Taiwan: A Flashpoint Between China and the United States

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought hundreds of human casualties to it. On April 13, 2022, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), verified a total of 1,964 Ukrainian civilian deaths, including 161 children. According to the OHCHR, the real numbers could be higher. Besides, it has also caused destruction of civilian infrastructure, compelling more than 4 million Ukrainian people to flee their homes and seek refuge in neighboring countries during the first five weeks. But there are predictions that the losses, if China invades Taiwan will be bigger and even more grave than the Russo-Ukraine war. Ukraine is not a part of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), neither is Taiwan, but what different here is that, the US is obliged by a 1979 law which allows it to send its troops to Taiwan and support it militarily if in case, China decides to invade Taiwan. However, this treaty between the US and Taiwan remains ambiguous. Thus, the direct confrontation between the two major powers is definitely a matter of concern. It is not only going to have a spillover effect on the rest of the world, but it may affect the developing states of the region as well.

Apparently, China is being portrayed by the West as an aggressor state. China believes that Taiwan is its integral part or its breakaway province and will use force if it had to unify it. On the other hand, Taiwan claims itself as an independent state and free from any kind of external influence in exercising its sovereignty. The US, which considers itself as the “protectors of democracy” supports Taiwan over its stance, mainly through military means. 

Strategic Significance of Taiwan

Taiwan might be a small island with less population, but it holds strategic as well as economic significance in the region. Both states have their vested interests in Taiwan and is considered a gateway for maintaining control over the South China Sea. If unification with Taiwan becomes successful, China will be able to expand its naval forces to the East, thus, posing a threat to the US. 

Taiwan, also dominates the global production of computer chips. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TMSC) has over half of world’s market. Taking over Taiwan would give Beijing some control over one of the world’s most important industries. Besides, as mentioned earlier, unifying Taiwan would allow China to project its power in the western pacific, posing a major threat to the US military bases as far away as Hawaii and Guam, which is unpalatable to the US.

Assumptions from the Past

There were assumptions, before the Russo-Ukraine crisis took shape of a war, that its reliance on Russia with regards to the natural gas, the European Union might take sides with Russia and sideline the US. What happened is the opposite, and not only the European Union took sides with the US, but also condemned the Russian invasion on Ukraine and its people expressed solidarity with it on various social media platforms. So now, ironically, the European Union is not only receiving natural gas via Ukraine from Russia, but also condemning its invasion, totally ruling out the previously held assumptions. Russia might not stop supplying natural gas to the European Union because of the fact that billions of dollars is at stake. Such a huge project could not be overlooked by Russia. Likewise, if China believes that being a major trading partner to the world would give it some leverage and support from them over its unification with Taiwan, it might not work out the way China would want to. But China will definitely be learning from the on-going situation in devising a better policy to secure its interests. 

China’s Growing Nuclear Capabilities

China’s determination to achieve unification with Taiwan in the foreseeable future can be seen by the rapid advancement in its nuclear buildup. China believes, that if unification with Taiwan were to be achieved through military means, then only a stronger Chinese nuclear force could reduce or deter the US’ ability to use the threat of nuclear escalation to prevent China’s conventional military operations across the Taiwan strait. That said, Chinese president Xi Jinping ordered the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to develop a high-level strategic deterrent system, clearly indicates that China is enhancing its nuclear capability. Another potential driver of its increasingly nuclear build up is its interest in acquiring the capability of escalation management. In the pursuance of a more sophisticated nuclear capability, China would be able to conduct a symmetric and proportionate nuclear attack. As the US perceives the regional rise of China with its military modernization as a threat to the US and its Asian allies, China also feels threatened by the US longstanding predominance in the Asia-Pacific region preventing the rise of China.

How is China’s Rise Being Viewed?

Samuel Huntington in his book ‘Clash of Civilizations’ writes that “an unholy alliance between Confucian civilization and the Islamic civilization will pose a major threat to the West.” For the rest of the world, China’s rise may be viewed as a peaceful one, but for the US, its rise will always be a threatening one and why not. The US remained as a global hegemon since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. China’s rise will always be considered a threat to the US, because the competition has always been “ideological” in nature. The threat perception between China and the US might have been technical in nature from time to time, but it has always remained ideological at the very core. The Taiwan issue will remain a flashpoint between China and the US. China’s rapid economic rise has convinced the US that it will be just a matter of time when China becomes a global hegemon.

Whether China invades Taiwan sooner or later, remains highly unlikely. China certainly cannot undermine the US’ and the rest of the Western countries’ involvement and their support for Taiwan. Also, Taiwan under the international law is considered sovereign and independent of other authorities in the world. For China, to get unification with Taiwan remains highly challenging and problematic. Realistically, even if China invades Taiwan, it will have terrible consequences and a major loss of human lives on both the sides.  There might be regional or even global economic depression. Whether, it is the Russia-Ukraine crisis or China-Taiwan crisis, the West’s involvement, particularly the US’ is certain. There is a powerful African proverb which says that ‘When the two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.’ Likewise, in both the cases, whether it is the US versus Russia or the US versus China, it will be Ukraine and Taiwan that will suffer the most. Therefore, China is following a strategy of strategic patience when it comes to Taiwan issue to perhaps peacefully integrate Taiwan sometime in the future without necessarily having a major bloodshed.

[Photo by 毛貓大少爺, via Wikimedia Commons]

Muhammad Adil Khan is currently working as a Research Assistant in the domain of strategic affairs at Balochistan Think Tank Network (BTTN), Quetta.

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