The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

No one can really decide what Taiwan’s status is. In either case, much like Putin, Xi Jinping won’t let legal niceties stand in his way.

In recent years, China has significantly ramped up military drills in the Taiwan Strait and adjacent waters in a bid to sow unease and divide the Western alliance over a possible Chinese invasion. During the summer of 2021, Chinese warships conducted over 100 drills in the Taiwan Strait, the Yellow Sea, the Bohai Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea. The summer of 2022 brought new activity when Nancy Pelosi, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, visited Taiwan. In response, Chinese warships conducted live-fire drills, including tests of the DF-17, a medium-range ballistic missile, ominously known as the “aircraft-carrier killer.”

The event marked the first such activity since the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996 when Beijing fired conventional missiles near Taiwanese waters. More recently, Beijing has deployed an array of military resources, including an aircraft carrier, long-range rockets, fighter jets, and conventional missiles near Taiwan. These deployments have come in reaction to meetings between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and high-profile U.S. politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy, the current Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The increasing naval activities in the Taiwan Strait have led analysts to suspect that Beijing might resort to military force to bring Taiwan back into the fold. But does a legal premise for such action exist?

Before delving into the international legal quagmire, it’s vital to understand Taiwan’s complex history. Portuguese navigators once christened the island Formosa, meaning “a beautiful island.” The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the island caught between colonial powers such as the Spaniards and the Dutch East India Company. After the Dutch vanquished the Spaniards in mainland China, they faced an invasion from the Manchurians, who ended the Ming dynasty’s three-century reign and eventually took control of Taiwan.

In 1885, the Qing Empire conquered Taiwan, declaring it a province. The first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) ended with the cession of Taiwan to Japan through the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Taiwan remained under Japanese rule for 50 years until the end of the Second World War. At that time, General Douglas MacArthur instructed Chiang Kai-shek to assume control over Taiwan, leading to the Kuomintang’s de facto control, marred by violence and suppression. Following the Chinese Civil War, the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan, establishing the Republic of China in a pattern reminiscent of historical shifts in power within the region.

During the Korean War, Taiwan’s strategic importance was highlighted, and its post-war relationship with global powers was codified through treaties like the San Francisco Peace Treaty. However, in 1971, UN Resolution 2758 stripped Taiwan of its UN membership in favor of mainland China, reflecting shifts in global allegiances.

While mainland China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, Taiwan’s lack of international recognition weakens its standing. According to international conventions, Taiwan seems to meet the criteria for statehood, but recognition from only a handful of less influential nations leaves it in a precarious position.

Taiwan’s non-state status leaves it outside the protections of legal principles governing the use of force between states. Beijing’s potential invasion of Taiwan would not necessarily violate these laws, but neither would they provide a clear legal justification for aggressive action by China. Geopolitical ambitions alone cannot validate an invasion, and any breach of Taiwan’s right to self-determination would contradict international law.

As the Taiwan Strait resonates with the echoes of war cries, the international community faces a conundrum that intertwines history, politics, military posturing, and law. Beijing’s menacing actions and the delicate balance of Taiwan’s de facto statehood create an intricate puzzle, raising questions about the prospects for peaceful coexistence and the rule of international law. The complex scenario underscores the necessity for diplomatic engagement and caution, with the understanding that the solution is not as simple as drawing lines on a map.

Waleed Sami is pursuing a Master's degree in Strategic Studies at the Centre for International Peace and Stability (CIPS), affiliated with the prestigious National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Islamabad. He holds a Bachelor's degree in International Relations from National Defence University Islamabad (NDU).