By Robyn Kelly-Meyrick
Heightened tensions between mainland China and Taiwan, have frequented global headlines in recent months. China has upped the ante through an increasingly aggressive rhetoric toward the island, which it backed up by sending a record number of warplanes into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. Taipei’s admission that by 2025, China will likely be able to mount a “full scale’’ invasion of Taiwan has triggered an international debate on whether or not China will actually use force to subordinate the island, and what the response might be.
Why is China opposed to Taiwanese independence?
Since the surrender of Japan after World War Two, the status of Taiwan as a legal part of China has been disputed. After the Chinese Civil War, the Republic of China (ROC) lost the mainland to the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) and fled to Taiwan. The PRC views itself as a successor of the ROC as a result of the civil war and has therefore rejected the democratization process of Taiwan and the notion that the ROC is a legitimate government. Whilst in 1991 Taiwan proclaimed that the war with the mainland PRC was over and relations between the two improved, the election of Chen Shui-bian - who openly backed independence - as president of Taiwan raised concerns in Beijing, resulting in the latter passing an anti-secession law which affirmed the right to use force against Taiwan should it persevere to break free.
In the last few decades, relations between China and Taiwan have deteriorated as the latter has gained more international recognition as an independent state, with the PRC growing increasingly concerned by ties between Taiwan and the US which deepened under the Trump administration. President Biden subsequently became the first to invite a Taiwanese delegation to the presidential inauguration. Allowing Taiwan to turn independent would undermine the legitimacy of the PRC, whilst reunifying the island with the mainland would help to cement China as a hegemonic power in Asia.
Why have concerns over Chinese/Taiwanese relations grown?
Beijing has reiterated its willingness to use force to align Taiwan with the mainland as a last resort if necessary, and Xi Jinping has stated that ‘the historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland [...] will definitely be fulfilled’. Taiwan’s defense minister Chiu Kuo-cheng predicts that by 2025, China will be capable of launching a full-scale invasion of the island, a statement which followed the intrusion of around ‘150 People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) fighter jets, nuclear-capable bombers, anti-submarine aircraft, and airborne early warning and control planes’ into Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in early October of 2021.
The surge of military activity coincided with Taiwan’s official application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) free-trade pact. China remains staunchly opposed to the admission of Taiwan to any kind of bilateral or multilateral organization of an official nature. In the Biden-Xi virtual summit, China re-emphasized that US backing of Taiwan’s independence would be ‘playing with fire’. The combination of rhetoric and military activity has given relations between China and Taiwan global focus, but is an invasion the likely conclusion?
China and Hong Kong - the will to unify
The events that have taken place in Hong Kong over the last two years put the sharp rhetoric toward Taiwan into a context that illustrates China’s will to reunify the motherland. Hong Kong developed under British rule from 1898 up until 1997 (a period during which China agreed to lease the land to Britain following the First Opium War that saw the UK occupy Hong Kong). In 1997, the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed by the UK and China, which agreed upon the retention of some of Hong Kong’s autonomy through a ‘one country, two systems’ policy that would last for a subsequent 50 year period. This means that in 2047, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution - the Basic Law - will expire, leaving the future of the region’s autonomy from China unclear. Largely, Hong Kong’s relative independence from the communist mainland is observed to be in decline. In June 2019, a highly controversial plan to extradite criminal suspects from Hong Kong to the mainland resulted in months of heavy protests from concerned Hongkongers, who believed the plans would enable arbitrary detention and unfair trials under the Chinese judicial system. The plans were eventually withdrawn in September 2019.
In June of 2021, a new national security regime was introduced by Beijing, which imposed significant curtailing of freedom of speech within Hong Kong through the National Security Law. Voices critical toward the CCP have been silenced, with journalists and high-profile critics arrested and imprisoned. Hongkongers must now self-censor and contradictorily exercise media freedom with constraint in order to avoid punishment. Unsurprisingly, Taiwan apprehends the National Security Law.
How has the situation in Hong Kong affected Taiwan?
Since Beijing has sought to influence and control Hong Kong more closely, relations between the Special Administrative Region and Taiwan have deteriorated. In June 2021, around the same time the National Security Law came into being, Taiwan representatives in Hong Kong were met with a demand from Hong Kong’s government to sign a document supporting Beijing’s ‘One China’ claim to Taiwan. In response, Taiwan withdrew representatives from the region, and Hong Kong has since suspended activities at its representative office in Taipei.
Taiwan has certainly played close attention to China’s moves to diminish Hong Kong’s autonomy and even extended an invitation for Hong Kongers to move to the island, but reinforcement of the One China notion by Hong Kong officials has not affected Taiwan’s staunch opposition to the CCP. Following disputes between the two regions, Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council stated:
"Our government stands firm in guarding national dignity and lodges stern condemnation and a warning to the Chinese Communist Party and Hong Kong government."
Taiwan and Hong Kong have taken very different paths historically, and the biggest difference between the two regions in this context is that whilst China agreed to lease Hong Kong, it never relinquished full control of the region, whereas Taiwan has proclaimed itself independent of China since World War Two. China cannot therefore insidiously exert power over Taipei in the way that it has been possible in Hong Kong. If Taiwan was to be returned to the motherland, force may indeed be the only means possible, which returns us to the question of whether an invasion is likely.
The likelihood of China capturing Taiwan by use of military force
China’s increased military activity in the last months has raised concerns for Taiwan on a national and international level, but these events are not unique. Many Taiwanese citizens experience aggression from China in the Air Defense Identification Zone like an occurrence not out of the ordinary; indeed, Beijing has been hostile toward Taiwan ever since 1949 when the ROC fled there. The main difference now is the weaponry capability. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has gained advanced military experience and power that could not be matched by Taipei. However, Taiwan is not alone in the international community.
Bringing Taiwan under the control of the CCP would indeed be a significant step toward Chinese hegemony in Asia, but China has a lot to lose from staging a military attack. The US has made its support for Taiwan in the event of an invasion clear, and US special forces and marines are already operating training missions in preparation for this scenario. More significantly, China is aware that even if it is able to overcome the US and Taiwan militarily, the result may be a complete naval blockade of the country. As the Chinese economy is overwhelmingly dependent on foreign trade, the chance of this outcome should be enough to reserve force as an absolute last resort. For exports to continue uninterrupted, Chinese cargo needs to be able to pass via Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and an attack on Taiwan puts this route in serious jeopardy.
The increase of Chinese military operations in Taiwan’s defense zone, therefore, appears to act as more of a warning at this time - a warning that China will not back down from its stance against Taiwanese independence, and that allies of the region should not cross the ‘red lines’ of the CCP, which include warming relations with Taiwan as a sovereign entity. It is an exhibition of power and a confirmation that China could strike Taiwan if desired. Beijing most likely hopes that this intimidation tactic will prevent Taiwan from obtaining formal recognition as an independent state, but even if things do move in this direction, China will have to weigh up the benefits of an invasion before any serious and irreversible steps are taken.
About the author: Robyn Kelly-Meyrick
Robyn holds an MSc in Political Science and a BA in International Relations, and split her studies between the UK, Japan and the Netherlands. She is an experienced Analyst and has worked with a range of organisations in roles pertaining to political risk consultancy and business compliance