Despite assertive posturing by Chinese leaders, growing economic ties and the strength of American resolve make war over Taiwan very unlikely, Daniel Fazio writes.
At the recent centenary celebrations marking the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Chinese President Xi Jinping made the belligerent assertion that China and Taiwan would be ‘reunified’ on the Party’s terms. His words were an expression of the tensions between China and Taiwan that have afflicted the region since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.
Although the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s claim to sovereignty over the island of Taiwan ensures it will remain a major Asia-Pacific geostrategic challenge for the foreseeable future, this does not mean conflict between the PRC and the Republic of China (ROC) over Taiwan is inevitable, and the history of their relations suggests that beyond the political rhetoric and propaganda, cautious optimism is possible.
The Taiwan confrontation is a consequence of the CCP victory over the ROC regime in the Chinese civil war in October 1949, and the American intervention in the Korean War in June 1950. Having taken control of mainland China, Mao Zedong’s PRC forces were poised to defeat the remnants of general Chiang Kai-shek’s ROC regime, which had fled to the island of Taiwan.
When the Korean War broke out and United States and United Nations allies intervened on behalf of the Republic of Korea, American President Harry Truman also deployed the United States Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait, thwarting the PRC’s planned invasion of the island.
Although the United States and the PRC found themselves at war in Korea, the Truman Administration refused Chiang Kai Shiek’s offer of ROC troops to fight in the conflict. The United States was determined to limit the fighting to the Korean Peninsula and to avoid escalating tensions with the Soviet Union and the PRC, which could have led to a third world war.
Despite many close calls, the United States and China managed to avoid war over Taiwan in the wake of the Korean conflict, and in the meantime, the ROC government on Taiwan began forging an independent path from the PRC.
Despite strong protests from the PRC and the Soviet Union, the ROC on Taiwan retained China’s seat on the United Nations Security Council until 1971, and it maintained official diplomatic relations with the United States and many of its allies, including Australia.
When the United States recognised the PRC in 1972, it adopted the ‘One China’ policy, acknowledging the CCP as the sole sovereign government of China. The United States and its allies established diplomatic relations with the PRC and ceased official contacts with the ROC.
However, with the tacit agreement of the PRC, the United States and its allies maintained unofficial relations with the ROC on Taiwan.
Then in 1991, the PRC agreed to a compromise with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation that allowed China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to join as separate ‘economies’, rather than separate states. This was crucial for the ROC, as aside from the United States, it has important trade relationships with many Asia-Pacific nations, including Australia.
In 1996, the ROC held its first free presidential election, and PRC missile tests failed to intimidate Taiwanese voters from voting for the pro-independence candidate. Despite frequent PRC threats to subvert the island’s political process, the ROC on Taiwan as evolved into a strong democracy. Indeed, its success exposes the façade of the CCP’s self-proclaimed omnipotence.
PRC President Xi Jinping appears determined to ‘unify’ all of China under CCP rule in his lifetime. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says President Xi has a “deep sense of national mission” and is “very much a man in a hurry.”
The risk of a military confrontation over Taiwan remains real. Although the PRC has overwhelming military power, the ROC has modern armed forces capable of initially resisting the People’s Liberation Army, and strong allies.
The Taiwanese people, too, having seen the PRC crackdown on Hong Kong, will strongly resist any encroachments on their freedom.
But despite Xi’s rhetoric, the PRC is unlikely to force a conflict over Taiwan because of the likelihood of war with the United States and its regional allies. Indeed, Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso recently claimed that Japan would help defend Taiwan in such a conflict, further raising the stakes, though he later backed away slightly from his comments.
America’s policy of strategic ambiguity, for its part, has also been a deterrent to possible PRC aggression because of the American commitment to Taiwan’s defence. Even without an official pronouncement, the PRC knows the United States must defend Taiwan’s sovereignty, as it cannot allow a long-term ally to fall without irrevocably weakening America’s geostrategic position in the region and the Asia-Pacific alliance system it created in the 1950s.
The PRC will also likely refrain from conflict because it does not want to jeopardise the very strong relationship it has been building with the Taiwanese economy. Irrespective of some belligerent rhetoric, war remains very unlikely, as the PRC would lose much more than it would gain in attempting a military takeover of Taiwan.
Unlike Hong Kong, the island of Taiwan has never been under CCP control, and it has its own direct relationship with outside military allies, making it very difficult to imagine the CCP encroachment seen in Hong Kong happening there.
While conflict over Taiwan could indeed break out, this would only happen because of actions based on miscalculations or flawed assumptions from the actors involved. However, the United States and China have the mutual capacity and desire to prevent this happening.
As for the rest of the region, while tensions between the PRC and Taiwan remain, Australia and other Asia-Pacific nations must use their collective influence with Beijing and Washington to do all that they can to prevent conflict over Taiwan and war between the United States and China.