China – Taiwan Tension Escalates:  Is Peaceful Reunification an Option?

Dr Kaustav Padmapati
14th October 2021

 Picture Courtesy: Reuters

On 8 October 2021, as Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall declared about China’s possible peaceful “reunification” with Taiwan, new speculations and anxiety has surfaced about the political future of the island nation. This controversial statement came after Beijing sent record number of military jets into the defence zone of Taiwan. During the speech, President Xi did not indicate the use of military strength; however, he warned that Chinese people had a glorious tradition of opposing separatism. President Xi’s statement have sent mixed signals across the world but escalated the unresolved China- Taiwan dispute regarding Taipei’s ambiguous political status.

Taiwan was already “on alert” as China flew a record 56 fighter aircrafts towards Taiwan on 6 October 2021 as a part of Beijing’s exorbitant military exercise. Reportedly, 148 Chinese air force planes entered the southern and southwestern part of Taiwan’s air defence zone since the People’s Republic of China (PRC) celebrated its National Day on 1 October 2021. As a response, the Taiwanese air force scrambled its fighter planes and monitored the movement of the Chinese warplanes on its air defence system.

As President Xi Jinping vowed to realise peaceful reunification with Taiwan, the statement has made the leaders of Taiwan worried about the risk of conflict. He also stated, “Taiwan’s independence separatism is the biggest obstacle to achieving the reunification of the motherland, and the most serious hidden danger to national rejuvenation.” According to Taiwan’s Defense Minister, tension with Beijing is at worse now compared to last 40 years.  The PRC claims Taiwan as a part of its own territory; however, it has no sovereign control over it. Significantly, the United States has a crucial role to play in Taiwan’s peculiar political status. In fact, the United States was the main player in the evolution of the unusual political status and peculiar strategic position of Taiwan in the post-World War II period. Surprisingly, Taiwan also known as the Republic of China (ROC) is a de-facto nation-state with a vibrant democracy. Taiwan has its own constitution, democratically elected leaders, and about 300,000 active troops in its armed forces.

According to number of scholars, President Xi remarks on Saturday were milder compared to his previous statement on Taiwan in July, where he indicated to “smash” any attempts to declare Taiwan’s independence. However, he added, “no one should underestimate the Chinese people’s staunch determination, firm will, and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” President Xi further indicated that he wants to see unification occur under a “one country, two systems” principle, similar to that employed in Hong Kong, which is part of China but has a degree of autonomy.

According to Taiwan’s presidential office, Taiwan’s population will never accept one country, two systems. In a separate statement, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council called on China to abandon its “provocative steps of intrusion, harassment and destruction.” Since the Democratic People’s Party’s (DPP) Tsai Ing Wen became the President of Taiwan in 2016, Beijing has resorted to a series of aggressive actions against Taipei, which included economic pressures and military bullying. President Tsai’s domestic politics and her administration’s close ties with the US have angered Beijing. As part of Taiwan’s push for more political space at Taiwan Strait, Tsai has sought to bolster Taiwan’s defences by increasing the defence budget, reforming the reserves, improving its image from the authoritarian Kuomintang era, and purchasing billions of dollars in arms from the US since taking office. These were enough reasons that made the PRC furious.

The PRC is also uncomfortable with the DPP, which is more representative of the indigenous Taiwanese population and supports independence. After coming to power in 2000,  ending fifty-odd years of KMT rule, the DPP has developed a strong political identity as a party that is committed to realizing an economically prosperous, cosmopolitan, liberal, and free Taiwan. All these developments have made the PRC uncomfortable.  Chinese actions have increased since the re-election of Tsai Ing-wen in the 2020 Presidential elections. Public opinion moved in President Tsai’s favour as China adopted a series of radical policies in Hong Kong, abandoning the ‘One Country Two Systems’ formula promoted by former Chinese President Deng Xiaoping.

In response to President Xi’s declaration, speaking at Taiwan’s National Day celebrations on 10 October 2021, President Tsai also vowed to protect Taiwan from China’s rising pressure for reunification. During the celebrations, Taiwan exhibited a rare show of Taiwanese security capabilities, which confirmed President Tsai’s promise to oppose Chinese military threats. In addition, she highlighted Taiwan’s vibrant and multi-party democracy in contrast to China’s authoritarian one – party dominant Communist government. While calling for maintenance of status quo at Taiwan Strait, President Tsai further acknowledged the increasing tension that Taiwan faces as Chinese military harassment intensified in the past year.

China immediately reacted and in response to President Tsai’s speech, Taiwan Affairs Office of China, issued a statement on the night of 10 October, stating that the DPP is the source of turbulence and tension in cross-Strait ties and biggest threat to peaceful stability in the Taiwan Strait. So, the relevant question arises – is peaceful reunification an option for Taipei?

