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In the past few years, Taiwan has been the occasion for another escalation of relations between the United States and China, which have exchanged diplomatic statements and military demonstrations. The results of the presidential elections held on the island in early 2024 gave a new impetus to discuss a possible direct conflict between the two countries. China considers Taiwan a part of its territory and offers it special terms of "accession". Instead, the island is a separate state, and the supporter of its independence won its last presidential election. To understand how this confrontation will affect the world and how similar it is to the situation in Ukraine, it is necessary to delve a little into history since the roots of the conflict are hidden in the events of the first half of the 20th century.
From Empire to Chiang Kai-shek
The island of Taiwan was part of the Chinese Empire for over three centuries, beginning in 1683. After China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, it was handed over to Japan. But in the same year, it had to capture it with battles because the local population and Chinese officials who remained on the island did not recognize it as belonging to Japan and proclaimed an independent state — the Republic of Formosa. Meanwhile, after the defeat in the war with Japan and the capture of several cities on its territory by European powers, the Chinese Empire was weakening, which led to rebellions and, as a result, its fall in 1912. China was declared a republic, but it did not bring stability: over the next few decades, several military mutinies, civil wars, and Japanese intervention swept through the country, which resulted in the occupation of the eastern part of China. After Japan's surrender in 1945, its troops were withdrawn from Taiwan, and the island was occupied by the Army of the Republic of China, led by the right-wing, conservative, anti-communist Kuomintang (literal translation — the Nationalist Party) led by Chiang Kai-shek.
In mainland China, a civil war raged between the Kuomintang (which was supported by the US) and the Chinese Communist Party (which was supported by the USSR). After the withdrawal of Japanese troops from China, it continued and ended with the victory of the Communists led by Mao Zedong at the end of 1949 and the proclamation of the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland territory. The Kuomintang, together with its loyal troops and civilians, evacuated to Taiwan and called its state the Republic of China (ROC), seeking to extend jurisdiction to mainland China as well. Since then, the long-term conflict around Taiwan has begun.
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After the Chinese Civil War defeat, the Kuomintang established a military dictatorship and a one-party regime on the island. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was the sole ruler. The party relied on mainland Chinese immigrants who moved to Taiwan with them. Their share in the population of Taiwan is slightly more than 10%. The official language of the island state entity was declared to be Northern Chinese, which was native only to the immigrants. Martial law was introduced, and any manifestations of opposition and disobedience were harshly suppressed. These events were named "white terror". The United States of America provided the Republic of China with military support to prevent the PRC from invading and seizing the island of Taiwan.
"Two Chinas" or "One China"
Both Beijing and Taipei recognized themselves exclusively as the legitimate authority in all of China — on the mainland and in Taiwan. Therefore, there were "two Chinas", and it was the legitimacy of only one of them — the one with the government on the island that the Kuomintang party insisted on.
From 1949 to 1971, the international community perceived the Republic of China as the legitimate authority of the entire country. It was one of the founders of the UN and had a seat on the Security Council. Over time, after the sharp deterioration of the PRC's relations with the USSR and the beginning of the gradual economic liberalization of Communist China, its relations with the United States and other Western countries began to improve gradually, which led to the replacement of "one China for another" in the UN in 1971. This exceedingly complicated international relations for the Republic of China, as the PRC proclaimed the "one China policy", which means that foreign countries cannot have official diplomatic relations with "both Chinas" simultaneously and must choose between the PRC and the Republic of China. Communist China resorts to diplomatic actions and sometimes even to economic sanctions against those states that still dare to have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. One can recall Lithuania, which opened a diplomatic mission of the Republic of China in 2021in Vilnius — and the PRC introduced trade restrictions on Lithuania. This policy of the People's Republic of China has led to the fact that now Taiwan is officially recognized by only 12 countries in the world, among which there are no large countries with a high level of economic development. Other states (including the PRC) maintain relations with Taiwan through unofficial liaison agencies and representations.
In the 1970s, the Republic of China began reforming. Since the early 1990s, after changes in the Constitution, it has not officially given up its claims to the whole of China, but it does not use such rhetoric and "does not dispute the fact that the PRC controls mainland China." Both countries adopted the so-called 1992 Consensus, recognizing that China is a single country with different governments and political systems. However, Taiwan applied to join the UN more than a dozen times (which the PRC opposed) while not declaring independence (because it considers itself China). The People's Republic of China proposes a "one country, two systems" unification model for Taiwan, allowing Taiwan to maintain its own political and economic policies within the framework of a unified China under the PRC’s presidency. Political parties in Taiwan also have different views on mainland China. For example, the Kuomintang advocates for unification under the leadership of Taiwan (and leads the corresponding coalition), and the Democratic Progressive Party advocates the declaration of independence (and leads another coalition).
From 1949 to the present day, several episodes of military tension between the PRC and the Republic of China (Taiwan) have escalated into hostilities. They have been called "crises in the Taiwan Strait". The Republic of China maintained its power in several islands off the coast of China after the civil war. The main events unfolded due to these islands’ status, and the PRC managed to take control of two island groups in 1955. The US provided military and diplomatic support to Taiwan in all these episodes.
