Taiwan as a pawn in great power politics

Published on Sep 13, 2022 02:58 PM IST

The article has been authored by Ananya Raj Kakoti and Gunwant Singh, scholars of international relation, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Tensions between China and Taiwan reached new heights during Nancy Pelosi’s visit, this being the highest-level visit from the United States (US) visit in the last 25 years. Since the Chinese Revolution of 1949, Taiwan has been governed independently of China.(Reuters)
Tensions between China and Taiwan reached new heights during Nancy Pelosi’s visit, this being the highest-level visit from the United States (US) visit in the last 25 years. Since the Chinese Revolution of 1949, Taiwan has been governed independently of China.(Reuters)

Tensions between China and Taiwan reached new heights during Nancy Pelosi’s visit, this being the highest-level visit from the United States (US) visit in the last 25 years. The visit also became controversial because the relationship between China and the US is going through a rough patch. Many analysts and experts warned that this visit could lead to a serious crisis which could escalate into a military confrontation between the two countries. The timing of the visit came at a fragile moment, particularly in the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, towards which China’s response was considered to be tepid by the US.

The visit also came at a time when both the US and China are heading for crucial domestic political events. As stated in a report by Carnegie, a senior Chinese diplomat warned that as they approach the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Beijing would “resolutely respond to any scheme, rhetoric or act by the US side to contain China.” With Xi Jinping most likely securing a historical third term, he would be reluctant to back down from any international provocation, especially with the current domestic issues post-Covid-19 pandemic. The US is also heading towards its mid-term elections, with the ruling Democrats facing a multitude of challenges. Hence, with strong public support for the Taiwan issue in the US, Pelosi’s visit can be interpreted as an attempt to woo the swing votes. Domestic pressures in both countries are forcing them to take actions which could create an atmosphere where escalation will be rewarded and moderation is seen as a sign of weakness.

Since the Chinese Revolution of 1949, Taiwan has been governed independently of China. However, China considers Taiwan as a part of its territory with China’s official policy of eventually unifying the island with the mainland, even by using force if necessary. The Taiwan Strait separates the island from the mainland, which is officially known as the Republic of China. The island with its 23 million people, is governed by a democratically elected government which is independent of the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China.

China strongly believes that there is only ‘One China’with Taiwan as its integral part and that the CPC is the only legitimate party of China. This Chinese approach in international politics is referred to as the “One China” principle which seeks the gradual unification of the island with the mainland. The Chinese assert that an understanding known as the 1992 Consensus was reached between the CCP and Kuomintang Party (KMT), under which Taiwan is bound to unify with the mainland. However, both parties were in disagreement with the content of the consensus. Xi Jinping stated that the 1992 Consensus is an agreement that reflects that “the two sides of the strait belong to one China and would work together to seek national reunification.” For the KMT, the Consensus meant ‘One China, Different Interpretations’ with the Republic of China as the One China.

The tensions between the two further escalated since the election of Tsai Ing-wen as the Taiwanese president in 2016, as Tsai is not a supporter of cross-strait ties, unlike her predecessors. In response, China has been taking aggressive military actions which include violating the island nation’s sovereign territorial and air space.

In recent times, Taiwan has become the ground for the heightened great power politics between China and the US. The Taiwan issue has been a bone of contention since the 1950s, however, with President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, both parties decided to adopt the policy of rapprochement, while managing the Taiwan issue in order to avoid hostility. After establishing formal diplomatic relations with China in 1979, Washington maintained quasi-official relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan), under its new framework for dealing with the island nation, known as the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).

However, the continued cordial American ties with Taiwan in the following years are perceived by most Chinese as violating the spirit if not the latter of various commitments by the US to observe the One China policy. The Americans on their part consider the US-Taiwan relationship as prudent and positive which according to them provides the necessary stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing asserts that the US has failed to respect the outcome of the three US-China communiques, and believes that all the negotiations done by successive administrations were in bad faith. On the other hand, Washington states that the commitments it made to China were conditional and caveated.

Pelosi’s visit triggered a sharp response from China, as they launched joint military exercises around the island along with suspending and cancelling official military dialogues and cooperation channels with the US. The Taiwan Strait also saw ballistic missile launches, and air and naval operations, across the centre line and also at the end of Taiwan’s territorial waters. Taiwan also saw a huge spike in cyber attacks to the volume of ‘23 times higher than the previous daily records’.

Other than a military response, foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin in his Regular Press Conference on August 11, 2022, highlighted the following points, when asked about the white paper titled The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era.

He stated that Taiwan is a part of China and this is “an indisputable fact”. According to him, the aforementioned fact demolishes the argument that “the status of Taiwan has yet to be determined”. He also mentioned the commitment of the CPC and Chinese government for realising the complete reunification of China, “... leaving no room for separatist activities in any form”. This also shatters the wishful thinking of Taiwan independence by “foreign interfering forces” trying to split China. Further, he strongly reiterated that “Seeking independence with foreign support will go nowhere, and using the Taiwan question to contain China is doomed to fail.”

To attain regional hegemony, Taiwan is geopolitically the most critical chess piece for China. China’s ambition to become a global superpower can only be fulfilled once it has achieved regional hegemony. However, China despite its superior military capabilities has not been able to establish its control in the region where there are multiple powers at work. Against this backdrop, losing Taiwan would further distance China from achieving its goal.

For China, unifying Taiwan with the mainland, would not only fulfil a historical promise but will also raise its status as a great power in the Western Pacific region. However, despite China’s willingness to take over Taiwan, it would not be an easy feat given the fact that Taiwan has been outside its control for nearly 75 years. Moreover, even if it takes over Taiwan, keeping it under control will be a difficult task, given the strong nationalist sentiment prevailing on the island. The geographical continuity of the island, along with its topography can cause serious security challenges. Any strategic miscalculation on the part of China concerning the Taiwan question can prove to be counterproductive for its interests.

The Chinese however are certain that the prevailing strategic environment around Taiwan has tilted to its favour in the backdrop of the US being caught in a triangle entanglement — its setbacks in the Muslim world, its power struggle with Russia, and its policy of containing China in the Indo-Pacific. China thinks now is the right time to fulfil its One China dream.

Both the US and China have realised that their bilateral relations in the context of Taiwan are in a critical place, and both continue to blame each other for the current aggravated scenario. It can so happen that, in future, Pelosi’s visit could be identified as the tipping point for Beijing’s military occupation of Taiwan, which could ultimately lead to a greater US-China confrontation in the great power politics. However, in the present scenario, it is prudent for the world to closely monitor both the Chinese and American actions following the recent visit, to ensure that neither overstep the line, as this is the only approach that can help in avoiding any further escalation, which can potentially lead to an unwanted war in future. The only ray of hope is that there still exists official political communication channels at both executive and diplomatic levels between the US and China, hence, this possibility for a higher-level intervention could play a vital role in de-escalating and avoiding a full-blown war.

The article has been authored by Ananya Raj Kakoti and Gunwant Singh, scholars of international relation, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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