The Taiwan Question
Callum Martin, Features Editor, considers Taiwan’s past and future, and speaks to a citizen of the island to see what it’s really like on the ground.
One hundred miles southeast of mainland China lies an island The Economist once labelled the ‘most dangerous place on earth’. Visit Taiwan today, and at street level this statement may seem preposterous. The island boasts the world’s third lowest crime rates, a capital widely regarded as the ‘the most welcoming city in Asia’, and a thriving economy thanks to dominance on the global semiconductor market.
The danger surrounding Taiwan has nothing to do with what it’s like now, and everything to do with what it might be like in the future. For years, experts have predicted that the next war between major powers would be a conflict over Taiwan. While Putin’s invasion of Ukraine may have derailed this theory, Taiwan remains a potential flashpoint for another global conflict, one with even more catastrophic consequences. So, why all the fuss?
Taiwan remains a potential flashpoint for another global conflict, one with even more catastrophic consequences.
To answer that question, you need to understand Taiwan’s history. Rewind to the late 1940s, and China is in the middle of a bloody civil war. The Kuomintang (KMT) national government are facing a Communist uprising, led by the brutal Mao Zedung.
By 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had seized the mainland and forced the Kuomintang into retreat. The KMT government, along with 1.2 million Chinese citizens (mostly soldiers) fled to Taiwan and established the island as their base of operations.
Mao’s forces immediately began drafting plans to take back the island, but when the Korean War broke out in 1950, China’s military priority shifted for a few years, as they deployed troops to support their communist brethren in North Korea. When the war in Korea was over, a full-scale invasion of Taiwan was deemed too risky, due to enduring global recognition of the defeated nationalist government, although skirmishes between the CCP and KMT continued on nearby islands.
A ceasefire between the two sides was reached in 1979, but no peace treaty was ever signed, leaving the status of the island complicated. And although the CCP decided against taking Taiwan by force back in the 50s, they have never, ever, wavered in their intention to one day ‘reunify’ with China’s ‘renegade province.’
Despite Chinese pressure to come back into the fold, Taiwan has operated as a sovereign country in all but name for 75 years. The liberal culture and free democratic system that has developed on the island has become almost unrecognisable from the Xi Jinping’s authoritarian regime run from Beijing.
Despite its de facto independence, in 2023 there are only 13 states that officially recognise Taiwan’s sovereignty, 12 of which place outside the top 100 in global military rankings. The weakness of support for Taiwanese independence comes from the fact that this support has always come at the cost of political and economic ties with China, a prospect that has become less and less appealing over the years. Honduras was the latest country to succumb to Chinese pressure and cut ties with Taiwan back in March.
However, whilst most of the international community does not support Taiwan’s official independence, they also strongly oppose a Chinese invasion. No country has a formal defence pact with Taiwan for fear of alienating China, but Joe Biden has said multiple times that US forces would defend the island if the Chinese launched an assault.
Even if the US didn’t send troops to Taiwan, they would likely pump the island full of weapons much in the same way they are doing with Ukraine, likely causing further devastation. Many Western countries have already been selling arms to Taiwan for decades, and as recently as March President Biden approved a $620 million sale of F-16 missiles.
Some believe that the threat of conflict is exaggerated, and that the Western media is engaging in scaremongering. It is true that the uneasy stalemate has thus far lasted 75 years. I spoke to a businesswoman who has lived in Taipei for over 35 years, and she was positive, saying with confidence, “we are not afraid.” However, there are some reasons to think that a Chinese attack is getting more likely.
We are not afraid.
Firstly, the sense of a strong, independent Taiwanese identity is growing. According to a 2022 poll by the National Chengchi University, 61% of the island’s people identified as Taiwanese only, up from 17.6% in 1992. My source told me in no uncertain terms, “we are Taiwanese not Chinese…we are two totally different countries.” An increasing sense of identity makes it more likely that Taiwan will one day declare itself formally independent, a move that would almost certainly provoke Chinese military action.
Another potential provocation of a Chinese attack is Taiwan’s increasingly close relations with the US. The businesswoman told me that residents of Taipei have a very positive view of America and support closer ties with the country. China strongly disapproves of this increasingly close relationship and has reacted to strongly to political meetings between the two.
In 2022, US speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited the island, and China responded by launching ballistic missiles over Taipei and conducting aggressive military drills around the island. Earlier this year, when Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen visited the United States, a fleet of Chinese warships sailed close to the island.
US relations with Taiwan have been strengthening largely because its relations with China have been deteriorating. There is a widespread belief that a ‘new Cold War’ between the US and China may be on the horizon, and that Taiwan would serve as a stage for a proxy conflict like we saw in the Afghan-Soviet War.
US intelligence believes that Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered his military to be ready for an attack on Taiwan by 2027. Let there be no doubt, the impact of such an invasion would be devastating. Taiwan has over 23 million citizens, and would be facing an enemy that possesses the world’s largest standing army. They aren’t equipped to withstand a full-force attack from their neighbour and would likely be overwhelmed in just a few days.
The impact of such an invasion would be devastating.
The tragic human cost aside, the world economy would be devastated by any disruption to Taiwan’s export channels. The island produces over 60% of the world’s semiconductors, and over 90% of the most advanced ones. Semiconductors are the ‘brains’ of modern electrical devices from computers to healthcare equipment to military systems, and the impact of cutting off this supply line would be catastrophic.
The businesswoman, who has travelled to China many times for work, said “I have many contacts in China. We are really friendly to each other.” She believes that the true animosity is “government to government”, and says that “as people, we are really not against each other.” The true tragedy of the situation is of course, if war does break out, it will be these people on the front lines, not the politicians.