By Regina Marthalia
The People’s Republic of China has been threatening to invade Taiwan for seven decades now. Today the fear is growing among analysts, officials and investors that China just might carry out that threat, thereby possibly triggering a war with the United States.
As China rises to superpower status, it has become increasingly aggressive in seizing territory to which it has laid some claim. This pugnacity has been observed in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and along its Himalayan border with India. While China has not made any actual moves to seize Taiwan or any part of it, this self-governing island of 22 million people that Beijing regards as its inherent territory, China’s rhetoric is clear-cut that it will resort to military force rather than allow Taiwan to be independent.
What is the basis for China’s claim to Taiwan? A bit of history is needed here.
In the 1890s, Japan invaded and occupied Korea and Taiwan, losing them only when Japan lost the Pacific War in 1945. Taiwan was thus still under Japanese control when the Republic of China (ROC) was established in 1912 as successor to the Qing Dynasty.
In 1927 the Chinese Communist Party launched a rebellion against the ROC government and civil war began. The Chinese Communist Party emerged victorious from that conflict and in 1949 Mao Zedong declared the birth of the People’s Republic of China (PROC). The ROC government, however, was not annihilated: it transferred its seat to the island of Taiwan, which Japan had relinquished four years earlier.
Two governments, one China
We therefore have a situation where two governments, the People’s Republic of China (PROC or more simply PRC) in Beijing and the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan, claim to be the legitimate government of the Chinese nation. Most other countries in the international community recognize the PRC as the Chinese government, but almost all of them, in any case, manage to carry out economic and socio-cultural relations with the Taiwan-based ROC.
Today in international conferences where the ROC is in attendance along with the PRC, the Taiwan-based government is referred to as “Chinese Taipei.” More often it is simply referred to, journalistically, as Taiwan. On the other hand, when the term used in international conversations is simply “China,” the reference, invariably, is to the PRC.
Both governments dream of reunification on their respective terms. Each has not ruled out the idea of invading the other but it is the PRC that appears to be in a position to carry out such a massive assault.
In recent weeks the Navy of the People’s Liberation Army (PLAN) increased its military exercises near Taiwan. This is, of course, ominous. In its public pronouncements, China has claimed that the military drills near Taiwan are necessary to protect its national sovereignty.
At the same time the PRC has alleged that the heavy presence of the US Navy in the South China Sea has upended stability in the area and Beijing therefore has no choice but to defend its interests. Although the United States is not officially committed—it has no legal obligation—to defend Taiwan against a Mainland China invasion, it would naturally regard such an attack as a threat to global security and would probably address it as such.
Saber rattling at sea
On several occasions recently PLAN warships “showed the flag” off Taiwan’s coast and its aircraft flew through Taiwan’s airspace at least twice during military exercises. Naturally these probing and provocative actions have generated much tension on the part of the ROC and did not escape the attention of the Pacific Command of the US Navy.
Taiwan’s military is no match to China’s. China has 2,000,000 active military personnel, while Taiwan has only 163,000. China has 3,330 combat fixed wing aircraft; Taiwan has only 568. China has 59 submarines; Taiwan has only four. China has 107 surface vessels; Taiwan has 26.
But the military capabilities of the United States have to be factored into the situation. Although it does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country, it supplies weapons for Taiwan’s defense and thus helps Taiwan maintain its status as a self-governing territory. The three-way relationship among the United States, China and Taiwan is potentially explosive and figures prominently in the calculus for every US president’s China policy, including that of Joseph R. Biden Jr.
On 20 January 2020, Joseph R. Biden Jr. will assume office as President of the United States. Among his priorities will be the task of restoring the status of the United States as leader of the Free World after four years of isolationism under President Trump. Under Biden, the US will need to strengthen the competitiveness of the American worker, mend fences with traditional allies, restore the standing of the US in the international community and, in general, assess the world as a fresh administration rather than revert to Obama-era policies by default.
In an op-ed on Oct. 22 in the Taiwanese-owned World Journal, the largest Chinese-language newspaper in the United States, Biden stated he would “stand with friends and allies” in Asia. “That includes deepening our ties with Taiwan, a leading democracy, major economy, technology powerhouse — and a shining example of how an open society can effectively contain Covid-19.”
Nowhere in that op-ed is there a clear guarantee that the US would automatically come to the defense of Taiwan in case of an invasion by China. In the US military this is called “strategic ambiguity.”
But by the actions and behavior of all US governments since the ROC government fled to Taiwan 71 years ago, China cannot assume that the US Navy will sit by with folded arms if and when the marines of the PLA starts landing on the beaches of Taiwan.
Over the decades the PLAN has vastly grown and improved but the US Navy remains the mightiest seaborne force in the world. China must also factor that into its calculus.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pinter Politik.