As long as China continues to wield great economic and military might, Taiwan will remain one of the West’s most intractable problems
The tensions over China’s claims to Taiwan, rooted as far back as World War II and earlier, carry the dangerous potential to grip the world in a superpower conflict that could rival the current fraught hostilities over Ukraine. But what is the conflict about? Read on for answers and insight.
What are the roots of the tension between China and Taiwan?
If we want to understand the roots of the tension between China and Taiwan, we must recall what the Chinese call the “Century of humiliation,” referring to the period from 1839 to 1949.
This 110-year-long period covers the collapse of the monarchy in China and the establishment of a republic, with Western countries exploiting resources and Japan’s imperialist policies toward China. During this period, two different political movements formed in reaction to the exploitation of resources.
The Civil War from 1927 to 1949 between the Chinese Nationalist Party (CNP) led by Sun Yat-sen and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Chiang Kai-Shek was the starting point of the crisis which is still ongoing in the Taiwan Strait.
Although the CNP and the CCP cooperated against the Japanese occupation during World War II, the parties also started to fight each other after 1941.
Meanwhile, the US also established relations with the Communists while providing military support to the Nationalists led by General Chiang Kai-Shek. A new chapter was opened with the surrender of Japan in 1945.
The Soviet Union provided aid to the Communists by sending troops to Chinese territory, especially the Manchuria region where Japanese soldiers eventually surrendered.
There was a conflict between the nationalist Chinese and the communist Chinese until 1949, at the beginning of the Cold War.
The Chinese Civil War ended with a victory by the Communists on Dec. 7, 1949, with the Nationalists leaving mainland China and withdrawing to the nearby island of Taiwan.
Despite being de facto ruled by the Nationalists, Taiwan has always been claimed as the territory of mainland China.
Although the nationalist Chinese forces lost the Civil War, they represented China at the UN until 1971.
Despite its victory in the Civil War, Beijing continued its struggle to remove foreign powers from Southeast Asia.
China directly supported North Korea in the Korean War of 1950-1953 and Vietnamese forces in the First Indochina War between 1946 and 1954.
During the First Taiwan Crisis in 1954-1955 and the Second Taiwan Crisis in 1958, China captured some islands and proved its ability to deter the US, which supported Taiwan.
What is the US role in the Pacific?
The US faced two major challenges in the 1950s: Stopping the spread of communism across the world, and effectively deterring the Soviet Union.
Forced to take a step back in the Korean War, which ended in stalemate, the US started to fight against communist and nationalist movements in this region after France withdraw from the region then known as Indochina (modern Southeast Asia), including Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, in 1954.
But after 1965, the Vietnam War changed US policy and it began to seek options to solve the Vietnam problem.
Richard Nixon, who became US president in 1969, and his then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, worked to take advantage of the ideological, military, and economic divide between the Soviet Union and China. They also decided to use it as an opportunity for an “honorable” exit from Vietnam.
Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China contributed to China’s international reputation. With the Shanghai Declaration of Feb. 27, 1972, the US approved Beijing’s “One-China Policy,” which also gave it the right to claim territories in Taiwan.
The US policy of accepting the People’s Republic of China’s presence equally in the Asia-Pacific region remained until 2010.
Washington’s rhetoric against China and its relations with Taiwan began to change in 2010, when Barack Obama became president, with Hillary Clinton serving as his secretary of state.
In US foreign policy, China became a threat to US interests. June 2018 was a turning point for the US’ regional policies when it changed the name of the US Pacific Command to the US Indo-Pacific Command. This was the first step in the US policy to contain China.
AUKUS, an enhanced trilateral security partnership between Australia, the UK, and the US, which was announced in 2021 to provide nuclear submarine technology to Australia, was another move to contain China.
The US also heavily supports Japan’s rearmament program by casting off its post-World War II military restrictions.
Will the crisis between China and Taiwan be resolved?
In 1972, the US saw Taiwan as a tool to ensure the division of the communist bloc and found its concessions with the Shanghai Declaration reasonable.
However, in subsequent years West countries expected that China would evolve into a liberal political order and a free market economy, but this failed to happen.
China’s aggressive policies against pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong, the strengthening of the Chinese navy, the acceleration of aircraft carrier construction for global naval superiority, and the development of space missions changed Western policies.
The security of Taiwan has the potential to be used as a political tool by the US and NATO in the very near future to put pressure on Beijing.
The more dangerous scenario is that Taiwan could be used as a reason for conflict between the West and China, much like what is happening in Ukraine between the West and Russia today.
As long as China continues to push its global economic goals such as its Belt and Road Initiative in addition to investments to boost its military capabilities, Taiwan will remain on the list of the West’s most intractable problems.