Tensions have risen to their highest in decades under Chinese President Xi Jinping, who broke off official communication with Taipei following Tsai’s election in 2015 and ramped up economic, diplomatic and military pressure. Tsai, who has won two elections, is despised by China because she regards Taiwan as an “already independent” country, not part of “one China”. Several surveys on Taiwan’s political future also show Taiwanese population overwhelmingly favor their current de-facto independent state and strongly rejects unification with China, which claims as part of its national territory to be brought until its control by military force if necessary. In addition, the escalating military threats against Taiwan, through regular violations of its air defence identification zone (ADIZ) and aggressive naval exercises in the Taiwan Strait are currently preventive in nature, aimed at heading off any move towards freedom and its closer military ties with the U.S.

While President Tsai’s domestic politics are viewed as largely maintaining the status quo in Taiwan’s complex relationship with China, abroad she is associated with a push for a unique Taiwanese identity that is separate from its historic ties to China. The DPP and President Tsai believe that only the Taiwan’s people could decide its political future. She further stated in the National Day speech “Taiwan will do our utmost to prevent the status quo from being unilaterally altered.” She described Taiwan as “standing on democracy’s first line of defence”.

The United States has been responsible for Taipei’s security for decades. It sustains the defence capability of Taiwan by supplying sophisticated weapons and aircrafts. While Washington does not support a declaration of independence by Taiwan, it has gradually reversed the policy of avoiding official-level engagements with the ROC government. One of the major critical and complex matters in the US – China ties has been the “Taiwan question.” In fact, the Taiwan Strait is among the major dangerous military flashpoints in the world, and possibly the key complex and critical foreign and defense policy question facing the US in the Indo-Pacific region. However, the US has never directly participated in any conflicts between China and Taiwan, but has always remained connected with it.

The United States pursues “one China” policy under which it recognizes the PRC as the legitimate government of China rather than the ROC. On China’s display of military strength in last few days, American President Joe Biden stated that President Xi had agreed to abide by the “Taiwan agreement.” Washington maintains a “robust unofficial” ties with Taiwan under this agreement. Washington sells arms and weapons to Taiwan as part of Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which states that the US must help Taiwan defend itself. The US also prefers preserving status quo at the Taiwan Strait and confirmed recently that the US will “stand up and speak out” over any actions that may “undermine peace and stability” across the Taiwan Strait. Washington’s preference is that the future of Taiwan must be determined by the will of Taiwan’s people not by the PRC.

Washington, however, never supported the idea of unification of Taiwan with China by war or aggressive military action. It also did not support Taiwan declaring its independence unilaterally. It always preferred a peaceful Taiwan because maintaining a solid, cooperative relationship between Washington and Taipei serves the interests of both sides. It was never against the growing economic and people-to-people ties between Taiwan and mainland China. Both China and Taiwan are economically viable markets for the United States.

Democratically administered Taiwan has come under increased military and political pressure from Beijing to accept its sovereignty, but Taipei has pledged to defend their freedom and that only Taiwan’s people can decide their future. Facing the Chinese security threat, Taiwan President Tsai has made modernising the armed forces a priority, enhancing its capacity for asymmetric warfare, which is designed to make any Chinese attack difficult and costly. She is also overseeing improvements to the island’s air force. In an article for the US magazine Foreign Affairs, Tsai stated Taiwan falling to China would trigger “catastrophic” consequences for peace in Asia. While Taiwan does not want military confrontation, “if its democracy and way of life are threatened, Taiwan will do whatever it takes to defend itself,” added.

The main worry for Taiwan is the leadership of China’s ambitious leader President Xi Jinping.  President Xi presides over what is arguably the country’s most potent military in history. Some experts argue that Xi, who has set the stage to rule for a third term starting in 2022, could feel compelled to conquer Taiwan to strengthen his era in power. According to him, peaceful “reunification” best meets the overall interests of the Taiwanese people, but China will protect its sovereignty and unity. “Taiwan must not underestimate the Chinese people’s staunch determination, firm will, and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Xi added.

The peaceful unification is still problematic as along with the democratic transition, Taiwan also witnessed the emergence of new Taiwanese identity. It became a complex matter as the identity of Taiwan developed out of a history and culture shared with mainland China. However, the identity has been altered and changed through the experience of the island’s residents under different political systems, changes in the cross- Strait environment and the influence of prominent leadership. Mainly Taiwan’s prolonged political and economic distance from the Mainland China has created sufficient space and time for emergence of separate identity with the territory and people of Taiwan. The new identity was much stronger than the “provincial identification” of the Mainland China.  Basically, the transition to democracy in Taiwan created nationalist competition and aggravated ethnic conflict. So, the Chinese national identity lost the dominant position while acceptance of Taiwanese identity was rapidly rising.

The tension will continue between China and Taiwan as Taiwan considers itself a sovereign state, while China views it as a breakaway province.

*The Author is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, The Royal Global University, Guwahati, Assam


Disclaimer: The Views expressed in the Article are of the Author