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Burning issue

China, Taiwan and the US: Will there be a war in the Taiwan Strait?


Nancy Pelosi's recent flight to Taiwan was followed in real time by almost three million people: in connection with the visit of the Speaker of the House of Representatives to the island, the Flightradar24 flight-tracking website even went offline on August 2.

After being in Taiwan for less than a day, Pelosi caused a real panic: The Chinese army immediately started military exercises near the island and the US sent four warships there, including the aircraft carrier, ‘The USS Ronald Reagan’.

Photo: Getty Images

The visit of the American official made a lot of noise: Nancy Pelosi is the third official in the state and the last visit by someone of similar seniority or significance was 25 years ago when Republican and US House Speaker Gingrich visited Taiwan in 1997.

It should be recalled that modern China was formed as a result of the confrontation between the Communist Party and the Kuomintang Party. When Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the opposing communists, was defeated and settled in Taiwan, it was the Kuomintang that proclaimed itself the legitimate representative of the Republic of China* (ROC; now Taiwan's official name). On the mainland, however, Mao Zedong came to power, proclaiming the People's Republic of China.

*The Republic of China was a state in East Asia that existed from 1912 to 1949 and included territories of mainland China as well as Mongolia and Taiwan. After 1949, the Republic of China has been partially recognised as in control of Taiwan Island and some small islands.

Since many countries have regarded the Chiang Kai-shek government as China's legitimate authority, Taiwan has long occupied China's seat on the UN Security Council. It did not pass to the Celestial Empire until the early 1970s, when the US decided to become allies with the PRC against the Soviet Union.

Much has changed since then, and the current China insists that "full reunification of the motherland" is inevitable, according to a white paper published August the 10th by the Office of the State Council of Taiwan Affairs and the Chinese State Council Press Office. In the bulletin, titled "The Taiwan Question and the Unification of China in a New Era", the Chinese government explains that it intends to create "a wide space for peaceful reunification", but also does not rule out that it will resort to a forceful scenario if more extreme measures are necessary.

Photo: Anadolu Agency

Although China has stuck to the "peaceful reunification" plan, the situation has become tense over the past six years. The current crisis is due to several factors at once:

First, the Democratic Progressive Party came to power in Taiwan in 2016, whose leader Tsai Ing-wen declared her intention to "defend the sovereignty and territory of the Republic of China" back in her inaugural speech.

Secondly, despite their ethnic origin, the majority of the islanders no longer identify with their continental neighbour. Whereas in 1995, only 20% of the population considered themselves Taiwanese. By 2018 that figure had already reached a confident 54.5% - and it only continues to grow with each passing year.

The US policy of strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan also brings tensions.

De jure, the country adheres to a one-China policy. At the same time, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, under which the US pledges to maintain the status quo, is perceived by the US establishment as both a legal basis for supplying US arms to Taiwan and a justification for protecting the young democracy if Beijing does resort to a scenario of annexation of its "breakaway province" by force.

Pelosi's visit is only part of the puzzle: the period from May to July has already been unusually turbulent, and the waters of the Taiwan Strait have become a zone of military activity on both sides.

For example, on May the 10th, an American missile cruiser Port Royal passed through the Taiwan Strait and on June the 25th, an American P-8A Poseidon military aircraft made a reconnaissance flight there.

Around the same period, the Chinese People's Liberation Army conducted three large-scale patrols of various kinds of troops in the waters as well as in the airspace around Taiwan.

All this was accompanied by strong statements from both sides: on the 23rd of May, Biden said that the PRC was "flirting with danger" and on the 28th of July, in an attempt to warn the US president about the Pelosi visit, the PRC leader told him "do not play with fire or you will burn yourself in it".

Given the increasing number of US government visits to Taiwan, China's reaction could go beyond the usual ways of expressing displeasure and condemnation of US government actions.

Photo: AFP

China is now a powerful, economically strong and very dynamically developing country, and therefore it would look weak to disregard such actions, especially on the eve of the 20th Party Congress in October, where China's leader plans to seek re-election for a new term.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that there are more arguments against launching a military operation than there are for it. The Celestial Empire's foreign policy is dictated primarily by its unwillingness to risk economic well-being, and therefore China is certainly not going to shoot itself in the foot: the Chinese economy is much more interconnected with the global economy than, for example, the Russian economy.

This means that the Chinese government would assess the expected benefits and downfalls very carefully before pursuing a forceful scenario for the return of Taiwan, as such, speculation by experts that a plane with Pelosi could be shot down is a clear exaggeration.

China would need to consider how to protect its financial system and economy from sanctions if it were to take such a step. Also unresolved, is the problem of semiconductors, which are in short supply worldwide: TSMC, which produces them, is based in Taiwan. Given the importance of TSMC not only for the region, but also for the world as a whole, China has no interest in creating a crisis on a global scale.

In other words, China is aware that its actions could lead to the collapse of the global economy. Therefore, the option of a quick solution to the Taiwan issue seems somewhat shortsighted, even in the eyes of China's leadership.

On the other hand, China has significantly reduced its own room for manoeuvre by making the return of Taiwan a national priority. Given that Xi Jinping recently stated that Taiwan should return to the "fold of the motherland" by 2049, the status quo is becoming less and less likely with each passing year.

Photo: Lin Jian | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

Nor should we forget the anti-secession law: back in 2005, China declared that the final reunification of the motherland is an internal Chinese affair that does not permit outside interference. That is why the current US actions look unacceptable to China.

It could also be said that China's reaction to Pelosi's visit was quite restrained: it stopped importing citrus fruits and two types of fish products from the island, banned shipments of sand to Taiwan and restricted flights around Taiwan for the duration of military exercises.

China's response clearly has not deterred the US: no sooner than when the anger associated with Pelosi's visit subsided was when another delegation arrived in Taiwan on August the 14th. This time five US lawmakers, led by Senator Ed Markey, visited to discuss trade, investment as well as security in the region.

China's defence ministry was quick to point out that the lawmakers' trip was a clear encroachment on Chinese sovereignty. In terms of the Chinese mentality, losing face is unacceptable. Time will tell how many more of such provocations China can endure.

By: Anastasya Tuhtina

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