We’ve Had 40 Years of Peace In The Taiwan Strait, But What About Now?

by George Fang

The “iron curtain” between mainland China and Taiwan goes back to 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan to continue his regime, after losing the Chinese Civil War to Mao’s Communists. The most important year since was arguably the year 1979.

This year marked the end of the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis. After 30 years of crossfires, Mainland China stopped shelling the Quemoy and the Matsu Islands, and a 40-year period of “peacetime” began. This same year, the United States formally recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole government of China. It diplomatically chose Communist China over Taiwan, with which it shares a much more similar ideology: liberal democracy. The mainland opened its borders to the world, and has seen its economy boom ever since. Following these events, notable Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping implemented his plan of economic reform and his opening-up policy while pushing for the normalization of relations between China and the U.S. Deng also proposed his “One Country, Two Systems” policy, originally directed at the reunification of the two sides of the Taiwan strait. Up until 2020, we have only seen this policy practiced in Hong Kong and Macao,  but it faces formidable challenges. Taiwan, along with the other three of the “Four Asian Dragons,” Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, has marked an economic miracle for Asia. It achieved its economic growth peak in 1987: a remarkable 12.75% economic growth rate. Since 1979, this peacetime period of the Taiwan Strait shepherded an era of globalization and liberalism across Asia during the 1980s.

Ever since 1979, there has been more talks and fewer demonstrations  of force between the two sides. In 1991, the Strait Exchanged Foundation and Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits were established on both sides. While they were two non-governmental organizations, they aimed to foster communication between the two sides and indirectly exchanged messages from both governments. The very next year, an agreement dubbed the 1992 Consensus was reached between the two sides, recognizing that there is only one “China,” and that both mainland and Taiwan belong to the same “China.” Further demonstrating the thawing, the first direct flight between Taipei and Beijing took off in 2005. In 2010, the Mainland and Taiwan signed the Cross-Straits Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), aiming to sweep away obstacles to trade between the two sides. In 2015, Xi Jinping and then-President of Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou met in Singapore, the first time since 1949 that leaders of the two sides appeared in one photo-op. In 2018, the value of cross-strait trade had reached $150.5 billion.

Though the war between mainland and Taiwan has been made cold, people on both sides of the strait know that the possibility of a hotter war never fades away.

The key catalyst of a would-be hot war between the mainland and Taiwan has also changed during this 40-year period. Initially, the two sides wrestled with the question of how mainland and Taiwan could be united. Would they be ruled under Chang Kai-shek’s democratic nationalists or Mao’s communists? The key question changed as the ideology of democracy permeated into the society of Taiwan over the past 40 years, and people have begun to discover another identity beside being Chinese: Taiwanese. Today, less and less people in Taiwan agree with the mission that both sides of the Taiwan Strait should be united, especially after Tsai Ing-Wen, the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party and a proponent of an independent Taiwan, was elected president in  2016, only one year after the historic Singapore meeting between Ma and Xi. 

But on the other side of the strait, people in mainland China are still calling for reunification. From its appearance in textbooks to national propaganda, reunification has become an imperative for the mainland amid declining passion for it in Taiwan. China stopped issuing visas for its citizens traveling to Taiwan last year. After President Tsai’s re-election victory this past year and Alex Azar’s visit to Taiwan, the highest official coming to Taiwan ever since 1979, the Chinese made a countermove by preventing mainland-Chinese students from going to study in Taiwan. At the same time, the U.S. changed its expected policy of engaging with China, which it had held consistently since 1979. It no longer bets on political change in China by integrating China into the already existing international institutions and making China take more responsibility on international affairs; instead, the US now takes on a competitive approach, if not a containment-oriented one on China. And now Taiwan has yet again entered the wrestling ring between the two great powers. Tension has arisen and we are left with an uncertain future.

Will there be a war? It certainly seems possible. Tsai’s re-election victory has upset Xi, who has a plan to bring  Taiwan back under his rule. Tsai’s rhetoric, such as denying the 1992 Consensus and tacitly supporting an independent Taiwan, has made Beijing more annoyed than ever. Taiwan’s success in battling with COVID-19 without a mass shutdown of cities has also agonized Beijing, which wants the world to know only of China’s success in containing the virus. Beijing has also made many moves to stop Taiwan from joining the WHO. More than ever, Beijing has touted its military force, trying to threaten Taipei and warn them to back off.

Between the US and China, Taiwan is an inevitable topic. If the two great powers were to start a war tomorrow, it would start in Taiwan. Henry Kissinger in his book On China revealed that during his meetings with Chinese leaders, Taiwan was a fundamental issue for China, and that there was no room for negotiation on the Taiwan issue. Such sentiments still hold today. Chinaregards Taiwan as an inseparable part of its territory. Its stance on Taiwan has always been firm. While Beijing has been following a realist logic over the past 40 years, Taiwan might be the only triggering point for Beijing to become irrational. If Taipei convinces Beijing that there is no possibility of a peaceful reunification, Beijing will be forced to adopt military actions in their mind.

