What Explains the Tension Between Taiwan and China?

What Explains the Tension Between Taiwan and China?

The road from Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport to the capital, Taipei, looks like the sort of highway you would see anywhere else. However, in Taiwan, things are not always what they seem. Sections of this road double as runways. They aren’t normally used for planes, but they are ready in case Chinese missiles ever destroy the country’s conventional airstrips.

This isn’t the only example of stealth militarization in Taiwan. Cruise missiles stand ready in unmarked trucks. City neighbourhoods hide tanks. There is a hollowed-out mountain with room for on hundred fighter jets. The shoreline boasts an oil-filled pipeline ready to greet invaders with a wall of fire.

Taiwan has good reason to be nervous. China, its hulking neighbour, regularly states its intention to take over Taiwan. If China attacked, it would probably succeed. But Taiwan’s military preparations force China to think hard about just how many Chinese soldiers would die if they tried. Military experts call it a porcupine strategy. So far, it has proved very effective.

China’s claim to Taiwan rests on its control of the island between 1683 and 1895. Before 1683, Taiwan was ruled by its indigenous Malay and Polynesian population. After 1895, China lost the island to the Japanese, who held it until 1945. It was what happened after 1945 that sealed the hatred between Taiwan and the mainland.

When the Second World War ended that year and Japanese troops left China, the fighting didn’t stop. China was plunged into a civil war between Communists and the party that had ruled the country in the 1920’s and 1930’s: the Guomindang.

By 1949, the Guomindang were losing badly. The leadership moved crates full of art treasures and bullion across the water to Taiwan, then fled there themselves, along with one million soldiers. The Guomindang claimed that it was still the legitimate government of all China, and many countries, including the United States, supported their claim. Meanwhile, the victorious Communists under Mao Zedong asserted their right over Taiwan, and vowed to invade, occupy the island, unite China, and destroy their rivals.

Neither side has changed its position much since 1949. Taiwan has survived in part because of strong friends, notably the United States, which has consistently backed the government in Taipei. Thousands of Pentagon officials continue to visit Taiwan each year on military business. However, the US has also become more and more friendly to mainland China: its billion-plus consumers make it irresistible to American firms.

China continues to threaten Taiwan with invasion. They perform live-fire drills in the Taiwan strait. But business ties between the two countries are stronger than ever. Tens of thousands of Taiwanese companies operate in China, including Foxconn which makes iPhones in its factories there. War between the two countries is in no one’s interests.

The danger is that China’s government may one day fan the flames of anti-Taiwan nationalism to a point where it can no longer control it. The temptation to do so will increase when China’s hitherto bulletproof economy falters, as it surely will. Nicholas II, the leader of Russia before the First World War, did something similar and then found that popular pressure pushed him into war against his better judgement. More recently, Vladimir Putin has used foreign adventures to maintain his popularity as Russian living standards have stagnated. China’s leaders may one day think of doing the same.

They will, however, think twice. Taiwan’s defenses are formidable.  Popular opinion is fickle and in China it might turn against the government once Taiwanese missiles hit targets on the mainland and Chinese sailors burn to death on torpedoed boats. Considerations like this provide hope that the porcupine will survive for a long while yet.


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