Two (or One?) Nations Diverged in Sovereign Wood: The Breaking Point for China and Taiwan
“The path that China has laid out offers neither a free and democratic way of life for Taiwan, nor sovereignty for our 23 million people,” asserted President Tsai Ing-wen, in her recent speech made on Taiwan’s National Holiday. The current Taiwanese president, who was reelected by a landslide vote last year, rejected Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vow to seek “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, a statement that was made a day before on the eve of China’s National Day.
This clash between the two leaders is reflective of rapidly rising tensions between Taiwan and China. As continued political hostility from both sides progresses toward a seemingly inevitable breaking point, the United States may very well find itself, yet again, pressured to intervene in a conflict on the other side of the globe; subsequently, measures should be taken to explore resolutions through non-military means.
China and Taiwan have had poor relations ever since the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s. After the Communists established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland, the leaders of the Nationalist Party, or the Kuomintang (KMT), retreated to the island. Although Taiwan has its own electoral system, constitution, and armed forces, China refuses to acknowledge the government’s legitimacy, claiming instead that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the only legitimate government under the “One-China policy.”
This disagreement over the Taiwanese sovereignty can be traced back to different interpretations of the 1992 Consensus: while China interprets the agreement as a contract outlining cooperative effort toward eventual reunification, Taiwan instead sees the consensus through a lens of Taiwanese independence under “one China, different interpretations.”
These two definitions generate two completely different perceptions of Taiwan’s relationship with China: while Beijing sees Taiwan as a Chinese province that has temporarily broken away, Taiwan views itself as an independent, democratic sovereignty separate from the mainland.
In response to President Tsai Ing-wen’s National Day speech, China criticized her comments, alleging that the Taiwanese leader’s rhetoric distorted facts and invited confrontation. Indeed, opposing claims have generated cross-strait disputes that have rapidly escalated in recent years. In fact, Taiwan reported that almost 150 Chinese military aircraft violated its sovereignty over the span of four days starting on October 1, with 56 identified planes on that Monday alone. This past week, China’s military announced that it successfully completed a series of beach landing and assault drills on the southern coast of Fujian, which directly faces Taiwan. Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng, who has been a part of the military for over 40 years, said that China-Taiwan military tensions are at their worst in four decades.
These escalations continue to cause unease among bordering nations, who will face the immediate consequences if a full-scale conflict were to erupt. Although most coverage tends to emphasize the military unrest between Taipei and Beijing, conquests in the economic realm have already been taking place. Both China and Taiwan recognize the importance of forging stable relationships in the surrounding region. Although Taiwan is excluded from United Nations bodies, such as the World Health Organization, due to China’s argument that Taiwan does not have the sovereignty needed to acquire membership, the Taiwanese government has nonetheless established linkages to countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and even Oceania.
Taiwan’s southbound strategy was first launched by President Lee Teng-hui in 1994 and relied on the strength of the new Taiwan dollar, foreign investment, and the expansion of manufacturing firms in Southeast Asia. Later, President Ma Ying-jeou focused on bolstering consumer markets through ASEAN. Under the current president, the New Southbound budget increased by 61.6% from 2017 to 2018; Tsai Ing-wen also emphasized people-centric campaigns by relaxing restrictions on tourism to forge cultural and economic friendship exchanges. The economic dominance of China in Asian, and arguably global, markets is more well-established.
In September, customs data shows that exports rose 28.1% in the duration of the month, which reflects a surging global demand for Chinese goods. Certainly, it should be noted that China is experiencing an economic slowdown with particular concerns in the real estate and energy sectors; yet, the government continues to launch new ventures that spreads its economic influence, as seen in their sweeping Belt and Road Initiative.
Taiwan and China have also been competing in the realm of vaccine diplomacy: as of September, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it had delivered 1.1 billion vaccine doses to over 100 countries. Taiwan has accused China of intervening with the government’s process of purchasing vaccines, but has nonetheless consistently contributed to global mask distribution and certain vaccine campaigns; for example, the island worked with India to provide Paraguay with 100,000 doses, although reports suggest that China has been ramping up vaccine diplomacy with the country as a way to persuade Paraguay to cut ties with Taiwan.
In 2001, then-President George Bush stated that the United States would do “whatever it [takes]” to defend the island in the case of an invasion by China. In a recent public opinion survey conducted this year, 52% of Americans favoured sending U.S. troops to defend Taiwan. However, it is important to stray away from a tunnel-vision mindset that sees military might as the sole metric of conflict management when it comes to the China-Taiwan dispute. There are alternative, more rational paths to seeking resolution. A clear majority of the American public supports including Taiwan in international institutions while most Americans also likewise see a U.S.-Taiwan free trade agreement in a positive light.
Ultimately, it is important for the United States to learn from past, hasty military maneuvers. In Afghanistan, American intervention produced detrimental and prolonged effects that it is still recovering from. Instead, it is valuable to explore mediating solutions through U.S. policy or global institutions, such as establishing economic rules of the road that promote tourism or place caps on sanctions; this would not only defend and bolster Taiwanese markets, but also prevent military escalations from transferring over economically.