Most news agencies reported on Sunday that China sent large groups of fighters and bombers into the Taiwanese airspace two days in a row. Much fluttering in the dovecote: the Chinese are testing the resolve of newly installed United States President Joe Biden.
Considerably fewer agencies also reported that an American aircraft carrier group sailed between Taiwan and the Philippines into the South China Sea at the same time. Yet the American warships must have sailed first: it takes time to get there from the US Navy’s Pacific bases.
Given the timing, it was probably ex-US president Donald Trump who gave the order to sail. However, Biden had just enough time to countermand it — if he was willing to take the blame for “betraying” the Taiwanese, who are understandably nervous about US willingness to defend them from a Chinese attack. He didn’t give that order.
What China did was not illegal. The Chinese aircraft only entered Taiwan’s unilaterally declared “Air Defence Identification Zone”, which is not sovereign Taiwanese territory. They were almost certainly responding to the US naval presence, and the actions of both sides are entirely legal and purely symbolic. Nobody is going to get hurt this time — but there will be a next time.
All China’s leaders since the Communist victory in 1949 have claimed that Taiwan is a renegade province of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), not a separate country. Most of them did nothing about it, because in the early days the US Navy controlled the Pacific Ocean right up to the Chinese low-tide mark, but Chinese President Xi Jinping has made Taiwan his legacy project.
Soon after making himself president for life in 2018, Xi declared that “reunification” of Taiwan with the PRC is an “inevitable requirement for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people”. This makes about as much sense as saying that unification with Puerto Rico is an “inevitable requirement for the great rejuvenation of the American people” — but Xi is the boss, so that’s the policy.
The real history is much more tangled. Chinese settlers conquered Taiwan’s original inhabitants and colonised the island shortly after the Spanish and Portuguese began settling the Americas. The island remained under Chinese rule until 1895, when it passed into Japanese hands — and then briefly fell under Beijing’s control again in 1945.
When the Chinese civil war ended in a Communist victory in 1949, the defeated Nationalist government and much of its army retreated to the island of Taiwan, where they were protected by the US Navy. The two million heavily armed refugees were obsessed with going back to the mainland, of course, and they made short work of any local people with different priorities.
The Nationalist dictatorship lasted almost four decades, but by the 1990s, the island had become a prosperous democracy run mainly by locally-born politicians. To avoid enraging Beijing, Taiwan has never officially declared independence, but in practice it has been independent for 70 years. So what’s the problem?
“Locally-born” in Taiwan generally means of Chinese ethnic origin, but probably Hokkien or Hakka-speaking at home. Indigenous peoples now amount to only 2% of the population. And since the island has spent only four of the past 125 years under the rule of Beijing, there is no longing to be “reunited” with the “motherland”.
President Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) favours full independence for Taiwan, but she never says so in public because the PRC threatens war if she does. And things could have bumbled along like that for another generation except for two things: Xi’s determination to settle matters on his watch, and the shifting balance of military power.
There are only 23 million Taiwanese; mainland Chinese outnumber them sixty-to-one. US military superiority once made up for that, but China’s military are no longer low-tech and there is no longer a US alliance with Taiwan or even an explicit US military guarantee of Taiwan’s separate status. There hasn’t been one since Washington opened its embassy in Beijing in 1979.
The US strives to maintain a high degree of uncertainty about what it would do if China actually invaded Taiwan, in order to deter that eventuality. However, the likelihood that it would actually risk war with China declines as the probability that the US could win a naval war so close to the Chinese coast shrinks. Add an impatient Xi, and stir.
It looks like the same old game that has been played in the Strait of Taiwan for the past 70 years, and long may it remain so. But China’s threats have more military credibility nowadays, there is a more reckless (or at least over-confident) player in Beijing — and if China did invade Taiwan, the US might still decide it had to fight in the end.
Ten years ago, there was little risk of a disastrous miscalculation on either side. Now, there is.
Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His new book is titled Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).