Increasing forays by its fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defence zone have sparked fears over China’s intentions vis-a-vis the tiny island nation that it considers to be its own. Experts say that the actions are of a piece with Beijing’s attempts to flex its military muscle as it looks to send out a strong message to the US and its allies in the Indo-Pacific. Here’s a look at the history of the China-Taiwan dispute and where things stand.
What Are The Chinese Incursions All About?
The Taiwan Strait has been witness to unprecedented Chinese military manoeuvring in recent days, as People’s Liberation Army jets have increasingly conducted large flypasts over Taiwan’s territorial waters, drawing condemnation from the island country over the “irresponsible provocative actions" that threaten the uneasy calm in the region.
An incursion on October 4 — this one involving about 56 aircraft, including nuclear-capable bombers — marked the fourth time in as many days that Chinese jets entered Taiwan’s defensive zone, reports said, adding that at least 150 fighter planes and bombers have by now been sent out by Beijing over an area that it claims as its own.
“China is the culprit for causing tensions between the two sides of the (Taiwan) Strait and it has further threatened regional security and order," said Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), its top body for formulating China policies. It added that Taiwan “will never compromise and yield" to threats even as it slammed China of “seriously damaging the status quo of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait".
The moves by Beijing, experts say, reflects its concerns over Taiwan asserting its independence even more strongly and are also meant as a warning to the US which, under President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump, has appeared to be more supportive of the Taiwanese stand against China. Beijing has repeatedly warned US against encouraging “Taiwan independence elements" even as US military commanders have talked about the possibility of a full-scale invasion of the tiny island nation by Beijing.
Isn’t Taiwan Already A Separate Country?
Well, yes, but the answer is not as simple as that. China regards Taiwan to be very much one of its own provinces that has broken away and has pledged to retake it sooner or later. On the other hand, Taiwan describes itself as a sovereign state with its own constitution, democratic form of government and a standing army. However, only about a dozen countries — the list does not inclide India — actually recognise Taiwan, which has also been kept out of the UN by China, which sits on its all-powerful Security Council (UNSC).
Even the US, Taiwan’s biggest backer, does not recognise it as a separate country though it maintains extensive trade ties with the country and also props up its defensive shield against China with the sale of military gear, including fighter jets and artillery systems.
But it was not always like that. In fact, at one time, it was the Kuomintang government led by Chiang Kai-shek, that was recognised by the UN and held China’s UNSC seat. However, in 1971, UN switched recognition to the People’s Republic of China that was under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party while the Taiwanese Republic of China was ousted from its membership.
How Did The Split Happen?
The territory known as Taiwan was at one time controlled by the Qing dynasty that ruled over the Chinese mainland. However, following a military defeat the island passed into Japanese hands in 1895. It was only after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War that ended in 1945 that the island went back to China, which at the time was under Kuomintang rule. However, in 1949, caught in a civil war against the Communist Party led by Mao Zedong, Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang fled China and moved to Taiwan, where they set up a separate government.
The Kuomintang government claimed to represent the whole of China and declared that it would return to and re-occupy the mainland. But the status quo has since continued and most Taiwanese at present are happy to regard themselves as a separate country that can coexist with China. However, its not a position that is acceptable to Beijing, which regularly threatens countries against extending recognition to Taiwan and has even put pressure on companies to list Taiwan as a part of China in their official communications.
Experts say that China fears an unequivocal declaration of independence by Taiwan although most Taiwanese, including current president Tsai Ing-wen already regard themselves as being a separate sovereign state without feeling any need for a further assertion of that status. In 2004, China passed a law that authorises it to use “non-peaceful means" against Taiwan if it tried to “secede" from China.
Since China does not recognise Taiwanese sovereignty, there are no official ties between Beijing and Taipei City and any engagement is carried on via informal channels. However, the two countries enjoy wide economic and people-to-people ties. Taiwan has invested billions of dollars in China and Taiwanese people own and run companies on the Chinese mainland.
Why Is The Taiwan Situation Important?
If you’ve bought an electronic gadget, say a smartphone, in recent years chances are that Taiwan provided a crucial input for its production. Taiwan, after all, is where more than 50 per cent of all semiconductor chips, which are the lynchpin of modern tech devices, are produced. The recent supply crunch in the supply of chips, due mainly to Covid-induced lockdowns, has shown how crucial the country is to global production lines.
As an article in The Atlantic magazine notes, if Beijing manages to annex Taiwan, “China would instantly become a Pacific power, control some of the world’s most cutting-edge technologies, and have the ability to choke off oil shipments to Japan and South Korea… [and] would likely be able to achieve its goal of forcing the US out of Asia".
While the US has withheld official recognition to Taiwan to avoid angering China, it has used ties with the country as a geostrategic leverage over Beijing in the Indo-Pacific region. Especially after the tariff wars commenced between Washington and Beijing under Trump, the US has stepped up on its ties with Taiwan. After he assumed office earlier this year, the Biden administration said that US’ commitment to Taiwan was “rock solid".