China, Taiwan, and the Conflict That Could Reshape the World

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By James Mackin and Scott Kelly

An emboldened China, still flush from successfully suppressing democracy in Hong Kong, perpetrating genocide in Xinjiang, seizing territory in the South China Sea and colonizing parts of neighboring Bhutan is now looking expectantly at “reunification” with Taiwan. The Chinese Communist Party has viewed Taiwan as rightfully theirs since they rose to power in 1949. There is an old idea that every nation of people has the right to govern the land that they occupy as a sovereign nation-station, and Taiwan has been long viewed as part of a broader Chinese nation. The long-standing dispute over Taiwan’s sovereignty was originally framed by diplomats as a question of whether the government in Beijing or the government in Taipei was the legitimate representation of the Chinese nation. This comfortable ambiguity was maintained until the west decided to fracture the unity of “global communism” during the Cold War by using recognition of the Chinese Communist Party as a hedge against the power of the Soviet Union.

However, a closer look at Taiwan history reveals the presence of an independent nation, existing in defined borders that under the nation-state model has a right to independence as a sovereign nation and under the United Nations (U.N.) charter protection against aggression from other states. Since the founding of the U.N. the world’s most intractable conflicts have been centered around the existence of stateless nations, whether it be the Kurds, Palestinians, Kashmiri, or Uyghurs. Taiwan has avoided such direct conflict by being able to nominally govern themselves within their own boarders which geography, not cartographers and diplomats, have provided. This makes the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty and the potential consequences of its “reunification” with mainland China one with implications for the concept of state sovereignty and the future legitimacy of international law. More importantly, reunification would be the first unignorable sign that the world system America and her allies have prospered from for so long is starting to irreversible change in ways that will have dire consequences for everyone.

The Taiwanese Nation

The history of Taiwan’s struggle for national sovereignty pre-dates the conclusion of World War II and the administration of the island by the Chinese nationalist President Chiang Kai-shek. Taiwan has always seen itself as a nation that was a subject of a greater power throughout history from the Manchu Qing Empire (1683-1895), the Japanese Empire (1895-1945), to Republican China (since 1945). Taiwan’s path towards democracy began with its occupation by Japan following the conclusion of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895. Despite suffering repression from the Japanese, the overall economy of the island improved, and the Taiwanese middle class began to grow and develop. In fact, the majority of Taiwanese companies during the early 1940s were small or medium sized enterprises owned and staffed by Taiwanese. Additionally, Taiwanese nationalists were allowed to successfully compete in local elections, and by the end of World War II, three out of four council members in Taiwan’s parliament were Taiwanese.

Following World War II and the beginning of the Chiang Kai-shek administration, the economic and political liberties granted by the Japanese were severely restricted. “The new regime abolished many of the governmental institutions established by the Japanese, enforced Chinese law, forbade languages other than Mandarin, and took over key positions in former state-run enterprises.”[i] Following the defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT) in the Chinese Civil War, the United States began providing economic assistance to Taiwan in order to protect it from a communist takeover. It was not until 1971 when Taiwan lost its United Nations seat to The Peoples Republic of China (PRC), that the KMT realized that it must fully embrace democracy and liberalize in order for Taiwan to maintain its status as an independent nation. This led to political reforms, the abandonment of representing China’s affairs, and the lifting of martial law.[ii]

Ultimately, these significant changes allowed Taiwan to mature into the successful democracy is today. Taiwan presidents leading up to Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016) have championed democracy in order to maintain and gain international legitimacy as a sovereign state, whereas Ma has championed the idea of a shared Chinese identity and the importance of economic cooperation with the mainland. The current President (2016-Present) and Chair of the Democratic Progressive Party (2020-Present), Tsai Ing-wen, has taken a stronger stance than her predecessor for Taiwan sovereignty despite China’s desire for unification with a “One country, Two systems” configuration.

The Chinese Communist Party’s view

The Chinese Communist Party desires unification with Taiwan, and it will take necessary steps to ensure that Taiwan is not recognized as having de jure independence.  This desire originates from the Chinese Civil War following World War II and continues today as a key topic of debate surrounding cross-Strait relations between the two governments.  During the 1992 Consensus, or lack thereof, China and Taiwan decided “that there is only one China and that Taipei and Beijing agree to disagree on which government is its legitimate representative…”

China views unification as inevitable and encourages it through trade interdependence. The establishment of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in June of 2010 is fostering this trade interdependence by reducing the tariffs and commercial barriers between Taiwan and the mainland. China hopes that the trade agreement will lead to what Ma’s first vice-president, Vincent Siew Wan-chang, called a “one-China market”. In fact Taiwan faces a dilemma in which “it will either be drawn deeper into China’s orbit or be marginalized in international affairs as well as regional economic integration.”[iii]

