War in Taiwan: what’s behind the recent escalation in tensions? by Omar Khan
Missiles deployed. Airspace invaded. Bomber planes in action. You’d think the People’s Republic of China and the partly-recognised Republic of China, also called Taiwan, were already at war. Beijing had not recently issued a warning that was heard in Taipei and Washington: any attempt at Taiwanese independence means all-out war. Since Hsiao Bi-Khim, the unofficial ambassador of Taiwan to the United States, was present at Joe Biden’s inauguration, the new administration has made clear their alliance with Tsai Ing-wen’s pro-independence government and put pressure on Xi Jinping. But why have cross-straits tensions escalated so dramatically? Can diplomats achieve a détente? And how close are we to all-out war?
“The sky is not big enough for two suns,” Chiang Kai-Shek famously declared after his Republic lost its seat at the United Nations to the People’s Republic in 1971. Since Mao Zedong’s Communists won the civil war in 1949 (causing Chiang’s Kuomintang government to flee to Taiwan), Beijing has not recognised the island as anything other than their 23rd province making cross-straits dialogue difficult. Though both nations have changed significantly since the civil war, they have large, strong economies and powerful militaries (or in Taiwan’s case, powerful allies) in common meaning an armed conflict between them will affect and change the world.
So what has been happening recently? On Saturday 23rd January 2021, 8 nuclear-capable bombers and 4 other warplanes entered the Taiwanese Defence Zone. The next day, 15 aircraft invaded the airspace between Taiwan and its territory in the Pratas Islands. In exchange, Taiwan deployed its own airborne forces including fighters, reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft, and “air defence missile systems”. The island’s defence ministry says it issued “radio warnings” whilst China’s defence spokesman Wu Qian called the actions “necessary…to address the current security situation in the Taiwan Strait and to safeguard national sovereignty and security.” Provocatively, he added that “those who play with fire burn themselves, and Taiwanese independence means war,” to which the Pentagon responded with the tamer (but in diplomacy terms, quite the belter): “We find that comment unfortunate.”
But, although there have always been less-than-cordial relations, why are we seeing this flare-up? One reason is the personalities involved. Xi and Tsai, to be specific. The Chinese paramount leader has devoted his leadership to rapidly increasing China’s economic and, more recently, political influence, manifesting as the Belt and Road Initiative, the cold war with the US and Hong Kong security law. Needless to say, his domineering approach to international relations contrasts heavily with his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Regarding Tsai Ing-wen, her Democratic Progressive Party won an outright legislative majority for the first time in 2016 when she was elected president indicating popular support for the party’s “eventual independence” standing, especially as it came soon after the 2014 Sunflower Revolution in which parliament was occupied to prevent the then-president Ma Yung-Jeou and his Kuomintang Party (backing “eventual reunification”) from ratifying an agreement with China. Not long after her election came Donald Trump’s in the US – in a break from 40-year-old tradition, Trump called Tsai to reaffirm the Washington-Taipei alliance arguably triggering these recent cross-straits flare-ups. These flare-ups include Beijing pressuring companies to register Taiwan as part of China, hardened rhetoric on both sides, Taipei purchasing more US weapons, and Chinese aircraft approaching Taiwanese airspace culminating in the most recent incident.
When former independence-leaning Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian announced his Four Wants & One Without policy in 2007 effectively declaring that Taiwan wants its independence, he polarised politics between those favouring reunification and those supporting outright independence. Though China passed an Anti-Secession Law in 2005 allowing it to use “non-peaceful means” if Taiwan tried to “secede”, it is clear that Beijing has not been so fearful of an independence declaration since 1996 when they launched missiles to intimidate the electorate. Tsai maintains that “We don't have a need to declare ourselves an independent state.” Still, her policies to bolster Taiwan’s military, by constructing new submarines and buying armed drones and rocket and missile systems from the US, suggests that she may revise that statement to formally declare independence in the near future. Taiwanese people have watched in nervous horror as China asserted itself last year and trampled all over Hong Kong’s democracy – ironic considering Beijing had suggested a similar “one country, two systems” approach for Taiwan.
So when’s the war? Firstly, it is not a given that all Taiwanese people support independence – it was only two years after her election that Tsai’s pan-green coalition lost their legislative majority to the Kuomintang’s pan-blue. Given the roughly £40 billion that Taiwanese companies have invested in China and mutual economic programmes, some analysts say that any option, be it reunification, independence or war, would jeopardise both nations’ interests suggesting, along with many island polls, that most people favour the legally-ambiguous status quo. However, if Trump’s trade war soured Washington-Beijing relations, then Biden’s condemnation of the Xinjiang genocide, “Buy American” trade policy and questioning about China’s COVID-19 response definitely aren’t going to improve things. With the shocking provocations by Beijing in Hong Kong, India, the South China Sea, Australia and beyond, Taiwan may find the opportunity to declare independence and win the fight for it coming up soon – but of course, as a proud democracy, it has to ask itself whether it wants that or not. Summing up, a quote that would win an irony award from Xi Jinping: “Difference in itself is no cause for alarm. What rings the alarm is…the attempt to…force one’s own history, culture and social system upon others.” To answer the question, when’s the war; the answer is simply: I hope not any time soon.