Taiwan’s Shifting Dynamics: Navigating Tensions And Embracing Identity Amidst China’s Influence

In the midst of simmering tensions between Taiwan and China, the relationship between Taiwan and China stands at the intersection of historical complexities, geopolitical tensions, and evolving societal dynamics.

Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), is an island situated across the Taiwan Strait from mainland China. Since 1949, it has operated independently with its own democratically elected government, separate from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Despite having its own political leaders and distinct governance, Taiwan is regarded by the PRC as a rebellious province that it aims to reunify with eventually.
The political landscape in Taiwan is diverse, with varying opinions among leaders regarding the island’s status and its relationship with mainland China. Tensions between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have heightened since the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen. President Tsai has rejected a previously endorsed formula by her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, which proposed increased cross-strait ties.
In response to Taiwan’s stance, Beijing has adopted more assertive measures, such as flying fighter jets close to the island. The increased friction has raised concerns among analysts who fear that a potential Chinese military intervention in Taiwan could lead to a conflict involving the United States due to its historical commitments in the region.

 

Is Taiwan part of China?

Indeed, historical accounts reveal a complex narrative surrounding Taiwan’s sovereignty. In the 17th Century, during the Qing Dynasty, Chinese control extended to the island. However, in 1895, after the First Sino-Japanese War, the Qing Dynasty ceded Taiwan to Japan. Control reverted to China in 1945 following Japan’s defeat in World War II.
The subsequent Chinese Civil War, pitting the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek against Mao Zedong’s Communists, ended in 1949 with the Communist victory. The Nationalists retreated to Taiwan, where they continued to govern as the Republic of China (ROC). Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established on the mainland under Communist rule.
China declares that Taiwan has always been a Chinese province, citing historical periods of control, while Taiwan argues that it was not part of the post-1911 Chinese state or the PRC established in 1949.
Beijing asserts a “One China” principle, viewing Taiwan as an integral part of China, and seeks reunification with the mainland. The 1992 Consensus, a purported understanding between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT), is cited by Beijing. However, the content is disputed, with the PRC interpreting it as a commitment to reunification, while the KMT sees it as “one China, different interpretations.”
The KMT, through Taiwan’s constitution, recognizes China, Mongolia, Taiwan, Tibet, and the South China Sea as part of the ROC. Despite supporting closer ties with Beijing, recent election losses prompted discussions within the KMT about potentially changing its stance on the 1992 Consensus.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Taiwan’s chief rival party, led by President Tsai, has not endorsed the 1992 Consensus. Tsai has sought formulations acceptable to Beijing but without explicitly accepting the consensus. Beijing, in response, cut off official contacts with Taiwan.
In 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed incorporating Taiwan into the mainland under “one country, two systems,” akin to Hong Kong. This framework, granting a “high degree of autonomy,” has faced opposition in Taiwan, particularly after Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s freedoms. Both Tsai and the KMT reject the “one country, two systems” model, reflecting its unpopularity among the Taiwanese public.
The complex dynamics between Beijing and Taiwan involve historical claims, differing interpretations, and ongoing geopolitical considerations. This historical ambiguity contributes to the ongoing debate over Taiwan’s political status, with both sides drawing on the same historical events to support their claims. The conflicting interpretations of history further complicate the already sensitive issue of cross-strait relations.

 

Taiwan’s Foreign Policy

China consistently opposes Taiwan’s participation as a member of UN agencies and other international organizations limited to states. Taiwan protests this exclusion, emphasizing its desire for meaningful participation. The United States supports Taiwan’s involvement in such organizations, urging its inclusion. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan criticized the World Health Organization (WHO) for yielding to Beijing’s pressures, preventing Taiwan’s attendance at the World Health Assembly despite Taiwan’s effective pandemic response. G7 ministers have advocated for Taiwan’s participation in WHO forums.
Despite its exclusion from certain global organizations, Taiwan is a member of over forty organizations, primarily regional ones like the Asian Development Bank and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum. Taiwan also has membership in the World Trade Organization and observer status in several other bodies.
Official diplomatic ties with Taiwan are maintained by only thirteen states. In March 2023, Honduras severed ties with Taiwan, establishing relations with China. No country has ever simultaneously held formal diplomatic relations with both China and Taiwan. This diplomatic situation reflects the complexities of international recognition and the challenges Taiwan faces in gaining broader acceptance in the global arena.

