Beginning of the New Year 2019 saw the Chinese President Xi Jinping belligerence towards Taiwan, officially the Republic of China (RoC). President Xi Jinping proclaimed that Taiwan unification must be the ultimate goal of any discourse regarding its future and laid out unyielding position that use of force is not ruled out should Taipei asserts full independence. This is not the first time that China openly declared its intention on Taiwan. In December 1995, Chinese officials asked US Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Nye directly what would the US do if China attacked Taiwan. Nye’s response was: “We don’t know and you don’t know. It would depend upon circumstances.”
Beijing considers Taiwan( Formosa) as a breakaway province. RoC is self-governed but it has never formally announced independence from Mainland. The Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen had made it clear that the island nation would never consider reunification with China under the terms offered by Beijing. United States lent its weight behind Taipei by sending guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell and the fleet replenishment oiler USNS Walter S.Diehl through Taiwan Strait. It has further heightened tensions between the US and China. Meanwhile, US Pacific Fleet spokesperson Lieutenant Commander Tim Gorman told Cable News Network that it was a “routine Taiwan Strait Transit” under international law. On the other hand,Taiwan’s navy showcased its latest long-range surveillance drone as a push to counter China’s increasingly muscular rhetoric. Both these moves are symbolic in nature yet an attempt was made to convey to Beijing that Taiwan will not become Tibet of East Asia.
Situated in the West Pacific between Japan and Phillippines, Taiwan is of strategic importance both for China and US. Taiwan (Formosa) lies at the edge of South China Sea shipping lanes. On the eve of Japan’s surrender in the World War-II, the State Department of US published a note on Taiwan which remarked: Strategic factors greatly influence the problem of Formosa. With the exception of Singapore no location in the Far East occupies such a controlling position. Regional powers like Japan in World War-II used Taiwan as a base both for defensive and offensive startegic purposes. It was a very important supply base for Japanese armies in South East Asia during their operations in Second World War. The US Navy commented in 1944 that: The island of Taiwan dominates the China coast and all coastwise shipping between Japan and South Eastern Asia. Its airfields and ports supported the movement of Japanese troops and supplies throughout the Southern theatres of action.
For China, Taiwan is not just a matter of territorial sovereignty as it claims but is important from its security point of view. The control of Taiwan would help China’s operations in South China Sea. It can then more effectively assert and settle its territorial claims against Phillippines,Brunei,Vietnam etc. If Beijing succeeds in the unification of Taiwan then it will be able to use its deep water ports for its submarines to venture into Pacific Ocean. This will project China’s power in Pacific and will be a challenge to US naval assests. Beijing knows that if an external power occupies or make a base in Taiwan then it can cut-off China’s trade lines and a naval blockade could be a catastrophe for China’s rise as an economic and military power.
When two elephants fight, it is the grass that is trampled. But some 23 million Taiwanese people do not want their fate to be that of grass. Taiwan’s loss of the China seat at the United Nations in 1971 was internationally the culmination of a slow erosion in support for the RoC. History reminds us of the destiny of Tibetans at a time when China was not so powerful economically and militarily. The question is can Taiwan defend itself against China if it really uses the force as claimed by Chinese President Xi Jinping? Today, the Chinese expansion of naval assets and capabilities in South China Sea will definitely alter the dynamics of war should it occur between People’s Republic of China and RoC. With UK trying to overcome Brexit imbroglio and France trying to put its own house in order, US may not get the full support of allies against China over Taiwan.
Taiwan is not just a symbol of democracy at the gate of authoritarian Communist China which should be morally supported and militarily protected by Western world but its geographical location has made it a vital piece on global chess board of politics which is being played between US and China. The answer to the future of Taiwan lies in the womb of time but the clock is ticking for Taipei as China flexes its economic, diplomatic and military muscle.