In the latest development in the ongoing tensions over Taiwan, US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi paid a visit to the island at the start of August, prompting Chinese military manoeuvres and threats of invasion. This has brought into sharp focus the long-running dispute between China and Taiwan over who has rightful sovereignty over the territory.
Pelosi's visit was interpreted by Beijing as a sign of US support for the island's independence. This has led to renewed threats of military action by China. A recent statement by the country’s Taiwan Affairs Office said Beijing would “work with the greatest sincerity and exert our utmost efforts to achieve peaceful reunification”. The government has called on Taiwan to enter into talks.
“But we will not renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all necessary measures. This is to guard against external interference and all separatist activities,” the statement added.
Since Pelosi’s visit, the possibility of a Chinese military invasion has significantly escalated. Beijing has been increasing its military presence in the region and carrying out live-fire drills near the Taiwanese coast.
China's People's Liberation Army has about just over 1 million ground troops, 400,000 of them deployed in the Taiwan Strait region, whereas Taiwan maintains 88,000 active-duty ground forces. China also enjoys significant naval and air superiority over Taiwan, areas that it has been beefing up with the aim of being able to blockade the island
Meanwhile, Taiwan has sought to shore up its defences by purchasing military equipment from the United States, including $1.8 billion worth of arms in 2020. Taiwan has also been trying to strengthen its economic ties with other countries in the region, including Japan, in an effort to offset China's growing influence.
China has a long history of claiming sovereignty over Taiwan. The island was first brought under Chinese control in the 17th century during the Qing dynasty. In 1895, following the First Sino-Japanese war, China ceded Taiwan to Japan in the Treaty of Shimonoseki. However, at the end of the second world war in 1945, Japan renounced all claims to the island in the Treaty of San Francisco, and Taiwan was returned to Chinese control.
Since 1949, when the Communist party seized power in mainland China and established the People's Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan has been governed by the rival Republic of China (ROC). The ROC government fled to Taiwan after the Communist victory on the mainland and has been based there ever since. The PRC considers Taiwan a breakaway province that must be reunited with the rest of China, by force if necessary.
In recent years, Taiwan has been moving closer to declaring formal independence from China. This is something that Beijing vehemently opposes and has warned would be a "red line" that would not be tolerated. The Chinese government sees Taiwanese independence as a grave threat to its territorial integrity and national security.
The Taiwanese public is overwhelmingly opposed to unification with China. But despite rejecting the notion of "one country, two systems" as a basis for unification, most Taiwanese don't support formally declaring independence at this time either; they prefer the status quo of de facto independence.
"Conventional wisdom holds that a central element of Taiwanese identity is the idea that Taiwanese culture is distinct from Chinese culture," read a recent Brookings Institution study by four leading Taiwan experts. "But our new survey results challenge ethnocentric understandings of Taiwanese identity. We find that what unites Taiwanese people is not a rejection of Chinese culture, but a rejection of the PRC’s political system."
The current situation is highly volatile and unpredictable. "Beijing’s military exercises around the island have gone further than in the past and than many experts had expected," reported NBC News. Amanda Hsiao, senior analyst for China at the International Crisis Group, added: “It is possible we will see the staging of additional military exercises, at intervals, over the coming months."
But experts still point to several factors that may dissuade China from taking military action against Taiwan. These include: the risk of not winning a quick and decisive victory in a repeat of Putin’s war in the Ukraine; strong international opposition; the possibility of serious damage to the Chinese economy; the possibility of a broader conflict with the US; and the risk of losing popular support at home.
"Even if Beijing rules out peaceful reunification, the risks that would accompany an invasion are very high," wrote James Palmer in a recent article for Foreign Policy. "There is no guarantee of Chinese success if it invades Taiwan, even without direct US intervention. China hasn’t fought an actual war for 43 years, since its failed invasion of Vietnam in 1979; although it has invested heavily in its military, it has had no opportunity to test its doctrine or technologies."
Palmer added that "an invasion could be followed by an economic recession at home. Southern China’s economy is entangled with Taiwanese suppliers and capital, which would be ruined by a war."
The strong, unified economic sanctions from the west on Russia in the wake of its military operation in Ukraine appear to be serving as a deterrent for China. Reuters recently reported that Taiwan joined these sanctions hoping that "the world would sanction China if it invades".
"China is watching closely at how countries are reacting to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in preparation for the day it might make its own military move on Taiwan," wrote Yun Jiang in a recent article published on East Asia Forum. "It is not only considering the military response, but also the economic response. Seeing the economic and financial pressure being applied to Russia, China will want to make its economy more resilient to similar sanctions."
The ramifications of western sanctions on China, as the world's second-largest economy, would be far more devastating for the global economy than they were in the case of Russia. This is something that China is well aware of and would likely weigh heavily in any decision to launch a military operation against Taiwan.
The current state of affairs is not sustainable indefinitely. But China will continue to put pressure on Taiwan, whether through economic coercion or military intimidation, in the hopes of forcing unification. As China's economy grows and its military becomes more sophisticated and powerful, the pressure is only likely to increase.
The question is how long Taiwan can hold out against China's pressure. And whether the United States, which is legally bound by the Taiwan Relations Act to provide the island with the means to defend itself, will continue to do so in the face of Chinese opposition. In July, the Biden administration approved $108 million in arms sales to Taiwan, but critics say it's not enough for the island to defend itself against China.
“If there is any saving grace for Taiwan, it may be what it reflects about Washington's risk assessment: this lack of urgency in delivering offensive weaponries shows the US believes a Taiwan Strait conflict in the short term remains unlikely,” Wen-ti Sung, a lecturer at Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Program, told the Voice of America.