Global Affairs

Independence ‘means war’ – China dials up Taiwan rhetoric

Featured image: “龜山島+國旗(Turtle Isnand with Taiwan Flag)” by bravesheng is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Chinese aggression in the Western Pacific reached new heights last week, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sought to apply pressure to Taiwanese leaders favouring formal independence. A statement from a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) spokesperson on Thursday included this threat:  

“We warn those ‘Taiwan independence’ elements: those who play with fire will burn themselves, and ‘Taiwan independence’ means war”.

Just to drive the point home, the statement was preceded by multiple incursions into Taiwan’s air-defence zone on the 23rd and 24th of January, including by Cheng-Du (‘Vigorous Dragon’) air superiority jets and nuclear-capable Xian H6-K bombers.

The Chinese government, which regards Taiwan (officially the ‘Republic of China’) as a renegade province, stated these latest actions were taken in order to safeguard its own “national sovereignty and security”. But far from protecting its own interests, the new wave of hostility towards Taiwan is the latest step in a well-planned strategy of screw-turning by Beijing. Bringing the free and democratic Taiwanese state to heel has long been a priority of the PLA; with the ultimate aim of enforcing direct Chinese control.

Beijing’s provocative behaviour was also intended to test the resolve of the new US President.  Biden’s administration looks set to continue the US’s commitment to Taiwan’s defence, a welcome reassurance to the 23 million people of the island. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby labelled the PLA’s aggressive rhetoric “unfortunate”, adding that the Pentagon “sees no reason why tensions over Taiwan need to lead to anything like confrontation”.

The China-Taiwan standoff is playing out against a backdrop of finely balanced geopolitical power games in the Western Pacific. China has continued to reinforce its territorial claim on the South China Sea through the illegal construction of military bases on coral reefs in international waters. The PLA’s incursions into Taiwanese airspace earlier this month took place as an American carrier group, led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt, entered the South China Sea with the aim of promoting “freedom of the seas”. Last year, when the Australian government called for an investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, Beijing’s response was to boycott Australian coal and copper, and place tariffs on the country’s barley and beef imports. The final weeks of the Trump administration saw China angered by the US’s decision to send their UN Ambassador, Kelly Craft, on a diplomatic mission to Taiwan. Mike Pompeo, then US Secretary of State, said that the move signalled an end to the “self-imposed restrictions” on contacts between American and Taiwanese officials.

Furthermore, the emergence of a nationalist Taiwanese government has encouraged Beijing to double down on its hostile stance. Taiwan’s 2020 election saw the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) expand its vote share to over 57% – a clear rejection of closer ties with the mainland. The DPP was able to capitalise on domestic fears over Chinese aggression in the wake of the CCP’s brutal suppression of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.

The leader of the DPP and president of Taiwan is the impressive Tsai Ing-wen. The first female leader of her country, Tsai has overseen an astonishingly effective Covid response (just 899 infections and seven deaths), and led Taiwan to GDP growth of 4.9% in 2020, which outstripped China’s economic expansion for the first time in three decades. She is a staunch advocate of Taiwanese sovereignty and a firm ally of the US. No wonder Beijing is trying to turn up the heat.

The modern Taiwanese state was founded in the wake of the Chinese civil war by Kuomintang nationalists, who fled to the island of Formosa (now Taiwan) following their defeat at the hands of Mao’s communists in 1949. Initially, the island was subject to authoritarian one-party rule, but in the late 1980s, it saw the adoption of democracy under President Lee Teng-hui. Taiwan has been engaged in a constant struggle to protect its hard-won freedoms from its neighbour ever since.

Taiwan’s military has attempted to make itself as resilient as possible, cultivating a ‘hedgehog’ strategy which prioritises the use of relatively cheap missile defence systems over more expensive naval assets. In October of last year, the US agreed to a $1.8bn sale of these weapons to the island. Even so, in the event of war Taiwan would be unable to defend itself against the PLA, whose annual budget has doubled in the last decade to over $200bn. This is why the support of Taiwan by the US and its regional allies (principally South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Australia) is so essential. Without it, Taiwan’s fate is sealed.

Even with US backing, the island’s future is uncertain. China’s hope is that the rapid expansion of its armed forces, in conjunction with the construction of military bases in the South China Sea, will eventually tip the regional strategic balance in its favour. ‘Winning without fighting’ is plan A for Beijing: slowly degrading the resolve of Taiwan’s allies by gradually accruing tactical advantages, in the hope that they will become reluctant to commit to the use of force. That said, the Chinese government does view a full-scale invasion as a viable option.

If there was ever a time to reaffirm Western support for an independent Taiwan, it is now. It has overcome a turbulent history and a hostile neighbour to become a remarkable economic success. It is a healthy democracy in a distinctly tough neighbourhood.

Our own prime minister has taken the opportunity to back Taiwan. Boris’s ‘D10’ initiative: an alliance of the G7 countries plus South Korea, Japan and Australia designed to counter China’s influence, is due to hold its first meeting when Cornwall hosts the G7 summit in June. The inclusion of these three pacific states has the potential to revitalise what some have called ‘a relic’ of an international alliance. 

But the UK can still do more. Since it became a member of the UN in 1971, China has blocked Taiwan from participating. That the 56th most populous nation on earth has no voice at the world’s premier diplomatic forum is scandalous. The Taiwanese people deserve more respect from the international community, which has let itself be coerced by China’s economic and political leverage into remaining ambiguous over the island’s formal status. The UK still has no official diplomatic relations between itself and Taiwan. This situation must change. 

The rights of the individual, to a meaningful vote, to freedom of religion and to a fair trial are values that will not defend themselves. Moving towards formalising the UK’s international relationship with this fellow island democracy would send a clear message to Beijing: that this country’s commitment to defend Taiwan’s freedom in the face of tyranny stands undiminished.