a perfect storm.”
A Short History of Taiwan
Taiwan, officially the Republic of China (ROC), the island of Formosa, lies 130 Km (81 miles) from the Southeast coast of China, bordering on the East China Sea, Philippine Sea, South China Sea, and Taiwan Strait. Ninety-five percent of the island’s population are ethnic Chinese, while most of the rest are members of 16 recognized indigenous groups, composed of Malayo-Polynesian peoples.
In the 17th Century, Han Chinese began living on the island. In 1895, after China's Qing Dynasty lost a war with Japan, they gave up Formosa, which Japan ruled for 50 years. The island was returned to the Republic of China at the end of World War II. In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang (KMT) army lost the Chinese civil war. The Communists took over the mainland and about 2 million loyalists, refugees, and soldiers fled to Taiwan, establishing the provisional capital in the city of Taipei. The KMT vowed to someday, reinvade the PRC and resume their position as the government of mainland China.
If China invades, Taiwan will most likely not have to fight alone
The US recognized the ROC, Taiwan, as a country, until 1979, when the American’s switched recognition from Taiwan (ROC) to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). During the 1950’s and 1960’s the US provided economic assistance to Taiwan. Eventually, through sheer hard work, determination, and love of education, Taiwan rose to become a wealthy and technologically advanced nation. The average income in Taiwan is about $25,000 per year, while in the PRC, it is about $11,000.
Chiang Kai-shek remained military dictator, of a one-party state until he died in 1975. His son, Chiang Ching-kuo, ruled after his father’s death, allowing the first opposition party to be formed in 1986. Martial law was repealed in 1987, and Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988.
In 1996, Taiwan held its first presidential elections. In 2000, Kuomintang (KMT) rule finally ended, when Chen Shui-bian, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected. The current president of Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen, also of the DPP, was first elected in 2016.
In 2019, a Taiwanese thinktank Academia Sinica conducted a survey, the results of which were that more than 73% of Taiwanese did not want to unify with mainland China. Most Taiwanese feel no connection to the PRC.
Considerably less than 14% of the population is even old enough to have been born on the mainland.
President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen began her second term in the office on May 20, 2020.
Taiwan relations in the Trump and Biden Administrations
Taiwan enjoys normal trade relations status with the US, its second largest trading partner. Taiwan has been granted access to U.S. markets, Export-Import Bank financing, and Overseas Private Investment Corporation guarantees.
In 2019, President Trump constructed a $255 million dollar compound for the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the US de facto embassy in Taipei.
The Institute boasts 500 employees, including military personnel. This is the first time since 1979, that uniformed US military personnel have been stationed in Taiwan. Under President Trump, US arms sales were increased, reaching $5 billion in 2020. He also amplified the US Navy presencein the Taiwan Strait. Nearly a year into the Biden administration, it was discovered that President Trump had stationed US Special Forces soldiers in Taiwan, to train the army. The Biden administration has since, doubled the number of US troops on the island. He has also continued with arms sales, but most importantly, he has said, on at least two occasions, that the US would defend Taiwan.
Why support for Taiwan is important
One reason to support Taiwan is because Taiwan is a free country, and the democracies of the world should nurture and support a free nation, which has provided a high standard of living to its people. In fact, Taiwan, in spite of not even being recognized as an independent country, ranks 11th in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2020 Democracy Index.
A strategic reason to support Taiwan is because the island is key to maintaining free navigation of the seas. Currently, more than 60% of the world’s maritime shipping passes through the Taiwan Strait. The PRC already controls one side of the Strait. If they take Taiwan, they will control both sides and prevent ships from navigating between.
Beijing has already begun restricting free navigation in the disputed Spratly Islands, demanding that certain types of vessels must notify Chinese maritime officials, before passing through. If the PRC takes Taiwan, they would most likely expand their claim to the South China Sea and parts of the Indo-Pacific region.
Supporting Taiwan is also a significant part of the United States’ Asia policy. An integral part of maintaining freedom and stability in the region is ensuring that Taiwan remains independent. The US has troops stationed in Thailand, the Philippines, and Guam, as well as much larger forces in Japan and South Korea. Additionally, the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet regularly conducts “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOPs) in the South China Sea.
Apart from Taiwan, other allies depend on the US to protect their maritime interests. Many of these nations have territorial disputes with the PRC in the South China Sea, including Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
None of these nations is powerful enough to stand up to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-Navy) without US support. On top of issues of territorial sovereignty, $3.37 trillion in cargo, including 40% of the world’s liquefied natural gas passes through each year.
Japan, one of the most powerful US allies in the region, also has a territorial dispute with China, over the Senkaku Islands. New Zealand and Australia, while further away, are very much committed to maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific. Japan, along with the United States, India, and Australia formed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (The Quad) a defense pact meant to counter China.
Additionally, Australia and New Zealand joined with the US, Canada, and the UK in the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance.
Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States are also members of the AUKUS defense pact. Military operations in the region are enhanced by having free air and sea space in the vicinity of Taiwan.
Beijing has condemned all three alliances, saying, “Five Eyes could be poked blind if China's sovereignty and security [are] harmed.” By sovereignty, they mean Taiwan. The PRC considers US engagement with Taiwan as interference in its internal affairs. Beijing even registered “strong indignation” over a phone call from President Trump to Tsai Ying-wen, to congratulate her on her election victory.
In December of 2021, President Biden particularly angered Beijing, when he invited Taiwan to participate in a global summit on Democracy.
China’s only official ally, North Korea, echoed the party line, issuing a statement, saying that the US should stop supporting Taiwan. Under China's Anti Session Law, the PRC claims the legal authority to take Taiwan by force. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences US affairs specialist, Liu Weidong said, “China cannot accept any country to develop official relations with Taiwan.”
This statement was followed with a vague threat against nations that dared support Taiwan.