In 1955, the United States and the Republic of China signed a bilateral "Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty", which provided the United States would protect Taiwan against possible aggression by the PRC. After the formal severance of diplomatic relations between the United States and the Republic of China in 1979, the United States Congress unilaterally passed the "Taiwan Relations Act", which, although was not formally an intergovernmental treaty, it had confirmed the obligations of the United States to ensure the defense of the island, assumed in 1955.
Democratization and the Taiwan independence movement
From the time the Kuomintang took control of the island in 1947, Taiwan was under martial law for the next forty years. For most of those years, the Taiwanese people suffered repression, persecution, and deprivation of political rights. The "White Terror" began in 1947 with the harsh suppression of protests against the incoming Kuomintang government. Most Taiwanese (about 85%) are descendants of immigrants from southern China who moved to the island mainly in the 17th-19th centuries. They have their own language (Taiwanese Hoklo), which differs significantly from the official Northern Chinese. Only after the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975 did the political regime of Taiwan begin a gradual liberalization.
At the end of the reign of his eldest son, Jiang Jinggo, in 1987, martial law was lifted on the island. (Jiang Qinggo studied in Moscow in the 1920s, lived with Lenin's sister, and even took her surname Yelizarov; he worked in the 1930s and was arrested in 1937, after which he returned to China. He was an activist of the left wing of the Kuomintang and even a member of the Anti-Communist League. He distinguished himself by curbing communist movements on the island and conducting reforms. — DM’s note). A year earlier, the first oppositional Democratic Progressive Party emerged, which opposed the "two Chinas" principle. It renounces the claims to the right to be called the sole power of both Taiwan and the People's Republic of China and advocates Taiwan's independence. During the reign of Li Denghui, the first Taiwan native at the head of the Republic of China, the country began to move towards real democracy. At first, he conducted elections to the parliament ("legislative Yuan") to replace its deceased members, and in 1996, the first democratic presidential elections were held, which was won by Li Denghui. Although he was a representative of the Kuomintang party, which initially considered Taiwan a part of China, Lee supported the island's independence. He set a course for "Taiwanization" — the development of a Taiwanese identity separate from China, the promotion of greater political participation for the island's indigenous population, the development of the Taiwanese language, etc.
As a result, in 2000, for the first time in Taiwan's history, a president from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected, Chen Shuibian, who served two terms until 2008. Some Kuomintang party officials accused Li Denghui of splitting the party and secretly supporting the DPP. As a result, he left the Kuomintang and founded his own party, the Taiwan Solidarity Union, which openly advocated independence and entered into a coalition with the DPP. Therefore, the politics of Taiwan has become divided into the "big green coalition" led by the DPP, which gravitated towards a separate "Taiwanese" identity and independence of the island as the ultimate goal, and the "big blue coalition" — the Kuomintang party and its political allies, who still consider Taiwan to be China, just with a different political system. Despite the historical enmity with the Chinese Communist Party, the latter is considered more inclined to dialogue and understanding with the PRC. However, they cannot be called supporters of the unification of China on communist terms. From 2008–2016, the president of Taiwan was the representative of the Kuomintang, Ma Ying-jeou; under his rule, relations with the PRC significantly improved, and tensions have relatively subsided. He was the first and only president of the Republic of China who personally met with the leader of the People's Republic of China.
In 2016, Tsai Ing-wen, a representative of the PPP who supports the island's independence, became the president of Taiwan again. During her two terms (until 2024), she initiated several economic reforms, increased defense spending, and made the Taiwanese languages Hoklo and Hakka, as well as 16 languages of aboriginal peoples, national. The president pursued a policy of reducing economic dependence on the People's Republic of China and developing cooperation with the countries of Southeast Asia and the Pacific region. She pursued a course to enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership under the auspices of the United States. Taiwan's relations with the People's Republic of China deteriorated significantly during her presidency.
Asian tiger with microchips
One of the main reasons why the conflict over Taiwan is of such great importance for the whole world and the two "great powers" — the USA and the People's Republic of China — is the level of its economic development. Taiwan ranks 21st in terms of nominal GDP and GDP calculated at purchasing power parity and 14th in GDP per capita. The development of the Taiwanese economy began during the Japanese occupation. The island was a raw appendage of the Japanese Empire, yet the railways and hydroelectric power stations were built, and agriculture developed. After the Republic of China’s army retreat to Taiwan, part of the gold stock and capital from the mainland ended up on the island. This and American financial aid and investment laid the foundation for the "Taiwanese economic miracle". The island became known as one of the four "Asian tigers". Its main economic specialization is the production of microcircuits (semiconductors) used in all electronics. Taiwan produces over 60% of the world's semiconductors, including more than 90% of the most modern and high-tech ones. The country also ranks 9th in the world in developing the petrochemical industry, with highly developed agriculture, textile, food, and aerospace industries. Taiwan also has a powerful military-industrial complex, banking sector, and foreign trade. The country joined the World Trade Organization and other trade organizations under the name "Chinese Taipei", and the almost complete lack of international diplomatic recognition does not significantly affect its trade relations with other states.
