China-Taiwan tensions: What’s behind the divide

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Taiwan, a self-ruled island of 24 million people roughly 100 miles off China’s southeastern coast, is a vibrant democracy that, like Ukraine, has lived for years under the cloud of conflict with a vastly more powerful authoritarian neighbor. The war in Ukraine has rattled many in Taiwan, renewing interest in preparing to resist an invasion by China, which sees the island as part of its territory and has vowed to take control of it—if necessary, by force. Russia’s offensive likewise is offering lessons that China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, can take on board should it decide to launch an assault across the Taiwan Strait.

For all the similarities between Ukraine and Taiwan, there are important differences. At the top of the list are the parties involved: A conflict over Taiwan is likely to include direct U.S. involvement. There is no indication war over Taiwan is imminent, but if one broke out, it could pit the world’s two largest militaries against each other, with the world’s two largest economies hanging in the balance.

Here’s a look at the past and present of tensions between China and the U.S. over Taiwan, and what it could mean for the future of the balance of power, in Asia and beyond.

What’s the latest on the China-Taiwan tension?

Tensions have been rising since then-President Donald Trump made it U.S. policy to tighten ties with Taiwan. That has continued under President Biden, with the U.S. sending weapons, special military training units and delegations of former officials in a show of support for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, whom Beijing sees as dangerously pro-independence.

The friction has heated up over the past year, with the People’s Liberation Army sending jet fighters, bombers and spy planes on hundreds of sorties near Taiwan—often in response to the presence nearby of U.S. aircraft-carrier strike groups.

The temperature climbed higher after Russia invaded Ukraine. Days after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the “special military operation,” the U.S. sent the Navy destroyer USS Ralph Johnson on a course through the Taiwan Strait. President Biden followed up a few days later by sending a delegation of former military officials, including retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on a two-day visit to Taipei.

In response, China’s Foreign Ministry has issued a series of angry responses, denying any similarity between Ukraine and Taiwan and dismissing U.S. displays of support for Taiwan as “futile.”

The Biden administration further raised China’s ire a month later by approving the sale of a $95 million arms package to Taiwan—the second such package in a year—intended to improve the island’s air-defense systems.

What is Taiwan’s relationship with mainland China?

Taiwan was controlled by Japan for half a century until the end of World War II, when it became a part of the Republic of China, ruled by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang.

Though the mainland was taken over by Mao Zedong’s Communist forces in China’s civil war, the island remained under Kuomintang control after the war ended in 1949. Tensions often spiked in the following decades. China shelled offshore islands held by Taiwan in the 1950s, and the Kuomintang for many years harbored ambitions of recovering the mainland from the Communists.

Taiwanese increasingly view mainland China as a foreign place. In the early 1990s, fewer than 20% of people on the island identified themselves as exclusively Taiwanese, with most seeing themselves as at least partly Chinese. By 2021, only a third identified themselves as both Chinese and Taiwanese, with most of the rest describing themselves as exclusively Taiwanese.

Although Mandarin is the dominant language in both places, Chinese pressure has helped fuel Taiwanese interest in the island’s local languages.

How has Taiwan responded to the tensions with China?

For years, defense analysts have questioned Taiwan’s dedication and approach in preparing for a potential Chinese invasion. Taiwanese soldiers and reservists have themselves expressed concerns about training and readiness.

In response, Taiwan’s government established an agency to revamp reserve forces. The Taiwanese military has purchased more of the type of mobile weaponry that American analysts say it will need to repel Chinese forces. It has also staged exercises it hopes will deter Beijing from contemplating an invasion.

More recently, the war in Ukraine has led Taiwan to rethink its preparations for a possible Chinese invasion, with some lawmakers pushing for more purchases of the portable antitank and antiaircraft missiles that Ukrainian soldiers have used to great effect. The island’s military is also considering extending conscription to 12 months from the current four—a proposition that was widely considered a political impossibility before the war.

Can China invade Taiwan?

Defense and political analysts generally agree that China’s military, which dwarfs Taiwan’s, could invade and eventually take control, especially if the U.S. and other powers don’t intervene. Last year, Taiwan’s defense minister warned lawmakers that by 2025 the PLA would be capable of launching a full-scale attack on Taiwan “with minimal losses.”

A successful invasion would be a challenge, however. The PLA would have to cross choppy seas and land significant forces on Taiwan’s heavily fortified western shore. China’s military is well-equipped but untested, having not fought a war since a border skirmish with Vietnam in 1979. And even if the other countries don’t get involved, the war in Ukraine provides a template for advanced democracies to cooperate on crippling sanctions against a major power that launches an unpopular war.

Is there an equivalent of NATO for the Asia-Pacific region?

There is no formal military alliance among Pacific states akin to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Even if there were, Taiwan would likely be shut out, as it has diplomatic recognition from only a small number of small states. The U.S. and most other countries long ago switched recognition to Beijing, which has exerted pressure on international bodies like the World Health Organization and World Trade Organization to deny Taiwan full membership.

Recently, the U.S. has strengthened informal alliances that might come into play were China to invade Taiwan. The Biden administration has revived a grouping that combines the U.S., Japan, Australia and India—known as the Quad—with the aim of countering China’s influence and deterring a potential conflict in the region.

Last year the U.S., Australia and the U.K. launched the Aukus security partnership, which focuses primarily on providing nuclear-powered submarines to Australia—a move that military analysts see as an effort to take advantage of China’s relative weakness in undersea combat. More recently, the group has turned its attention to hypersonic missiles, an area where some analysts see China as having an edge.

China has blasted both efforts as a U.S.-led attempt to revive a “Cold-War mentality.”

 

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