China appears patient in addressing the issue of unification, but tensions could escalate quickly if Taiwan begins to assert itself as being de jure independent. This claim is supported by a statement issued in 2004 by the Taiwan Affairs Office of the PRC that declared the “prevention of Taiwan’s de jure independence was the top priority of Beijing’s Taiwan policy.” As long as the status quo is maintained and the two nations are allowed to grow more interdependent through the ECFA, China will likely allow the situation to take its course.  This is indicated by the President of the PRC, Xi Jinping’s speech at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in March 2015, “during which he emphasized that maintaining the 1992 Consensus as a foundation for cross-Strait relations was indispensable for peace and stability…while unification was a long term goal that could be achieved only after substantial development took place across the Taiwan Strait.” It can be safely assumed that Xi’s opinion in the matter will be the party line due to his extensive experience in handling cross-Strait affairs as the provincial secretary of Fujuan, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, “where the local governments have established substantial connections with Taiwan.” 

Instead of forcing unification, Xi is taking a long-term approach that progresses gradually from the status quo in cross-Strait relations.  In 2014, Xi told a Taiwanese delegation that peaceful reunification is only possible through a “One Country, Two Systems” configuration, and that “No secessionist act will be tolerated”.[iv]

Through “One Country, Two Systems,” China seeks to unify Taiwan under Chinese authority while allowing it to maintain its own economic and administrative system similar to Hong Kong and Macau. The current leadership of Taiwan is resisting this policy partly due to how Hong Kong is being forced to submit to Chinese authoritarianism.  The terms of “One Country, Two Systems” seem generous, but Taiwan leadership see the price as too high. Its purpose is transitional in nature, and when the transition is complete (as seen with Hong Kong), there are no controls in place preventing abuse.[v] Xi is also attempting to remove the United States from the discussion in order to make unification a domestic issue without international interference.  He hopes to prevent the US from directly interfering in cross-Strait relations or using Taiwan as a bargaining chip in future agreements.[vi]

In order to maintain its sovereignty and prevent a confrontation with China, “Taiwan chooses to be de facto free by remaining de jure unfree.”[vii]It has accomplished this precarious balance through the leveraging of bi-lateral alliances and free trade agreements (FTA).  In the past, Taiwan was able to leverage its trade agreements and alliances with the United States, Singapore, and other regional partners in order to off-set closures in cross-Strait trade with China and to maintain its independence against China’s will. Today, the re-opening of cross-Strait trade with China is proving to be a double-edged sword for Taiwan. Taiwan is now benefiting from this relationship via the ECFA, but this agreement is slowly eroding the importance of Taiwan’s traditional agreements and alliances.[viii] Overall, China is militarily unable to force Taiwan to capitulate towards unification without overextending itself.  Instead, China is attempting to slowly pull Taiwan’s economy into an interdependence with the mainland.  If successful, this will eventually result in a de facto unification between China and Taiwan.

Power is more than ships and tanks

The conflict between China and Taiwan demonstrates how diplomacy and economics are critical instruments of national power and can be deftly employed to offset military disadvantages. Taiwan is not strong enough on its own to resist Chinese occupation, but it has effectively leveraged its bi-lateral alliances and FTAs in order to remain de jure free and independent.  Taiwan has not needed to be able to fully defend itself militarily from a Chinese invasion to ensure its independence till now. Instead, it has to maintain enough military power to impose significant costs on China for such an invasion, while leaving the possibility open that a more opportune time for China to force reunification would present itself in the future. Although effective, it leaves them in a perpetually precarious situation, and makes stronger pushes towards independence too risky for any Taiwanese government to aggressively push for.

Taiwan’s traditional bi-lateral alliance with the United States has ensured its independence and provided some stability to the tense arrangement it has had with China since World War II; but nonetheless, it is being gradually pulled into the orbit of China through the opening of cross-Strait relations. Weak states, when confronted with the problem of protecting their sovereignty in the face of a more powerful, aggressive neighbor will typically either align themselves with the powerful neighbor (often referred to as “bandwagoning”) or seek to balance against them through alliances with similarly threatened states. However, Taiwan appears to be pursuing a combination of both simultaneously where they are “economically and politically engaging China, binding or tying down China in institutions, buying insurance in the form of a US presence.”[ix] As China’s influence grows along with its economic and military might it can be expected that Taiwan will begin to cooperate with China in an attempt to maintain a degree of independence in the short to midterm, despite its strong alliance with the US and potential long term failure.

