U.S. President Joe Biden’s warning that the U.S. would defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression made headlines around the world — and put the growing tensions between the tiny democratic island and its neighboring autocratic superpower under the spotlight.
Less than a decade ago, ties appeared to be rekindling as the two sides – separated by a strait less than 128 kilometers wide at its closest point – deepened economic, cultural, and even political commitments. But today relations are at their lowest level in decades – raising fears of a military escalation, even as experts consider an imminent all-out war remains unlikely.
In recent months, China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has fueled speculation about Beijing’s intentions towards Taiwan, raising questions about how the world would react if China launched an attack.
While the White House was quick to downplay Biden’s comments this week that the US would defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression, no other country is as deeply involved in the dispute as the United States, which has a complicated history with both sides and has many tread a delicate middle path.
China’s authoritarian turn under leader Xi Jinping and the decline in relations with Washington have brought Taiwan closer to the US orbit. This infuriated Beijing, which spurred it to put more pressure on Taiwan and send cross-Straits relations into a downward spiral.
Here’s what you need to know about the island that is increasingly at the forefront of US-China clashes.
First, a quick story
Taiwan, which has long been inhabited by indigenous peoples, became part of the Chinese empire in the 17th century. It was then ceded to Japan in 1895 after Imperial China lost the First Sino-Japanese War.
The island remained a Japanese colony for half a century, until the end of World War II. After Japan’s defeat, China’s nationalist government, led by the Kuomintang (KMT) party, took control of Taiwan.
Shortly thereafter, the nationalists – who ruled the mainland under the flag of the Republic of China (RC) after the fall of Imperial China – came under renewed attack by a then-insurgent Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The two sides entered a bloody civil war that resulted in the defeat of the Nationalists, who fled to Taiwan, moving the RC’s seat of government from Nanjing to Taipei. Across the strait, the CCP took power and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing.
Both proclaimed themselves as the only legitimate government of the entire Chinese territory.
In Taipei, the nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, dreamed of taking back the mainland one day; in Beijing, CPC Chairman Mao Tsetung called Taiwan the last piece of a united “new China” – a “problem” that needed to be resolved sooner or later.
In recent years, Taiwan has played down its territorial claims over mainland China and is now a vibrant democracy with its own military, currency, constitution and elected government.
But it is not recognized as an independent country by most of the world’s governments and has become increasingly diplomatically isolated.
Over the years, an increasing number of governments have shifted their diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, leaving Taiwan with just 15 diplomatic allies at the end of 2021.
What is the United States’ role in all of this?
During the Chinese Civil War, the United States supported the Nationalists, while the Communists had the support of the Soviet Union.
The US continued to support the KMT government after its withdrawal to Taiwan, providing development assistance to help build its economy, while avoiding the PRC as an ideological and military adversary.
But after a diplomatic conflict between Beijing and Moscow in the 1960s – known as the Sino-Soviet split – relations between the PRC and the US began to melt, to counterbalance the Soviet Union.
In 1979, the US joined a growing list of nations to formally shift diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
In what is known as the “One China” policy, Washington recognizes the PRC as China’s only legitimate government; it also recognizes Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but it will never accept the CCP’s claim to sovereignty over the island.
Meanwhile, the US continues to maintain close unofficial ties with Taiwan under the decades-old Taiwan Relations Act, facilitating commercial, cultural and other exchanges through the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) – the US Embassy. in Taipei.
Washington has also provided defensive weaponry to the island, but has remained deliberately vague about whether it would defend the island in the event of a Chinese invasion – in a policy known as “strategic ambiguity”. The aim is to maintain a “cover” on the confrontation, deterring China and keeping open the possibility of a US military response. At the same time, it aims to deprive Taiwan of US guarantees that could lead it to declare official independence. The aim is to preserve the status quo and avoid a war in Asia – and that has worked, allowing Washington to walk the tightrope of relations with both sides.
But with Biden, that “strategic ambiguity” has become a little less ambiguous. Since taking office, Biden has said on three occasions that the US would be willing to intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack – although the White House has been quick to back down on its statements each time.
But his latest warning against Beijing carried extra symbolic weight – it was delivered right on China’s doorstep, during his first trip to Asia as president, which aims to unite allies and partners to combat China’s growing influence.
As expected, Beijing reacted with fury to his statements, expressing its “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” and accusing the US of “playing with fire”.
Why are tensions rising?
For decades after the founding of the PRC, animosity reigned between Beijing and Taipei, with trade, travel and communications largely cut off. Military conflicts continued to escalate, with the PRC bombing several PRC-controlled outlying islands on two separate occasions.
But tensions began to ease in the late 1980s, allowing for limited private visits, indirect trade and investments across the strait. Ties peaked in 2015 at a historic meeting between KMT and CCP heads in Singapore.
But relations quickly deteriorated after 2016, when Tsai Ing-wen of the traditionally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) overwhelmingly won a presidential election in Taiwan – spurred by concerns among voters that Taiwan was getting too close to Beijing under the KMT rule.
Under Xi’s leadership, China has become increasingly assertive in foreign policy and has become more authoritarian at home. Its relentless crackdown on democracy and freedoms in Hong Kong has further alienated many people in Taiwan, who fear they will face the same fate if they come under Beijing’s rule.
Tensions are rising especially as the Chinese military increases its pressure on the island, in response to what Beijing sees as “provocations” by the Taiwanese and US administrations.
How likely is conflict?
After Beijing’s aggressive military demonstrations in 2021, Taiwan’s defense minister warned that China would be able to mount a “full-scale” invasion of Taiwan by 2025 – sparking debate over a possible armed conflict.
The Chinese military maneuvers and exercises are a reminder to Taiwan and the US not to cross Beijing’s red lines, said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She says those red lines include the campaign for formal Taiwan independence or the decision to send large numbers of US troops to the island.
In an interview with CNN last year, President Tsai said the threat from Beijing was growing “every day”. But on the streets of Taipei, the mood seems more relaxed and confident. And analysts agree that despite the rhetoric and military agitation, China is unlikely to invade Taiwan anytime soon.
US intelligence officials also found nothing to suggest that China is preparing a military offensive, according to people familiar with those assessments.
On Monday, Biden also echoed that assessment. “My expectation is that this does not happen,” she told reporters. “That will not be attempted.”
The goal of a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan Strait impasse makes sense – experts have long said that any attempt by Beijing to take the island by force would be an extremely expensive effort, with an uncertain outcome.
Furthermore, the swift and coordinated response by the US and its allies to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has likely alarmed Beijing, experts say, who suggest its leaders are watching the Western reaction to Ukraine with Taiwan in mind.
It remains to be seen what lessons Beijing will draw from the Ukraine crisis – China could become more cautious in its calculations in light of the Russian invasion and the strong Western response. On the other hand, Beijing may also conclude that “any attempt to take the island by force will only get more difficult the longer it waits, as Taiwan may take its defense more seriously and the US and its allies may take it more seriously.” preparation with Taiwan for this battle,” wrote Bill Bishop, an expert on Chinese politics.
Source: With Agencies (CNN)