Taiwan: A US-China Flash Point

September 13, 2021 Updated: September 14, 2021


China recently held military drills near southern Taiwan, with warships and 11 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft entering Taiwan’s airspace. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) said the drills were in response to “external interference.”

The communist regime claims that Taiwan is its territory, in spite of the fact that Taiwan has been self-governing since 1949, and that it has never governed Taiwan.

The official name for Taiwan is the Republic of China (ROC). It is located on the island of Formosa, which lies about 81 miles from the southeast coast of mainland China, bordering the East China Sea, Philippine Sea, South China Sea, and Taiwan Strait. Over 95 percent of the island’s 23.8 million inhabitants are ethnic Chinese. The rest are aboriginals, members of 16 recognized indigenous groups of Malayo-Polynesian peoples.

Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945. After the Kuomintang (KMT) forces, under Chiang Kai-shek, faced military defeat in mainland China, they relocated to Taiwan. The United States and the United Nations shifted recognition from the Republic of China (ROC) to the CCP regime in 1971. In response, Chiang Kai-shek quit the U.N., a move that set the stage for the next 50 years of ambiguity and impending peril for Taiwan. Taiwan is only recognized as an independent country by 15 states: Belize, Guatemala, Haiti, Holy See, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Nicaragua, Palau, Paraguay, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Swaziland, and Tuvalu.

In 1996, when Taiwan held the first direct presidential elections, the Chinese regime carried out missile tests in the Strait of Taiwan to intimidate voters into voting for the pro-unification party. Invoking the Taiwan Relations Act, President Clinton dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups into the region, ending the CCP missile tests. In 2000, KMT rule finally came to an end, with Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) being elected as the fifth president of the ROC.

Today, Taiwan is a multiparty democracy with an average income of $25,000 per year, putting it in roughly the top 15 percent of countries in terms of per capita income. The president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, also of the DPP, is currently in her second term, having won a resounding victory in 2020. She has publicly stated that Taiwan would not unify with the communist regime, angering the CCP.

Taiwan, protest, media
Protesters hold placards with messages that read “reject red media” and “safeguard the nation’s democracy” during a rally against pro-China media in Taipei on June 23, 2019. (Hsu Tsun-hsu/AFP)

According to a 2019 survey by Taiwanese think tank Academia Sinica, more than 73 percent of Taiwanese did not want to unify with mainland China. Less than 14.5 percent of the population are 65 or older, meaning that only the absolute smallest percentage of the population would have any memory of China at all, while the vast majority were raised by parents who had never lived in the mainland.

Beijing claims territorial waters around Taiwan, a claim which no other country recognizes. This summer, the regime went so far as to issue an edict requiring foreign warships to register their intent, in order to enter the South China Sea. The CCP claims sovereignty over the entire Sea, in spite of legitimate claims by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines. In direct opposition to Beijing, the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its task force conducted operations in the South China Sea, without completing the CCP’s required paperwork.

The Chinese Embassy issued a statement, saying that it “firmly opposes” any U.S. official interaction with Taiwan. It is this author’s contention that, in addition to the fact that the United States should support Taiwan because it is the right thing to do, Washington should remind Beijing that the United States can have diplomatic relations with any country it wishes. Beijing does not and should not set U.S. foreign policy.

Under the Trump administration, and continuing under President Biden, the United States has increased its diplomatic engagement with Taiwan, increasing its arms sales and military maneuvers, as well as its joint statements along with Japan, South Korea, and the G7.

While China postures and threatens militarily, there are several factors that would prevent China from invading Taiwan. First, it is unclear if China could successfully defeat and then occupy Taiwan, particularly if the United States came to defend the island. Second, if invading Taiwan triggered a war with the United States, aside from the resulting destruction and loss of life, it would crash the Chinese economy. And finally, the CCP still clings to the hope that Taiwan would agree to be peacefully absorbed into the mainland.

The new propaganda the CCP is directing toward Taiwan is that the fall of Afghanistan is proof that the United States is a weak and unreliable partner, and would not defend Taiwan. The underlying implication is that Taiwan should just give up now, and join the mainland. So far, Taiwan does not appear to be buying it. It is possible, however, that the CCP believes its own propaganda that the United States has pulled out of Afghanistan and will, therefore, abandon Taiwan, making its annexation easier.

While a military conflict remains a possibility, the war against Taiwan is fought in small, incremental battles such as the controversy over the use of the name Taiwan, which Beijing takes very seriously.

The Biden administration is considering allowing Taiwan to change the name of its representative office in the United States to include the word Taiwan. The office is currently called, “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO),” but Taiwanese officials would like to change it to “Taiwan Representative Office.” So far, the proposed change has the support of White House Asia adviser Kurt Campbell, as well as wide support inside the National Security Council and from the State Department.

The CCP should not be permitted to dictate the name of the Taiwanese representative office in the United States. That decision should be the result of a discussion between Taiwan and U.S. officials. These small, symbolic battles are the current war involving Taiwan. It is important not to yield on the small points, or the United States will eventually be yielding on the big ones.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Antonio Graceffo, Ph.D., has spent over 20 years in Asia. He is a graduate of Shanghai University of Sport and holds a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University. Antonio works as an economics professor and China economic analyst, writing for various international media. Some of his books on China include "Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion" and "A Short Course on the Chinese Economy."