A Dangerous Ambiguity


The sovereignty of Taiwan has been a contentious issue for a long time. It is viewed by the Chinese government as a somewhat breakaway Chinese province. Over time, however, the democratization of the country has presented an independent identity and spirit among the Taiwanese people that has eroded China’s cultural influence. This tension has become further inflamed during the covid-19 pandemic, as Taiwan has emerged as an impressive bastion of efficiency and generosity saturated with national spirit. This is in spite of China’s attempts to diplomatically isolate Taiwan and in the face of Taiwan’s de facto US alliance during the current Sino- US trade war. 

First, to understand China’s aggravation over Taiwan’s independence, a brief history of the tensions between the two countries:

After the Chinese Civil war, the losing Kuomintang party fled to Taiwan in 1949 initially imposing a dictatorship which weakened as it met protest forcing it to instigate the beginnings of democracy. Taiwan opposed China’s offer of a “one country, two systems” policy in the 1980s and relaxed into friendlier relations, officially ending war in 1991. Democracy in Taiwan recently met its apotheosis in the election result this year, giving president Tsai Ing-wen, a strong advocate of Taiwanese independence, a 57% majority.

In a recent interview with the BBC, president Tsai stated “we deserve respect from China” and further asserted “reverting back to the old status of ambiguity cannot stand.” As evidence for this she testifies to the independent culture of Taiwan’s youth from China and her landslide electoral victory as representative for the Democratic Progressive Party. 

The US, as a de facto ally to Taiwan is what appears to be as poignant a variable in this tension as China. The US has a precedent for interceding on behalf of Taiwan’s independence which may have been what has stopped China claiming back the province through military means thus far. America exercised its commitment to its 1979 legislation to defend Taiwan in 1996 when president Bill Clinton issued a massive US naval presence in the Taiwan Straits after China tried to influence Taiwanese elections. Further, in March this year the Taipei Act was signed by President Trump which would require hostile action towards any nation undermining Taiwan’s independence. The fact that these acts are not exercised with excess political capital in Sino-US relations fosters further discontent with China. Both countries are locked in a trade war, each hoping to surface from this global pandemic as a world leader. Derogatory rhetoric has been quipped by both sides, such as by Trump naming covid-19 the ‘Chinese virus’ during his reelection campaign. Quoted in Reuters, Chinese Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang has said that if America actively uses the Taipei act “it will inevitably encounter a resolute strike back from China.” In the midst of this extreme rhetoric it is hard to know whether this could materialize into a landed invasion of Taiwan.

During the pandemic, China has barred Taiwan from WHO meetings despite its contribution of 10 million masks to Europe and relative success at containment. These masks, branded with “made in Taiwan” speak of a national impetus that China will not recognize.

President Tsai: We deserve respect from China

Both China and the US are currently rearming and the U.S. Indo- Pacific Command has called for $20.1 billion additional spending on military surveillance and cruise missiles in the Pacific, according to the New York Times. This suggests the US is preparing for the most extreme reaction from China with regards to Taiwan. Yet, as Taiwan holds an investment of £40 billion in the Chinese economy, it would be a significant economic risk politically and economically to invade Taiwan. Given the national resolve of the Taiwanese people,it’s possible protesters could face similar China-backed oppression as those in Hong Kong, but as Taiwan has more tangible US support and with the current vulnerability of the global economy it is unlikely China would invade Taiwan, especially given the global recognition it currently has.

Image: 總統府 via Flickr

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