The present tensions between the US and the People’s Republic of China over the Republic of China (Taiwan) have an interesting history, spanning over seven decades. This article is going to look into the history of how this escalating conflict took its current form.
Communist Uprising in China
China saw several disruptions post world-war. The ruling Nationalist Party and the Communist Party had indulged in numerous intermittent conflicts since the 1920s. The intensity of the skirmishes intensified post the second world war, finally culminating in a full-fledged civil war. The civil war, fought between the Communist Party of China and the Government of the Republic of China (ROC), then headed by the Kuomintang ended in 1949 with the declaration of the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) by the communist leader, Mao Zedong. The end of the civil war forced the Kuomintang-headed Government of the Republic of China to retreat to the island province of Taiwan, off the coast of the Fujian province.
Role of the US
The fall of the Chinese mainland to communism was instrumental in the suspension of diplomatic ties between the US and the PRC for over 2 decades. The prevalent domestic and global political scenario would further dampen future prospects of any improvement in relations between the two for years to come. While not entirely democratic, the ROC continued to receive the support of the US. The Korean War and the USA’s desire to restrict the war from spreading southwards deepened the divergence between the US and the PRC and ensured US protection of the ROC. Until the 1970s, even after their retreat, the US continued to recognize the exiled government of ROC as the true government of China and supported their occupancy of the Chinese permanent member seat in the UN security council.
The 60s and the 70s saw a shift in US strategy in dealing with the threat from its cold war adversary. The calculated measures by the country to establish and improve relations with the communist governments of Asia were the result of its pragmatism. Its experiences from the Vietnam War, and the resultant desire to reduce chances of future conflicts, its attempts to undermine the influences of the Soviet Union, isolate North Korea, and create and deepen discord between communist countries, encouraged the United States to reconsider its relations with the PRC. The PRC intended to galvanize this opportunity at rapprochement as a hedge against the Soviet Union, with whom tensions were simmering.
The reconciliation was facilitated by Pakistan, who acted as an envoy, helping establish secret communication channels between the USA and the PRC. By 1971, the process to normalize relations between the two was at full pace. The question of Chinese representation in the UN was put up for a vote. While the US proposed the inclusion of both ROC and PRC in the intergovernmental organization, the final vote decided the replacement of ROC by the PRC as the true representative of China in both the UNGA and the Chinese permanent seat in the UNSC. The US went on to acknowledge the One China Policy of the PRC and withdraw its forces from the island. The country was further forced by the PRC to withdraw its support for Taiwanese independence and allowed to maintain only unofficial relations with Taiwan. In 1979 however, the US Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act which provides a legal basis for the unofficial bilateral relationship and made commitments related to Taiwan’s security. Further in 1982, the USA communicated to Taiwan 6 assurances which included the following:
- “It is U.S. policy “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.” “ (Taiwan: Political and Security Issues, 2021)
- “The United States “will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” (Taiwan: Political and Security Issues, 2021)
However, the US has inched closer, over the years, towards Taiwan. This has been particularly significant post the 2008 economic crisis after which the US slowly started to lose its position as an economic hegemon. This shift in position has been a response to the growing perception of threat from a now increasingly unruly China.
The PRC has always maintained its demands for the reunification of China, stressing that mainland China and Taiwan are not different entities. The 2005 Anti-Secession Law of China mandated the state to ensure unification using peaceful measures. However, it also stated that if the state felt that all possible peaceful measures had been exhausted, it could resort to non-peaceful means. Further, in 2019, the current Chinese President, Xi Jinping recommended applying “a two-system plan for Taiwan”, similar to that in place in Hong Kong. However, this was declared “unviable” by the Taiwanese President, post the imposition of the National Security Law on Hong Kong by China in 2020.
The current President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, had rejected the 1992 consensus reached by her previous government and PRC, under which both governments agreed to acknowledge the existence of only one China, with each having interpretations of its own. As a result, quasi-official contacts between the PRC and the POC were suspended and a slew of diplomatic measures were initiated by PRC to express its displeasure, including blocking the participation of its representatives from participating in the World Health Association meetings as an observer and sending military patrols, conducting exercises and sending military aircraft near the median line of the strait of Taiwan.
The shift toward Taiwan got accelerated post the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States. The increased rhetoric towards China and the trade war with China provided Taipei with an excellent opportunity to further its own interests with the USA. The election of Joe Biden as POTUS has not dented the enthusiasm that ensued from the opportunity. The recent visit by Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives (now the highest ranking US official to visit Taiwan) has been a continuation of a slew of escalators demarche by the United States since the 2020 visit of the Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment (highest ranking State Department official to visit Taiwan until then) and the issue of a congratulatory statement by Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State (highest-level U.S. official ever to have issued such statements) in 2020 on the re-election of President Tsai.
The recent visit has triggered strong reactions from the PRC, to the extent of threatening to shoot down the Speaker’s plane if it entered Taiwanese airspace. The Chinese military has since initiated military exercises around Taiwan, Chinese aircraft have been continuously spotted in Taiwanese airspace and numerous instances of the aircraft carriers of the two countries sailing at close quarters have been observed. These developments have escalated the simmering tensions between the US and China to levels that could threaten global stability. The recent developments further come in the backdrop of the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, leading the world to even more uncertainty and chaos. The economic ramifications of a war or even a blockade could debilitate an already weak global economy. The escalations could have a significant impact on the Indian economy in particular dampening its electronic and automobile industry. The chip manufacturing crisis of 2020 due to COVID and the Russia-Ukraine conflict has already put the two industries under tremendous stress.
Two global nuclear powers going head to head have been feared ever since the culmination of the second world war. Every instance of such powers, be it the US and the Soviet Union or the US and China coming close to the verge of war has rattled the rest of the nations and posed a serious threat. It is pertinent that the origins of the recent escalations be sufficiently addressed to ensure a peaceful resolution. Leaders and the strategic communities of the world can benefit from a careful analysis of events that lead to the current situation in order to mitigate tensions and create contingency plans for a possible conflict.
MILESTONES: 1945–1952 – OFFICE OF THE HISTORIAN
History.state.gov. n.d. Milestones: 1945–1952 – Office of the Historian. [online] Available at: <https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/chinese-rev> [Accessed 9 August 2022].
MILESTONES: 1969–1976 – OFFICE OF THE HISTORIAN
History.state.gov. n.d. Milestones: 1969–1976 – Office of the Historian. [online] Available at: <https://history.state.gov/milestones/1969-1976/rapprochement-china> [Accessed 9 August 2022].
TAIWAN: POLITICAL AND SECURITY ISSUES
Apps.dtic.mil. 2021. Taiwan: Political and Security Issues. [online] Available at: <https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/AD1170157.pdf> [Accessed 9 August 2022].
CHINA-TAIWAN TENSIONS HIGHLIGHTS: CHINESE AND TAIWAN NAVY BOATS STAY CLOSE TO STRAIT MEDIAN LINE
The Indian Express. 2022. China-Taiwan tensions Highlight: Chinese and Taiwan navy boats stay close to Strait median line. [online] Available at: <https://indianexpress.com/article/world/china-taiwan-news-live-updates-fire-military-drills-nancy-pelosi-8073934/> [Accessed 10 August 2022].