At the same time, Taiwan has close trade ties with mainland China, which accounts for most of the island's exports. Taiwan is also China's largest trading partner of all countries. In recent years, Taiwan's authorities have been diversifying exports, which reduces dependence on the PRC, but the countries still maintain strong economic relations.
Aggravation of relations with the PRC and the presidential elections
In recent years, the PRC has intensified its aggressive rhetoric and increased the number of provocative military maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait. A sharp escalation of the confrontation over Taiwan occurred in 2022, when the then Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, officially visited the island. It caused an extremely sharp reaction from the PRC, which began large-scale military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. Chinese planes repeatedly violated Taiwan's airspace, and the United States received threats of a military response due to this visit through informal channels. After all, it did take place, but it led to the introduction of economic sanctions by the PRC against Taiwan and Nancy Pelosi personally. Since then, international tension around Taiwan has not subsided. The PRC uses various tactics of hybrid war and pressure on the island: encouraging rhetoric about the possible unification and "unity of the Chinese nation", threats to start hostilities, blackmail, disinformation, cyber-attacks, and attempts to split Taiwan from within by political means, etc. Some researchers call this "suppression tactics".
Taiwan's presidential and parliamentary elections in early 2024 will determine the island's future political course and its relations with the PRC. Mainland Chinese President Xi Jinping stated in his New Year's address that Taiwan "will definitely be reunited" with the PRC. Chinese propaganda emphasized that the Taiwanese should elect a candidate from the Kuomintang so there would be peace and war would not break out. The People's Republic of China has long maintained that any attempt to declare Taiwan's independence will mean war.
Lai Tsingde won the presidential elections with a result of 40.05%; he is a candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party who was a vice president during the second presidential term of Tsai Ing-wen. Before, he was the prime minister of Taiwan. Like his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, he supports Taiwan's independence as the ultimate goal and is an opponent of rapprochement with China. The Chinese authorities call him a "troublemaker" and a "dangerous separatist". At the same time, like Tsai Ing-wen during her rule, he does not plan to declare independence, emphasizing that Taiwan is already an independent state called the Republic of China.
The People's Republic of China counted on nominating a single candidate from the opposition parties: the Kuomintang and the Taiwan People's Party. Negotiations on this were conducted through the mediation of the pro-Chinese ex-president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, but ultimately failed. Hou Yui, a candidate from the Kuomintang, won 33.49% of the vote, and Ke Wenzhe from the TNP won 26.46%. Presidential elections in Taiwan are traditionally held in one round.
The parliamentary elections brought the DPP 51 seats, the Kuomintang — 52, and the Taiwan People's Party — 8 seats, so the formation of the majority depends on the latter. It is unknown yet whose side Ke Wenzhe will take, as he has been remembered for his controversial statements during the election campaign. However, it is already clear that the parliament, where the largest faction is the Kuomintang, can become a restraining factor in implementing President Lai Tsinde’s policies.
What will happen next with Taiwan?
It is difficult to predict what awaits Taiwan. Clearly, the PRC will continue its hybrid pressure to gain control over the island, proclaiming the principle of "one country, two systems". One cannot exclude a forceful scenario since mainland China is preparing for hostilities. However, some experts say that a war in 2024 is unlikely. It is possible only under particular force majeure circumstances and reasons or under the condition that Taiwan declares independence, which even the PPP is unlikely to do.
In addition, the PRC has not yet exhausted its political and economic levers to force Taiwan to start negotiations on reunification. A strong argument for the Taiwanese against unification with the PRC on such terms is the events in Hong Kong in recent years. There, the Chinese authorities are gradually narrowing the political autonomy of the region, introducing censorship in the media and suppressing all democratic protests by force. Therefore, it is already known how attempts to unify with mainland China will end.
One of the key points that will affect the island’s fate will be the United States’ position. How seriously are the overseas partners ready to join the island's defense in case of Chinese aggression? Despite the substantial military aid, the PRC has a clear advantage over Taiwan in human resources, technology, and economic size. The big question is whether the US is ready to commit its own military forces to defend Taiwan, especially in the context of the American elections in November 2024.
It is worth understanding that the PRC's war over Taiwan due to the production of semiconductors for the whole world on its territory can cost about 10% of the world GDP: this is more than losses during pandemics, the global banking crisis, and even the war in Ukraine. Both mainland China and the United States would be affected by it, not to mention the island itself, whose economy could be destroyed. According to Bloomberg, China could lose up to 16.7% of its GDP in the event of a military invasion, and the US could lose up to 6.7% if it intervenes in the conflict.
Therefore, the PRC will seek to annex Taiwan to preserve its economy and human resources peacefully. It is also crucial in the context of the latest reports of severe corruption, which has affected China's People's Liberation Army. However, the threat of war in the long term remains high.
For Beijing, the existence of Taiwan is a constant irritant, and it seeks to conquer the island at any cost. Like Moscow wants to conquer Ukraine. China and Russia are similar in this.