Hollywood star John Cena apologised in Mandarin last month for calling Taiwan a country. Why?
Is Taiwan not a country?
Depends who you ask. Beijing regards the Netherlands-size island 90 miles off its coast as a breakaway province that will one day be part of the country again. But Taiwan has governed itself independently of China since 1949, and just 4% of its 23 million people describe themselves as Chinese. Only 15 small countries – the likes of Belize, Haiti and the Marshall Islands – have diplomatic relations with Taiwan rather than the mainland. And Beijing wants to reduce that number further: officials apparently offered Paraguay Covid vaccines in exchange for breaking ties with Taiwan. The Paraguayans told them where to go.
Why all this confusion?
Taiwan first appeared in Chinese records in AD239, when an expeditionary force went for a recce. The island was in Chinese hands from the 1660s until 1895, when it was ceded to Japan in the wake of the First Sino-Japanese War. Japan returned the territory after the Second World War. But when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists were defeated in the civil war with Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949, they fled to Taiwan and re-established the Republic of China (ROC) in Taipei. That created an awkward stalemate, with both sides claiming they were the one true China.
What did everyone else think?
The ROC was initially widely recognised as the only Chinese government and held China’s seat on the UN Security Council. In 1950 President Truman pledged that the US would protect Taiwan from attack. But that all changed in the 1970s. Needing help in Vietnam, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a secret visit to Beijing in 1971 to seek a rapprochement with the communists. He went there with six issues for discussion, but his Chinese counterpart, Zhou Enlai, had just one – Taiwan. Beijing wanted the US to recognise its government, not Taipei’s, and the UN to expel Taiwan.
What did Kissinger do?
He agreed. Taiwan was booted out of the UN, Nixon made his famous visit to China the following year, and in 1979 the Carter administration formally acknowledged the Chinese Communist Party as the country’s legitimate government – the “One China” policy. Yet Washington didn’t abandon Taiwan altogether. Congress, including a young Joe Biden, signed a landmark law establishing security co-operation with Taiwan, and weapons sales to Taipei continued. This convoluted compromise, known as “strategic ambiguity”, has held ever since.
How successful has that been?
It has kept the peace. After almost four decades of brutal martial law, Taiwan has developed into a vibrant democracy and a booming economy. It was the first Asian nation to legalise gay marriage and is the runaway global leader in producing the semiconductor chips crucial for pretty much all electronics. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) makes nearly 90% of the most advanced models.
So what’s the problem?
There are growing fears that China is preparing to invade Taiwan. In a 2019 speech President Xi Jinping pointedly said he reserved “the option to use all necessary measures” to keep Taiwan in line. The Chinese navy has launched 90 warships and submarines in the past five years alone, as well as 100 advanced fighter jets each year. As one US defence official told The Economist: “The world has never seen a military expansion of this scale not associated with conflict.” In March the outgoing commander of US forces in the Indo-Pacific, Admiral Philip Davidson, told lawmakers he envisaged an invasion within six years.
What would the US do?
That’s the million-dollar question. Taiwan’s defences are no match for Beijing: it has less than 20% of China’s planes, 10% of its troops and 0.1% of its missiles. Even the US might struggle: in recent Pentagon war games, China has won. That aside, would a US president put American lives and prestige at risk for the sake of Taiwan? As President Trump reportedly told a senator: “Taiwan is, like, two feet from China. We are 8,000 miles away. If they invade, there isn’t a f***ing thing we can do about it.”
What would that mean for the US?
Losing Taiwan “would be seen all over Asia as the end of American predominance in the region”, writes Niall Ferguson in Bloomberg. It would hand Beijing control of the “microchip Mecca that is TSMC”. It would probably “cause a run on the dollar and US Treasuries”. Ferguson says it could be to the US what the Suez crisis was to Britain in 1956 – “the moment when the imperial lion is exposed as a paper tiger”. In short, he concludes, “Pax Americana would collapse”.
So what’s stopping China?
The invasion itself would be no picnic: Taiwan’s few beaches are too small to land a decent fighting force on. And obviously there’s a risk that the US would come to Taiwan’s aid, pitting two nuclear powers against each other in a conflict that would cause devastating loss of life. China also has significant economic ties with Taiwan. Nevertheless, many Beijing watchers are convinced that President Xi is set on “reunification”. He may just be following the wise words of former leader Deng Xiaoping: “Hide your strength, bide your time.”
🇹🇼 The last time war came close to breaking out on this issue was in 1996, reports Vox. As Taiwan prepared for its first free democratic presidential election, China carried out aggressive military drills near the island – at one point a missile nearly passed over Taipei before dropping into the sea just 19 miles from the shoreline. Beijing backed off after the US sent two aircraft carriers, but the Americans were preparing for the worst. “It was very tense,” a defence official later told The Washington Post. “We were up all night for weeks. We prepared the war plans, the options. It was horrible.”
🇹🇼 Facing down the might of Beijing is Tsai Ing-wen, 64, a softly spoken former academic who became Taiwan’s first female president in 2016. The unmarried Tsai is known for her love of her two cats, Think Think and Ah Tsai, which poke their whiskers into most of her photo ops – though she also adopted three retired guide dogs when she took office. Her strong anti-China stance, which included pledging solidarity with Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors, won her re-election last year with a landslide 20-point lead over her main opponent. “Democratic Taiwan and our democratically elected government will not concede to threats and intimidation,” she declared in her victory speech.