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  • Writer's pictureDanielle Uehara

Tensions Rise: Taiwan, China, and U.S. Involvement

Tensions have recently escalated between China and Taiwan. (Martin Sanchez/Unsplash)

The relationship between China and Taiwan (officially the Republic of China) has always been shaky. However, recent events have led to an increase in conflict between the two powers after about 70 years of fluctuating tension. Other countries have involved themselves in this conflict, one of the most prominent being the U.S.

The Importance of Taiwan to the U.S.

There is a strong relationship between the U.S. and Taiwan. The two powers are both leading democracies and technological powerhouses, and they share the same values, maintaining a robust unofficial relationship. The U.S. has deep commercial and economic links with Taiwan, as well as a strong people-to-people tie. Through 2019, travel from Taiwan to the U.S. increased by 70 percent. Leading up to the pandemic, Taiwan consistently sent more than 20,000 students to the U.S. to study abroad. Since 1957, the Fulbright Program has been helping individuals to study and teach in Taiwan or the U.S. In fact, 1,700 individuals were supported in their studies in Taiwan and 1,600 were supported during their studies in the U.S. In Taiwan, Americans are given the opportunity to study Taiwan’s language and culture. Taiwanese people that make their way to the U.S. are able to pursue a higher education and are provided with opportunities to teach Mandarin.

The U.S. and Taiwan consistently work together in other fields such as health, education, science, and technology. The two countries have worked together to research thoracic cancer, improve public health, conduct atmospheric research, and collaborate on preventative medicines. They have collaborated in nuclear science, meteorology and environmental protection as well as the advancement of democratic values.

A good relationship with Taiwan is vital to the U.S. as Taiwan is part of a geographical chain of islands and peninsulas, an important trade route. If China were to take over Taiwan, the Chinese fleet would acquire a narrow passage to the Pacific Ocean. It is vital to the U.S. that this chain of islands remains friendly to their activity because of their crucial role in U.S. foreign policy.

Not only is maintaining this relationship vital geographically but also economically. Taiwan is eighth on the U.S. trading partner list; similarly, the U.S. is second on the Taiwan trading partner list. In 2020 alone, Taiwan invested a cumulative $137 billion in manufacturing, wholesale trade, and depository institutions. This provided 21,000 jobs in the U.S. and about $1.5 billion in U.S. exports.

It is also important to maintain a sturdy and healthy relationship with Taiwan because it is one of the leading countries in technological advances. Taiwan produces about 65 percent of the world’s microchips. If China were to take over Taiwan, the U.S. would be limited in microchips and the use of important trade routes.

Is Taiwan a Country?

Taiwan is part of a chain of islands roughly 100 miles off of the southeast coast of China, most known for its high tech industry. In the 1990s, the islands made a peaceful transition to become a democracy. Many claim that Taiwan is a part of China, but this disagreement has long proven to be a complex and controversial issue.

After World War II, the Japanese relinquished control of Taiwan. After the Chinese Communists defeated the Republic of China’s (ROC) government in the Chinese Civil War (1945–1949), the Chiang and Kuomintang political parties fled from China to Taiwan and other islands. Although most of the population of Taiwan are from China, most identify as Taiwanese and see Taiwan as a separate country from China. However, only 13 other countries recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country. At the end of the day, it depends on whom you ask.

More confusion could arise because China has placed a lot of diplomatic pressure on other countries to not recognize Taiwan or imply that it is distinct from China. Nonetheless, many believe that Taiwan is its own country because it fulfills many of the “requirements” of being an independent country: it has its own territory and population, government, army, economy, currency, and recognition as a country by other states.

Building Tension

Tensions between Taiwan and China have been building since a couple decades after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. The PRC considers itself the sole legitimate government of China, claiming Taiwan and the Penghu Islands as part of their territory under the One China principle.

One of the beliefs of the One China principle is that China and Taiwan should not be two separate countries. Not long after the founding of the PRC, trade, travel, and communication were mostly cut off between Beijing, China and Taipei, Taiwan. China military jets would often fly over Taiwan to show off the extensive Chinese military.

In the 1980s, a period of relative peace began. Private visits, indirect trade, and investments were allowed between the two. In 2015, the relations between China and Taiwan reached a peak. The major event that marked the peak was a meeting between the heads of Kuomintang of China (KMT) and the Communist Party of China (CCP) in Singapore.

However, tensions began to rise the following year. Many voters were concerned because they felt that under the KMT government, Taiwan was moving too close to China. As a result, Tsai Ing-wen of the traditionally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the election for president of the Republic of China in a landslide. Under Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, China has been pushing its foreign policy. There has also been a decimation of democracy in Hong Kong under Xi, leading many people in Taiwan to fear they may be the next people to face the same fate as they would be under Beijing’s rule.

Hong Kong is a relatively different city compared to the mainland of China because it was a British colony, it had a democratic system of government, a relatively free press, and a culture deeply influenced by England. However in 1997, the People’s Republic of China took control of Hong Kong. The People’s Republic of China allowed Hong Kong to maintain its democratic government for at least 50 years. Despite this, much tension built up between Hong Kong’s population and the mainland. Over the years, mainlanders have taken control of the city’s major media outlets and censored or downplayed negative stories about China’s central government. Many in Taiwan fear that China will take over and limit the people’s freedom just like they did in Hong Kong.

Recent Conflict

Most recently there has been an uproar in military activity over Taiwan. On June 15, 2021 alone, China flew 28 fighter jets toward Taiwan, forcing them to deploy combat air patrol systems. China has also sent jets such as J16, J11, and bombers to fly over Taiwan. This military display by China has been acknowledged in statements from G7―an organization of some of the most economically advanced and democratic countries―as the U.S. and E.U. have been promoting security across the Taiwan Strait and Indo-Pacific. Zhao Lijian, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, believes that the G7 has no rights to interfere with China’s internal affairs.

In October 2020, the U.S. approved military deals to encourage diplomacy. Xi Jinping has called for the end of animosity, and student exchange programs have since been stopped. In recent months, the Kiribati islands left Taiwan’s side and joined China’s. According to Kiribati President Taneti Mamau, the reason is that “[China] is a big power with much more resources” than Taiwan. During COVID, the U.S. helped Taiwan by sending three senators to donate 750,000 vaccine doses. In recent weeks, Biden has announced that the U.S. will help Taiwan if they are attacked by China. However, the White House has been quick to backtrack on this statement as the U.S. is officially part of the One China policy.

Looking Ahead to the Future

The main goal of the U.S. is to prevent a war in Asia. Despite this, President Biden has stated three times that the U.S. would intervene and side with Taiwan if China were to invade Taiwan. As expected, Beijing has reacted angrily to this statement, accusing the U.S. of “playing with fire.”

According to Taiwan’s Defense Minister, by 2025 China will be able to mount a “full-scale” invasion of Taiwan, though any attempts to take Taiwan would be a costly endeavor. Experts believe China has been carefully watching the Western reaction to the events of Ukraine.

It is possible that any attempts to take the islands will only become harder as Taiwan becomes more serious about defense and the U.S. and its allies prepare to fight for Taiwan. According to a survey, about 64 percent of the Taiwanese population believes there will not be a war between China and Taiwan. However, if China does launch its own attack, it is believed that Taiwan would be able to hold them off until help arrives, despite China’s naval power, missile technology, aircraft, and cyber attacks. This is because most of the military forces of China are focused elsewhere. According to Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, China’s military maneuvers and drills are only a reminder to Taiwan and the U.S. not to cross Beijing’s red lines. For now, tensions ride high between the two powers.



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