In fact, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China already has the ability to invade Taiwan if necessary. It has deployed its most advanced hypersonic missile, the DF-17, along China’s southeast coast. Spending gradually more and more on defense, the PLA has been developing its military technologies for the past 40 years. Needless to say, there is a group of hawkish people within the Chinese military bureaucracy who can’t wait to show off their force and test their weapons out. Taiwan might well provide an opportunity for that.

But there’s more to a successful forced reunification than just defeating Taiwan’s military force. Taiwan’s military defence is backed by the U.S. military. The United States Seventh Fleet has a presence in the area. Under Trump, two major military sales have been made to Taiwan and U.S. navy vessels have crossed the strait at least seven times in the first half of 2020. What’s more irritating to Beijing is the fact that the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto US embassy in Taiwan, has recently announced its delivery of an Apache Helicopter to Taiwan, another sign of US military support to Taiwan. Taiwan believes that if the mainland wages a war against it, the U.S. will intervene and it will be a war with the US and Taiwan on one united side against China. In response, the PLA has invested heavily in weapons in recent years, especially in the navy, intending to ward off possible US intervention.

Aside from this, President Xi has indicated that he is determined to reunite the two sides during his term in order to leave a legacy, which is part of the reason why the term-limit clause for the Chinese president was recently deleted from the Chinese constitution—so he has time to reunify the country before he leaves. The current tension between the U.S. and China, as well as the increasingly sharp rhetoric coming from Taipei, might force Xi to speed up the process of reunification. It will make Xi embarrassed if Taiwan and the US come further together while he takes no countermeasures, and Xi doesn’t like to be seen as weak.

However, though China is on the brink of war, it will likely restrain itself from showing off its forces, and it better. Let’s see why.

After the introduction of the freedom-squashing National Security Law in Hong Kong, the foreign minister of mainland China, Wang Yi, visited five countries in Europe: Italy, Netherlands, Norway, France, and Germany. The trip sent a significant message to the world. Why? Because these five countries share one common character: they are in the liberal democratic West, specifically Western and Northern Europe. Usually, when the Chinese foreign minister visits Europe, he makes a stop at Eastern European countries, which historically have closer ties to communism, and thus China. Wang instead aimed to further the China-EU relationship, dispel the EU’s worry on Hong Kong, and draw the EU closer to China during the escalating conflict between US and China amid the pandemic and the trade war from last year. What was the result of this trip? Not a lot. The EU countries decided that they would not side with China, but also that they would not side entirely with the US either. Despite their strong economic ties to China, EU countries have expressed opposition to getting too close with China by repeatedly and explicitly addressing Hong Kong and the human rights abuses against the Uighurs in Xinjiang province.

If mainland China were to go to war with Taiwan, the international pressure imposed on Beijing would be enormous, no matter the end result of the war. The EU, with its ideology of supporting human rights, especially after condemning Chinese actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, would have no choice but to join the US against China. Tokyo and Seoul, longtime allies of the US, would also team up against Beijing. The only voices that might support Beijing would come from Africa and Eastern Europe, where China maintains regional political influence. Yet both of these regions have little diplomatic influence and small armies. 

One cannot realistically doubt that the PLA is equipped with the ability to achieve military success in an invasion of Taiwan. It even has the ability to defend itself from possible US military intervention by destroying US military bases in East Asia through the employment of missiles. But the big question really is: what’s next? What happens after annexing Taiwan? 

Strategy is different from military tactics. The latter only focuses on eliminating and controlling the enemies, while the former considers a much wider range of issues. What is the strategic victory for Beijing? A unified country? Maybe not, since the cost of ruling in Taiwan is high, as Taiwanese people, especially young people, would not support Beijing’s regime. Beijing has already witnessed how its “One Country, Two Systems” policy blunder stumbled in Hong Kong. How would China’s economy look by absorbing Taiwan though? Beijing with control over Taiwan would face sanctions and trade embargoes from the US, the EU, and their allies, similar to what they did to North Korea. China’s exports make up 20% of their GDP, and much of its employment depends on exports. There is too much to lose there. Beijing is so wary of this that it has been dabbling with the idea of “dual circulation,” which aims to cut its dependence on the global economy by improving domestic cycle of production, distribution, and consumption, which will be supported by “external circulation” of oversea markets. Yes, the PLA might have the ability to do many things, including challenging the US military in Taiwan, but what exactly is the point of doing so? There would be no significant strategic gain for Beijing, except for the fact that it would get Taiwan back. 

While it seems like a war is at stake, China should not and will not invade Taiwan if it were to act rationally. So far, Taiwan and China have been in a cold war defined by mere name-calling. Let’s keep it that way. After all, it’s the 21th Century, and a war is not a video game like Call of Duty. We’ve already witnessed the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Eventually, it is people who die, not merely regimes.