Flashpoint: Taiwan

Published October 13, 2021
Mahir Ali
Mahir Ali

THE ‘peaceful reunification’ of Taiwan with the mainland is one part of Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ that’s unlikely to be rapidly realised. The most obvious alternative provides ample cause for alarm.

China marked its national day at the start of the month with an unprecedented number of warplane incursions into Taiwanese airspace. A week later, on the eve of the 110th anniversary of the revolution that transformed China from a dynastic empire into a republic, President Xi returned to the theme.

While declaring that “reunification through a peaceful manner is most in line with the overall interest of the Chinese nation, including Taiwan compatriots”, he warned against underestimating his people’s will, ability and determination “to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity”, adding: “The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled.”

Read more: Taiwan complains of biggest build-up by China’s air force

That sounds more like a threat than a promise, and Xi has earned a reputation of sorts for following through on his threats. He also identified “Taiwan’s independence separatism” as the chief obstacle to reunification and “the most serious hidden danger to national rejuvenation”, while warning against “external interference” in what he sees as “purely an internal matter for China”.

Could China and the US be sleepwalking into a war?

That’s clearly a reference to the US and its Asia-Pacific allies; in fact, it’s impossible to separate the Taiwan issue from the convolutions of China-US ties.

Colonised by the Dutch in the 17th century, Taiwan remained under foreign occupation for much of its history until the end of World War II, when it was handed to Nationalist China after the defeat of Japan, the last of the occupiers. Even though the archipelago is just 180 kilometres off the coast, over the centuries Chinese rulers had not been particularly bothered about its fate.

By the late 1930s, when the Communist Par­ty and the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) were in an uneasy alliance against Japanese occupation, it was Chiang Kai-shek rather than Mao Zedong, who was keen on Chinese rule over Taiwan. Mao favoured independen­­ce for the island. He changed his mind after winning the civil war in 1949, when the def­eated KMT retreated to Taiwan and dubbed it the Republic of China — and held China’s seat on the UN Security Council for the next three decades, courtesy of US backing. Throughout this period, Taiwan was under martial law, which wasn’t lifted until 1987.

It took a few more years for democratic governance to be instituted, and in recent decades the KMT has competed for power with the Democratic Progressive Party. The latter, more enthusiastic about formal independence than the KMT, has lately been on a winning streak, much to Beijing’s consternation.

At Taiwan’s national day ceremonies, which coincide with the anniversary of the 1911 revolution, President Tsai Ing-wen said no one can compel her country “to take the path China has laid out for us”, but also noted that as a sovereign state Taiwan did not need to formally declare independence.

Her government is concerned about what lies in store, with the defence minister saying that China would be capable of a full-scale invasion within four years.

Read more: Tsai warns of ‘catastrophic consequences’ if Taiwan falls

That might be overly optimistic, if an invasion is what Beijing’s leadership has in mind. One can only hope that is not the case. Apart from the harm to Taiwan, it would also prove hugely problematic for China.

The spike in Chinese nationalism under Xi has caused alarm among neighbours and provided the West with an excuse for pushback. Militarism has been part of the trend, with a steady increase in military spending — although at $252bn in 2020 it’s still a fraction of US expenditu­­re. Yet American war games envisaging US interv­e­ntion in the event of an invasion of Taiwan have rep­e­atedly suggested that China would emerge victorious.

A more pertinent question would be whether there’s any appetite in Washington for a military confrontation with China, especially after Afghanistan. But one should never underestimate the hawks, and the Biden administration has shown little inclination to recalibrate the hostility of the Trump years beyond using somewhat more temperate language.

Like Joe Biden, Xi has plenty to contend with on the domestic front, from an energy crunch to his relatively new policy of ‘common prosperity’. The latter is certainly an intriguing twist to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, which over the decades has been hard to distinguish from neoliberal capitalism under an authoritarian polity. It remains to be seen whether it will entail significant structural changes, beyond bringing billionaires to heel.

As far as Taiwan is concerned, a great deal depends on whether Xi sees reunification as essential to his legacy. That’s not the only danger, though. There are US troops in Taiwan and, absurdly, US coast guard vessels traversing the Taiwan Strait. It’s worth remembering that the line between deterrence and provocation is thinly drawn.


Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2021



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