 

US -Taiwan Relations

In 1979, the United States formally established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), concurrently severing ties and abrogating the mutual defence treaty with the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan. Despite this, the U.S. maintains a robust unofficial relationship with Taiwan and continues to provide military support by selling defence equipment. Beijing consistently urges Washington to halt arms sales and cease contact with Taipei.

The U.S. adheres to a One-China policy based on key documents, including the U.S.-China communiqués of 1972, 1978, and 1982, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, and the declassified “Six Assurances” from President Ronald Reagan to Taiwan in 1982. These documents acknowledge the Chinese position of one China with Taiwan as part of it, reject the use of force for dispute settlement, maintain ties with Taiwan through the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), commit to selling arms for Taiwan’s self-defence, and retain the ability to come to Taiwan’s defence without a specific commitment—a strategy known as strategic ambiguity.
The primary goal of the U.S. is to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, urging both Beijing and Taipei to preserve the status quo. The U.S. officially states it does not support Taiwanese independence. The policy of strategic ambiguity aims to strike a delicate balance between supporting Taiwan and avoiding conflict with China. However, President Joe Biden’s statements suggesting a willingness to defend Taiwan have stirred debate. While some welcome clarity in the face of increased Chinese aggression, others argue that strategic ambiguity is crucial and allows for flexibility in responding to evolving situations. The U.S. administration has sought to clarify, emphasizing that the policy remains unchanged, but differences in interpretation persist.

 

Could Chinese Invasion Occur?

A significant concern among U.S. analysts is the potential for conflict arising from China’s growing military capabilities and assertiveness, coupled with the strained cross-strait relations. The fear is that a conflict over Taiwan could lead to a U.S.-China confrontation, as China has not ruled out using force to achieve Taiwan’s reunification, and the United States has not ruled out defending Taiwan in case of an attack.
The U.S. Department of Defense, in a 2021 report, expressed that China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), is likely preparing for a contingency to unify Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) by force, while also deterring third-party intervention, such as the United States.
However, there’s disagreement among experts regarding the likelihood and timing of a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Some suggest it could happen within the next decade, while others believe it might be further off, with 2049 being considered a critical date by some, aligning with Xi Jinping’s vision of the Chinese Dream.
The 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia reignited the debate, with some speculating that it could embolden Beijing to take similar actions in Taiwan. Others argue that China might become more cautious after observing the challenges faced by Russia. The People’s Liberation Army has prioritized preparing for a Taiwan contingency, making it a central aspect of China’s military modernization.

Despite Taiwan’s efforts to bolster its defence capabilities, analysts suggest that Taiwan may struggle to defend against a Chinese attack without external support. Taiwan’s defence budget, while reaching a record of over $19 billion for 2023, still pales in comparison to China’s defence spending, estimated to be around twelve times that of Taiwan. Taiwan has allocated additional funds for cruise missiles, naval mines, and advanced surveillance systems to enhance coastal defence.
In the event of an open conflict with China, some Western experts speculate that Taiwan might face significant challenges and, at best, could aim to slow down a Chinese attack. Strategies may include attempting to prevent a shore landing by Chinese amphibious forces and resorting to guerrilla strikes while waiting for external assistance.
Given the significant power disparity between the Chinese military and Taiwan’s defence forces, experts suggest that Taiwan’s primary focus would likely be on strategies that can leverage its geographical advantages and delay or disrupt the progress of a potential invasion. The situation remains complex, with the potential for regional stability hinging on the delicate balance of power in the Taiwan Strait.

