Taiwan: Strait and narrow

Taiwan is the great failure of Chinese politics, at least in the last 20 years. Even because it has been realized that on the side of Taipei the subject will not be resolved. How long will Beijing's patience last?

“Since the 19th Chinese Communist Party (PCC) Congress last year, Chinese military aircraft incursions into Taiwanese airspace have intensified, prompting analysts to consider how it is increasingly likely that China will invade Taiwan” – the situation seems dramatic, but who actually has not read such a thing? 

This excerpt, taken from a news agency, does not actually portray any increase in tensions in the Taiwan Strait. 

There have been, since 1949, more complicated times, some of them pre-rupture, but the truth is that China has always resisted invading what it considers to be a ‘rebel province.’ 

Will China ever do it? 

“China has made clear that its primary external objective is attaining the ability to apply overwhelming force against Taiwan during a conflict, and if necessary destroy American-led coalition forces. Consequently, the People’s Liberation Army considers the invasion of Taiwan to be its most critical mission, and it is this envisioned future war that drives China’s military build-up,” opines Ian Easton, a China affairs analyst, and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat (2017).  

Easton claims that Chinese President Xi Jinping told fellow Communist Party leaders in 2012 that China planned to invade Taiwan by 2020. Once again: the world read about this book last year and nothing happened. 

No one doubts that Beijing fervently seeks reunification – and by force if there is no alternative. 

The problem is not so much to subject the population of Taiwan to this design, albeit most are against assimilation, but the impact of the measure on the international community. Especially in a country called the United States of America.  

Chinese President Xi Jinping told fellow Communist Party leaders in 2012 that China planned to invade Taiwan by 2020 – Ian Easton

Although it does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taipei, the United States is the island’s greatest ally. Especially since the two parties signed the Sino-American Mutual Defence Treaty (partially replaced by the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979,) essentially preventing the People’s Republic of China from taking over the island of Taiwan. 

Every year, the Taiwanese head of state makes at least one visit to some of the countries with which the ‘rebel province’ has diplomatic relations – 17 at this time: in the last half year, three countries exchanged Taipei for Beijing: namely, the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso and most recently El Salvador. 

Two months ago, President Tsai Ing-wen travelled to and from Taiwan’s two diplomatic allies (Belize and Paraguay) in South America via the United States, the standard procedure for visits by Taiwanese Presidents to Latin America. 

China immediately urged the United States not to allow the two stopovers, with Taiwan deemed a “wayward province” of “one China,” ineligible for state-to-state relations, declaring: “We have consistently resolutely opposed the United States or other countries with which China has diplomatic relations arranging this kind of transit.” 

Prior to the recent trade war China regularly called Taiwan the most sensitive issue between it and the United States, with Beijing always complaining to Washington about transit stops by Taiwanese Presidents.  

China has been peeling away the number of countries which maintain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan amid a concerted effort to pressure Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party espouses independence for the island, a red line for China. 

Following the unilateral launch by Mainland China of new air routes flying over areas adjacent to the island of Taiwan in 2015 the Chinese and Taiwan air transport associations reached an agreement under which they committed to the safety of the air space of the Taiwan Strait. Just one of more recent episodes. Taiwan considers that this decision by the PRC “seriously compromised the security of Taiwan’s airspace and aroused alarm in the region.” 

Is Beijing becoming more impatient?  

It is important to take into account that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) controls both the presidency and the unicameral Legislative Yuan. DPP’s current official position on independence is that Taiwan “is an independent and sovereign country whose territory consists of Taiwan and its surrounding smaller islands and whose sovereignty derives only from the Republic of China citizens living in Taiwan (similar philosophy of self-determination)”, also considering “Taiwan independence to be a current fact, making a formal declaration of independence unnecessary.” 

Another reason for China to feel that there is a growing lack of business arguments: Beijing has had Hong Kong (and Macau) help persuade the people of Taiwan, but the emergence of feelings of independence, although residual, does not help to achieve this goal. 

The Four Reasons 

Xi Jinping revealed last July the four reasons he believes China-Taiwan ties will improve: 

  1. Promotion of cross-Strait ties is in the general interests of China, and improving relations conforms to the trends of the times. It is in the interests of both sides. 
  2. No matter the climate, people on both sides of the Strait remain united with shared nationality, shared cultural identity and shared emotions.
  3. Despite ups and downs, the trend is still to go forward.
  4. People in China and Taiwan share a common destiny, with the yearning for closer relations unanimous and unstoppable.