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What’s Going to Happen to Taiwan Now?

The international system is breaking down. Borders are increasingly meaningless after the invasions of Ukraine and Gaza. China eyes Taiwan across the strait and insists that it will reunify the island with the mainland by force if necessary. Now, Taiwan has elected another president from the DPP, a Taiwanese nationalist party that is anathema to Beijing. How long will the status quo hold?
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Hand drawing a red line between Taiwan isle and Mainland China.

Hand drawing a red line between Taiwan isle and Mainland China. © Ivan Marc/ shutterstock.com

January 19, 2024 09:58 EDT
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Much of international relations is pretense. The leaders of countries pretend to like each other, shaking hands with smiles and manufactured bonhomie. International treaties, which countries solemnly ratify, are often honored only in the breach.

Then there are borders, the cement that holds together the international order. Nation-states are the building blocks of that order, so the borders that separate them function as a mysterious force that keeps countries apart and yet allows them to come together in the United Nations and other global institutions.

Borders are essential to trade, transport and tourism. They are hostile to migrants and refugees. And they also a collectively agreed-upon fiction. All borders are artificial, forged through war, colonialism and domination.

Yet if borders suddenly had no meaning, powerful countries would invade their neighbors and seize the land they covet. Of course, some countries haven’t waited for the international order to collapse to make this happen.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was, among other things, a blatant violation of an international border. The October 7 raid by Hamas and the subsequent war unleashed by the Israeli army in Gaza both violated a border, which technically divides two entities, not two separate countries. Near the end of 2023, it even looked as though Venezuela were about to invade a part of Guyana that it has long considered its own territory.

It’s no surprise, then, that the recent election of Lai Ching-te as Taiwan’s new president has been greeted by some observers as a triggering event. This year, they say, mainland China will finally follow through on its persistent threats and launch an all-out invasion of Taiwan. According to this scenario, Beijing has noted that while the Russian and Israeli aggressions have generated international outcry and even some serious global pushback, it’s nothing that either country can’t withstand.

In the lead-up to Taiwan’s elections this month, tensions in fact have been mounting across the Taiwan Strait. Should Taiwan declare sovereign independence from the mainland, effectively establishing a de jure border between the two, Beijing may well respond aggressively. “Many American officials believe that Beijing would indeed launch an invasion of the island should the Taiwanese declare their independence and that, in turn, could easily result in U.S. military intervention and a full-scale war,” writes military affairs analyst Michael Klare.

For the time being, however, the game of pretend continues. The international community treats Taiwan in many ways as a sovereign country but pretends that there is only “one China.” Although it continues to lose diplomatic support — Nauru just switched recognition to Beijing, which brings the total for Taipei down to a meager dozen — Taiwan continues to press for membership in global institutions as though it were a sovereign entity. Beijing treats Taiwan as simply an unincorporated territory with delusions of grandeur.

The wars currently dominating the headlines were not exactly surprises. Russia gave plenty of notice of its intentions to intervene in Ukraine and indeed had already absorbed the Crimean peninsula and parts of the Donbas back in 2014. Israel launched four significant attacks on Gaza in 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2021.

Mainland China, for its part, has emphasized that reunification is “inevitable” and that the two sides face a stark choice between war and peace. Military drills near Taiwan last year were designed, according to Beijing officials, to counter the “arrogance” of separatists, and numerous aircraft from the mainland have violated the informal border that runs down the middle of the Taiwan Strait.

So, will the erosion of international norms and escalation of threats from Beijing necessarily lead to war with China in 2024?

The recent elections

In Taiwan’s flourishing democracy, two main parties have contested for power over the last few decades. The Kuomintang (KMT) prefers closer rapprochement with the mainland, while the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) edges more toward independence. With Lai Ching-te as its presidential candidate, the DPP just won an unprecedented third consecutive presidential term.

You’d think that the mainland would have gotten used to the DPP at this point, after eight years in power. But for some reason, Beijing looks at Lai Ching-te differently.

A former doctor who became in rapid succession a legislator, mayor and vice-president, Lai is now a political veteran. When he started out in politics, he was an ardent supporter of Taiwanese independence. But that changed as he rose through the ranks. He now says that he’s comfortable with the current status quo, by which he means his country’s de facto independence.

This is a pragmatic approach not only with respect to Beijing but domestic politics as well. Although the DPP won the presidential election this month, it lost its parliamentary majority. It now has one fewer seat than the KMT. This means that a third party with 8 seats will hold a pivotal position in determining actual policies.

This third party, the relatively new center-left Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), takes a position somewhere between the DPP and the KMT on the question of sovereignty. Indeed, the party’s official color is turquoise, a pointed reference to the longstanding struggle between the forces of green (KMT) and blue (DPP). TPP leader and presidential candidate Ko Wen-je presented himself during the election campaign as “the only person who is acceptable to both China and the United States. This is currently my biggest advantage.”

Generally, Washington and Taipei see eye to eye. After all, the United States has long shipped arms to the island, with the latest package from August totaling $500 million. Between 1980 and 2010, Taiwan received over $25 billion in arms shipments.

At the same time, the United States has adhered to the “one China” policy, which Joe Biden reiterated just after the election when he said, “We do not support Taiwan independence.” At the same time, however, US politicians have been traveling to Taiwan more often, with even Ed Markey leading a delegation there to warn Beijing of US support for the island.