 

China’s Assertion Of Dominance On Taiwan

China has employed various coercive tactics short of armed conflict to influence Taiwan’s policies and public sentiment, particularly since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016. The objective behind these measures is to wear down Taiwan and create conditions that prompt the Taiwanese people to consider unification with the mainland as their best option.
Military demonstrations have been a significant aspect of China’s approach, involving increased patrols of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) bombers, fighter jets, and surveillance aircraft over and around Taiwan. The use of warships and aircraft carriers in the Taiwan Strait serves as a show of force, underlining China’s military capabilities.
Cyber-attacks have been another tool in China’s arsenal, with thousands of attacks reported by Taiwan targeting its government agencies daily. These attacks have escalated in recent years, with Taiwan accusing Chinese groups of hacking into government agencies and official email accounts to access sensitive data and personal information.
Nonmilitary measures have also been implemented to exert pressure on Taiwan. China suspended cross-strait communication mechanisms, restricted tourism to Taiwan, and used economic leverage to coerce global corporations into listing Taiwan as a Chinese province. The intimidation extends to countries with ties to Taiwan, as demonstrated by China’s trade actions against Lithuania in 2021 for establishing a Taiwanese representative office in its capital.
These forceful tactics form part of China’s comprehensive strategy to influence Taiwan’s political landscape and discourage moves toward independence. The measures range from military demonstrations to economic pressure, cyber-attacks, and diplomatic constraints, creating a complicated challenge for Taiwan’s leadership and its international relationships.

 

Economic Conditions Of Taiwan

Taiwan’s economy has a significant reliance on trade with China, its largest trading partner. However, the economic relationship between Taiwan and China has faced disruptions in recent years, influenced by Beijing’s pressure on the island and Taiwanese officials’ growing concerns about the risks associated with overdependence on China.
During the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016), Taiwan signed over twenty agreements with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), notably the 2010 Cross-Straits Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). This agreement aimed to reduce trade barriers, leading to the resumption of direct sea, air, and mail links between Taiwan and China. It also facilitated cooperation in financial services and other sectors.
President Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have been actively working to broaden Taiwan’s trade connections. The New Southbound Policy, a signature initiative, seeks to enhance trade and investment ties with countries in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific. While there has been some success in boosting trade with these regions, Taiwan’s exports to China reached an all-time high in 2021, reflecting the enduring economic interdependence between the two.
To reduce dependency on the mainland, Tsai unveiled a three-year plan in 2019 to incentivize Taiwanese manufacturers to relocate from China back to Taiwan. Despite these efforts, Beijing has exerted pressure on other countries not to sign free trade agreements with Taiwan. Only a few nations, including New Zealand and Singapore, have entered into such agreements. China has also advocated for Taiwan’s exclusion from multilateral trading blocs, such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). While China is part of the RCEP, Taiwan is excluded from these economic frameworks.
Additionally, Taiwan is not part of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework proposed by the Biden administration. The complex economic dynamics reflect Taiwan’s ongoing efforts to balance economic interests and geopolitical considerations amid regional challenges and pressures from Beijing.

 

Taiwan Public’s Opinion On China

Research and surveys conducted in Taiwan suggest that despite the recent tensions between China and Taiwan, many Taiwanese people appear relatively untroubled. In October 2021, the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation conducted a survey asking people about their views on the possibility of war with China. The results showed that almost two-thirds (64.3%) of respondents did not believe there would be a war with China.
Furthermore, separate research indicates a shift in identity among the Taiwanese population. Surveys conducted by the National Chengchi University since the early 1990s show a changing trend in how people identify themselves. The proportion of individuals identifying as Chinese or both Chinese and Taiwanese has decreased over the years, while a growing majority considers themselves Taiwanese.

This shift in identity is significant and reflects a sense of a distinct Taiwanese identity separate from a Chinese identity. It aligns with broader trends in Taiwan where a younger generation, in particular, tends to identify more strongly with a unique Taiwanese identity, reflecting historical, cultural, and political factors.
While the geopolitical situation remains complex and fraught with tensions, these survey findings suggest that a considerable portion of the Taiwanese population may not feel an imminent threat of conflict with China, and there is a growing emphasis on a distinct Taiwanese identity. However, it’s essential to note that public opinion can be dynamic, and perceptions may evolve based on unfolding events and geopolitical developments.