The ongoing tensions between the United States and China, which have come to partly define the Trump presidency, have seen both sides strive to gain economic, military and geopolitical advantage. Their ongoing trade negotiations appear to have captured the interest of observers and analysts but a close second, if that is indeed what it is, would have to be their dispute over the Republic of China (Taiwan). Having reacquired Hong Kong and Macau, Taiwan remains the last geographical region that Beijing claims it must “re-integrate” in order to right some of the wrongs it has historically suffered. So important is that reintegration to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that it comes second only to the very survival of the Party itself. From the political perspective, if the CCP is to claim a legitimate hold on power and, simultaneously, maintain the legitimacy of its authoritarian rule, it must necessarily absorb a democratically-run region to demonstrate that its authoritarian rule is superior to democracy. Taiwan also remains an embarrassment to Beijing in that it is proof that the citizens of a democratically-run Chinese country, which Beijing considers a breakaway province, enjoy a standard of living, including various personal freedoms, far above those of Chinese citizens on the mainland.

Those aspects aside, Taiwan represents the most tangible and immediate impediment to the securitisation of China’s sea trade, together with any maritime ambitions it may have in the region and further afield. The island’s geographic position allows it to thwart virtually all power projection from the mainland. The island chain, of which Taiwan is a major part, stretches from Japan to the Philippine archipelago, virtually encompassing the entire Chinese mainland which arcs into the Pacific Ocean. Taiwan lies offshore in the centre of the Chinese coastline; it has, therefore, the potential to block all of China’s access to the ocean. In naval terms, Taiwan could potentially block the Chinese north and south fleets from amassing. It is also the most effective barrier to Chinese naval operations beyond the island chain.

Key points:

  • The Chinese Communist Party sees the reintegration of Taiwan with the mainland as a sacred duty.
  • As a corollary, any declaration of Taiwanese independence would be a red line to Beijing, irrespective of whether Taiwan had foreign assistance in that endeavour or not.
  • A US law that demands that Washington support Taiwan in any fight against Beijing, coupled with an American President who shows scant respect for China, impedes any Chinese instinct to use military force to retake the island.
  • Polls that show a rising anti-China sentiment among Taiwanese citizens can only add to that sense of caution in Beijing.
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