By Gwynne Dyer,
On Sunday China sent a dozen fighters and bombers into the airspace around Taiwan for the second day in a row. At the same time, an American aircraft carrier group sailed between Taiwan and the Philippines into the South China Sea. The White House has a new resident, and there’s some reciprocal messaging going on.
The Chinese aircraft only entered Taiwan’s unilaterally declared ‘Air Defence Identification Zone’, which is not sovereign Taiwanese territory. They were almost certainly responding to the US naval presence, and the actions of both sides are entirely legal and purely symbolic. Nobody is going to get hurt this time – but there will be a next time.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has claimed that Taiwan is a renegade province ever since 1949, but it did nothing about it for decades because the US Navy controlled the Pacific Ocean right up to the Chinese low-tide mark. That may have changed since President Xi Jin-ping made Taiwan his legacy project.
In 2018, Xi declared that ‘reunification’ of Taiwan with the PRC is an “inevitable requirement for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.” This makes about as much sense as saying that unification with Puerto Rico is an “inevitable requirement for the great rejuvenation of the American people” – but Xi is the boss, so that’s the policy.
Chinese settlers conquered Taiwan’s original inhabitants and colonised the island shortly after the Spanish and Portuguese began settling the Americas. Indigenous peoples now amount to only 2% of the population.
Taiwan briefly fell under Beijing’s control again in 1945, but when the Chinese civil war ended in a Communist victory in 1949, the defeated Nationalist government and army – two million people – retreated to Taiwan.
The heavily armed refugees were obsessed with going back to the mainland, and they made short work of any local people with different priorities. The Nationalist dictatorship lasted almost four decades, but by the 1990s the island had become a prosperous democracy run by locally-born politicians.
In practice Taiwan has been independent for seventy years, but neither President Tsai Ing-wen or any of her predecessors ever declared formal independence because the PRC threatened war if they did. And matters could have bumbled along like that for another generation except for two things: Xi Jin-ping’s determination to settle matters on his watch, and the shifting balance of military power.
There are only 23 million Taiwanese. Mainland Chinese outnumber them sixty-to-one. US military superiority once made up for that, but China’s military are no longer low-tech and there hasn’t been an explicit US military guarantee of Taiwan’s separate status since 1979.
The United States strives to maintain a high degree of uncertainty about what it would do if China actually invaded Taiwan. However, the likelihood that it would actually risk war with China declines as the probability that the US could win a naval war so close to the Chinese coast shrinks. Add an impatient Xi, and stir.
It looks like the same old game that has been played in the Strait of Taiwan for the past seventy years, and long may it remain so. But China’s threats have more military credibility nowadays, there’s a more reckless player in Beijing – and if China did invade Taiwan, the US might still decide it had to fight in the end.
Ten years ago, there was little risk of a disastrous miscalculation on either side. Now, there is.