Economic maneuvering and diplomacy are also key to China’s approach to ensuring eventual reunification. Due to the potentially high cost in manpower, treasure, and international reputation, military force is not China’s preferred method because it wants to take Taiwan intact. China’s strategy is in line with the teaching of Sun Tzu that states, “In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.”[x] By gaining control of Taiwan gradually over time through an interdependence created by cross-Strait trade, China will be able to incorporate Taiwan into its sphere of influence without destroying its infrastructure or fighting a costly war.  This will also allow China to focus its energies elsewhere towards securing the first island chain and developing its Belt and Road initiative.  As long as the status quo is maintained, China is content with waiting for Taiwan to capitulate.

Ultimately, China seeks to realize a peaceful rise in which it gradually gains power and influence without the damaging effects of war. China has undergone a profound identity change at the international level, in which it is quickly becoming a full member of international society along with active participation in representative international institutions.[xi] This has directly contributed to the development of its long-term view of gradually securing international dominance, departing from the weaknesses and fallacies of communism, and returning to the days of its imperial glory.

And there goes the neighborhood; the legitimization of the “right of conquest”

If the international community fails to defend the territorial integrity of Taiwan it will have allowed the concept of claiming land “by right of conquest” to become normalized among great powers again in a way that cannot be as easily ignored as previous violations of the post World War II ban on seizing territory by force. Russia’s recent actions in the Ukraine have come with the veneer of protecting members of the Russian nation during a time when the Ukrainian state was having difficulty providing good governance. Their actions and the after effects could be eventually accepted as the inevitable consequence of poorly drawn maps leading to a geographic misalignment between states and nations, as soon as it becomes diplomatically necessary or sufficiently expedient to do so. The current global regime could absorb this blow. This has both allowed Russia to get away with seizing territory not recognized as theirs, while limiting their ability to apply the same approach elsewhere.

Taiwan does not provide the same easy out. Despite Chinese insistence to the contrary, Taiwan is home to its own unique nation of people, who by every norm of international relations have a right to sovereignty in their own territory within clearly defined borders. China has brutally cracked down on its citizens in Hong Kong and is perpetrating a genocide against the Uighurs, another nation of people within their state. The United Nations was founded to help prevent genocide and protect the sovereignty of nations against aggression. Gradually forced reunification would be an embarrassing example of U.N. impotence, while a more aggressive military takeover, if allowed to succeed, would cause a level of diplomatic gymnastics to occur to save face among the nations of the world that boggles the imagination. It would be quite entertaining in form, if incredibly tragic in substance.

Is the writing on the wall?

This century will likely be defined by the outcome of the conflict between China and the current international regime headed by the U.S. Although we see persistent maneuvering by both sides through economic sanctions and the stationing of military forces throughout the Indo-pacific region, each side has so far avoided committing themselves to a course of action that would lead to a showdown neither could back away from. Eventually though, America will need to decide if it must defend the current international regime at all costs, or accept and prepare for a level of restructuring that will greatly diminish its power and standing. It is impossible to know for certain which course of action will prove to be most beneficial, feasible or prudent, but how the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty is resolved will be the first undeniable signal of which direction it is headed.

The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or its subsidiary units.

Major James Mackin is a communications officer in the United States Marine Corps with 12 years of service. He is currently deployed to the INDOPACOM area of operations with the III Marine Expeditionary Force. In his limited spare time, James studies international relations as a graduate student with American University.

Captain Scott Kelly is a special forces officer in 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, NC. He has previously served as an infantry officer at Fort Drum, NY and has nine years of military service. He is currently a graduate student at American University studying U.S. foreign policy.

[i] Christian Schafferer, “Taiwan’s Defensive Democratization,” Asian Affairs: An American Review 47 (2020)

[ii] i

[iii] Lowell Dittmer. Taiwan and China Fitful Embrace (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017)

[iv] iii

[v] Byron S. J. Weng, “‘One Country, Two Systems’ From a Taiwan Perspective,” Elsevier Science Limited (2019)


[vii] Michael I. Magcamit and Alexander C. Tan, “Crouching Tiger, Lurking Dragon: Understanding Taiwan’s Sovereignty and Trade Linkages in the Twenty-First Century,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 15, (2015)

[viii] vii

[ix] Alastair Iain Johnston, “What (If Anything) Does East Asia Tell Us About International Relations Theory?” Annual Review of Political Science 15 (2012)

[x] Sun Tzu. The Art of War (Translated by L. Giles. New York: Open Road, 2014)

[xi] Qin Yaqing, “Development of International Relations Theory in China,” International Studies 46, no. 1&2 (2009)

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