Cross-strait relations: Tensions between Taiwan and China

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China's president Xi Jinping and Taiwan's incumbent president, Tsai Ing-wen

The historical backdrop of Taiwan's relationship with China is rooted in the Chinese civil war. From economic ties to military posturing, the dynamics between Taiwan and mainland China have been marked by contention and the possibility of “One China” doesn’t seem to exist.

Chinese civil war

Taiwan remained a Japanese colony for half a century after China's defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War. Following the defeat of Japan in World War II, China’s Nationalist government, led by the Kuomintang (KMT), took control of Taiwan. Not long after, the Nationalists which also ruled mainland China under the Republic of China (ROC) were attacked and defeated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the Chinese Civil War which led to the Nationalists retreating to Taiwan in 1949. CCP took power and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing, China.

During this period, the U.S. supported Taiwan economically, and it now operates independently with its government and a population of twenty-three million people, though recognition is limited.

Mainland China since then has vowed to unify Taiwan with mainland China.

Cross-strait tensions

Mainland China insists on the "One China" principle, saying there’s only one China, considering Taiwan as part of its territory and itself as the sole legitimate government. They aim for Taiwan's eventual reunification with the mainland and claim that the 1992 Consensus binds Taiwan to this idea, even though there is disagreement on its content.

Taiwan rejects reunification and seeks independence. Despite Taiwan's push for independence, Mainland China remains committed to reunification and has intensified efforts to bring Taiwan under its control, saying it has not ruled out force in achieving this goal.

"One China" possibility

Illustration shows Globe, Chinese and Taiwanese flags
A globe is seen in front of Chinese and Taiwanese flags in this illustration, August 6, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/file photo

In the 1980s, relations between Taiwan and China began to improve as Taiwan eased restrictions on visits and investments in China. In 1991, Taiwan officially declared an end to the war with China. However, China proposed the "one country, two systems" model, offering significant autonomy to Taiwan under Beijing's control, a proposal that Taiwan rejected.

President Tsai, who took office in 2016, disputed the existence of the 1992 consensus and increased defense spending, reaching a record budget of nearly $17 billion for 2022.

China has since heightened military measures, including frequent patrols and naval displays around Taiwan. Taiwan reported a surge in cyberattacks from China, accusing Chinese groups of hacking into its government agencies. China also implemented various diplomatic and economic pressures on Taiwan and its international partners including suspending cross-strait relations, restricting tourism to Taiwan and intimidating countries that have ties with Taiwan, emphasizing its proposal for reunification under the "one country, two systems" formula and maintaining the option to use force if necessary.

In a 2019 speech, China’s President Xi said, "We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means.”

The likelihood of a China-Taiwan War

The fact that China hasn’t ruled out using force to achieve Taiwan’s “reunification” raises concerns about the likelihood of war. However, experts hold differing views on the likelihood and timing of a Chinese invasion. Some experts point to 2049 as a critical date, given President Xi's emphasis on achieving the "Chinese Dream" by then.

Regardless, The People's Liberation Army (PLA) has prioritized preparing for a Taiwan contingency, and Taiwan has been a significant driver of China's military modernization

Can Taiwan defend itself against China in the breakout of a war? Taiwan may face challenges considering China’s defense spending, estimated to be around twelve times that of Taiwan.

President Tsai has however allocated a record budget of over $19 billion for 2023 in defense spending. The U.S. under President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump has also expressed a commitment to come to Taiwan's defense if attacked by China.

Hou Yu-ih, a candidate for Taiwan's presidency from the main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT), gestures to his supporters
Hou Yu-ih, a candidate for Taiwan's presidency from the main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT), gestures to his supporters at a campaign event in New Taipei City, Taiwan January 5, 2024. REUTERS/Ann Wang

On January 9, China issued a threat of additional trade measures against Taiwan, escalating tensions ahead of elections on the island. Taiwan accused Beijing of engaging in "economic coercion", and election interference that includes military activities and expressed displeasure over a surprise Chinese satellite launch conducted in its airspace.

The situation reflects heightened political and economic tensions between the two sides and as it reaches its peak, the world closely watches and holds its breath in anticipation of the next chapter.

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