The lion’s share of the Pentagon’s budget is devoted to buying the big weapons systems — jets, carriers, space weapons — to counter a major rival like China. But that doesn’t mean that Washington wants a war with China. Quite the opposite, given military commitments to Ukraine, the increased demands from Israel and now the attacks on the Houthis in and around the Red Sea.

But, of course, most wars are not planned in advance.

What Taiwan wants

Taiwanese identity has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Back in 1992, only 17% of the population identified as “Taiwanese,” compared to 25% who called themselves “Chinese.” Another 46% said that they were “both Chinese and Taiwanese.”

Today, more than 62% of those surveyed say that they’re “Taiwanese.” And the number who call themselves “Chinese” has dropped all the way to 2.5%. A strong driver of this transformation is demographic, with the dying off of the generation that either came over from the mainland with the Kuomintang forces or still harbored hopes of returning there at some point.

Despite this greater sense of a separate identity, Taiwan’s fate is still inextricably tied to the mainland. Consider the economic interdependence of the two. As the Taiwan government itself likes to boast, the country invested over $200 billion into the mainland between 1991 and 2022 while cross-strait trade in 2022 totaled $205 billion. The mainland is actually Taiwan’s largest trade partner, responsible for 22% of total trade.

However, as with the decoupling taking place between the United States and China, cross-strait economic relations seem to be changing as well. Taiwanese investments in the mainland dropped to a 20-year low in 2023, though this reflects more the rising costs of labor in China than any specifically political decision to invest elsewhere.

The mainland remains dependent on one key Taiwanese export: semiconductors. Taiwan has practically cornered the market, particularly on the most advanced chips used for AI and quantum computing, where it controls 90% of the trade. US controls on technology transfer to China have ensured that the mainland, though it would prefer to achieve self-sufficiency in this regard, still needs to import these chips from Taiwan.

The Taiwanese, meanwhile, are well aware of the fate of Hong Kong. The residents of this entrepôt, which reverted to China’s control in 1997, thought they would be able to run their own democratic institutions until at least 2047, according to provisions in the handover agreement. The crackdown on the Hong Kong protest movement in 2021, sending protesters to jail or to exile in places like Taiwan, called into question Beijing’s commitment to “one country, two systems.” The forced absorption of Hong Kong has strengthened the independence movement in Taiwan and, on top of the consolidation of a distinct Taiwanese identity, led to the three-term success of the DPP.

The current status quo, for Taiwan, has translated into a stable democracy, a vibrant civil society, a per-capita GDP comparable to South Korea and Japan and a mutually prosperous arrangement with Beijing. On the negative side, Taiwan spends a lot on its military — 2.6% of GDP with a record expenditure in 2023 — and has to endure a steady diet of threats from Beijing.

Plus, only a dozen other countries, most of them miniscule, treat Taiwan like an authentic nation. No seat in the UN, no membership in the World Bank, no participation in the World Health Organization: That’s the price Taiwan has to pay for this belittling status quo.

The meaning of those land grabs

Although Beijing might dismiss the international outcry against Russia and Israel as relatively insignificant, it has paid close attention to how effectively Ukraine has fought back against Russian occupiers. Although Taiwan is tiny compared to Ukraine and China’s military is considerably more sophisticated than Russia’s, it would be no easy task for China to gobble up Taiwan.

Sending a sufficient force across the Taiwan Strait, for instance, would be extraordinarily difficult, particularly under a rain of missiles from Taiwan. The terrain makes landings difficult, and there are few routes from the east coast to the rest of the island. The preparations for such an amphibious assault would be relatively easy to monitor. Also, China hasn’t fought a war in many decades; who knows how its troops would fare under hostile conditions. The embarrassing retreat of the Russian army after it failed to seize Kyiv serves as a warning to hawks in Beijing.

But leaders sometimes do crazy things. And China has the option of threatening a devastating aerial assault, up to and including nuclear weapons, to force Taiwan to capitulate without a shot fired.

China’s ultimate calculation may come down to what’s happening around other border conflicts and whether the world is on the verge of a land grab free-for-all. In addition to what’s happening in Ukraine and Gaza, Saudi Arabia is eyeing territory in Yemen, Turkey continues to remain militarily active in northern Syria, and countries desperate to secure soil for growing food or boost their carbon credit accounts are engaged in numerous mercantile land grabs.

Climate change is also contributing to the general feeling that “the world is going to the dogs, so I’m going to get what I can while I can.” As it disappears under the rising waves, land has become a more valuable commodity. Land hunger was behind the terrifying settler movements of the past — the westward expansion and dispossession of Native Americans in the United States, the colonial enterprises of the nineteenth century throughout the Global South, the Nazi attempt to create a larger lebensraum for Germans. Today, the hunger remains, though the rationales have shifted to securing food supplies, sufficient “critical raw materials” for energy transitions and carbon sinks to balance high levels of emissions in the home countries.

Taiwan faces a number of challenges that have nothing to do with the mainland. Its population peaked in 2019, and it has the lowest fertility rate in the world. As an island, it is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise, alongside increasing fresh-water scarcity as a result of changing monsoon patterns.

Cooperation with the mainland and the international community on these issues is essential. The status quo — little engagement across the Taiwan Straits and low levels of Taiwanese participation in international institutions — has no future in a volatile world. But can Beijing suspend its territorial claims that currently exceed its grasp in favor of peace, justice and mutual economic benefit?

Rationality says yes. Nationalism says no.
[Foreign Policy in Focus first published this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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