Cold War Parallels: China-Taiwan Tensions
The outcome of the Chinese Civil War, which ended in 1949, framed the bilateral relations not only between the People's Republic of China and Taiwan but also between the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC) during the Cold War.
If we take a closer look at the map of East Asia, we can infer the great difference in capabilities between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan; by looking at the declared intentions between both parties, an observer could raise a question about the reason that is preventing the PRC from reestablishing its sovereignty over the island, since it considers it a part of its national territory. The great gap between the material capabilities, from a military and a civilian standpoint, reinforces these questions.
The answer carries many aspects; some of the aspects are political while others are military. It is hard to judge which has more sway over the other. However, judging by the material circumstances, we can only be sure that the PRC hasn't decided yet.
A bit of history
In another article on Al Mayadeen English, Karim Sharara discussed the history of the US-Chinese relations in the light of the Taiwan issue, since it first reemerged, following the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. That Civil War that ended with the victory of the Chinese Communist Party and the ousting of the Kuomintang (KMT) to the island that was formerly known as Formosa. In this report, we will be discussing the military and geopolitical aspects of the situation.
What many don't know is that the PRC tried to reclaim the island Taiwan multiple times. Just southwest of Taiwan, another island that almost matches its size extends along the Chinese mainland, Hainan island, which the PRC retook following a military landing operation in 1950. The People's Liberation Army (PLA), the PRC's army, tried to retake another smaller island, namely the Kuningtou island. But, they failed due to the latter being heavily fortified by the KMT in 1949.
The KMT on the other hand, led by Chiang Kai-shek, never made efforts to hide its intentions to reinvade the Chinese mainland with the support of the US, an operation which the latter redeemed as unrealistic. Artillery exchange continued during the fifties between both belligerent parties. Guerrilla warfare and sabotage operations were also common; some of these operations that were launched from Burma were supported by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The first and second Taiwan Crisis
Tensions culminated in the First Taiwan Strait Crisis that formerly began on September 3, 1954, when the PLA began bombarding Quemoy and threatened to capture the Dachen Islands. The crisis resulted in the US expanding its intervention in the area, an expansion that was already underway with the breaking of the Korean peninsula war. The crisis resulted in the signing of a Mutual Defense Treaty between the KMT in Taiwan and the US, following the PRC retaking the Daichen islands. During the crisis, $527 million worth of equipment was given to the KMT.
The 1955 Formosa resolution allowed the US to deploy its forces to protect the Formosa and Pengu islands but excluded the offshore islands controlled by the KMT. Eisenhower allowed the US to use nuclear weapons against the PRC, but such actions never materialized. However, they pushed the PRC to develop their own, which resulted in the first Chinese nuclear bomb in 1964.
At that time, The PRC appealed for a peaceful settlement for the crisis with Taiwan coming back to the control of China but to no avail. The PRC refused to pledge not to use force if all means fail, this consideration stemmed from it considering the crisis as an internal Chinese matter. PRC began its nuclear weapons development later on.
The second Taiwan crisis in 1958 settled in a stalemate, following an unsuccessful attempt by the PRC to retake the Matsu and Kinman islands just offshore. While the US stood by the KMT, the Soviet Union (USSR) refrained from sustaining the PRC.
Normalization and stalemate
In the seventies, relations started improving between the US and the PRC - the opposite was happening with Taiwan. The US tried to exploit the rift that was occurring between China and the USSR. Following the UN recognition of the PRC and the normalization of relations between the US and the PRC, the 'One China Policy' was adopted by the Carter administration. But still, the US maintained relations with Taiwan and committed to selling the island only defensive weapons after the adoption of the Taiwan Relations Act.
US President Ronald Regan, later on, vowed not to put a date to terminate US arms sales to Taiwan within his "6 assurances". Relations witnessed a back and forth motion with each US president, who come with no big change in the main outlines of the policy. 1996 witnessed a Third Taiwan Crisis; missiles were fired across the straits in the waters in what the PRC considered as military drills. The drills occurred amid tensions in the region following Taiwan First elections in 1996. Luckily, the situation didn't escalate to a full-scale war.
No major changes occurred until the second decade of the 21st century when the Obama administration adopted the US “pivot” to Asia. Tensions started to rise over trade and economic issues, but mostly because of what the US considered "Chinese expansion in the South China sea."
The geopolitical situation
So why is Taiwan that important to the PRC? In appearance, the issue would resemble a mere political matter, but it is closer to an analogy of the interaction between the US and USSR during the Cold War.
At that time, the US as a dominant maritime power did everything in its power to negate the Soviet an open warm-water port. Baltic Sea ports for instance led to straits dominated by NATO-member countries; Vladivostok and Archengalsek ports were by no means warm-water ports as winter obstructed their use to full potential.
Contrasting the US-USSR Cold War, China has a coastline that stretches 14,500 kilometers from the Bohai Sea down to the Gulf of Tonkin that leads to open waters - however, the situation is more complex than the previously mentioned Soviet dilemma. A First Island Chain has the possibility to restrict Chinese navigation and trade departing from this long coastline in war. On the other hand, the US is investing heavily in maintaining a strong presence in countries from this chain, such as Indonesia and the Philippines.
In this regard, Taiwan, the island that never proclaimed independence, which China considers a part of its national territory, happens to be situated in the middle of that First Island Chain. Taiwan would give the PRC not only a corridor to a larger open-water body, but can also constitute a fortress that can act as the first line of defense, if controlled, against their enemies.
Military aspect and future
Beijing has embarked on a massive modernization program for its navy. President Hu Jintao urged for China to become a "marine power" capable of preserving its maritime rights and interests during the 18th Party Congress in 2012.
In April 2018, President Xi Jinping reaffirmed this attitude, saying, "The task of building a powerful navy has never been as vital as it is today." The necessity to "build a strong and modernized naval force" capable of carrying out "missions on the far seas" was also underlined in China's 2019 defense white paper.
China's fleet has dramatically increased in recent decades. The Chinese Navy had 335 ships as of 2019, surpassing the US Navy's deployable fighting force of 296 ships, a congress report says. But it's not just about the numbers - the rate at which these ships are being built is becoming faster as more new ships are being launched into the sea.
Between 2014 and 2018, China launched more vessels than the individual navies of Germany, India, Spain, and the United Kingdom combined. In 2017, RAND Corporation, a think tank, reports that more than 70% of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) fleet was designated "modern," up from less than 50% in 2010.
This year, a US admiral, Philip Davidson, warned that China might attack Taiwan in the next six years, as the balance of maritime power shifts more in favor of the rising power. Despite this, the PRC is still officially vowing for a peaceful unification with Taiwan. The reason for this is that neither would it be in its interest to slow the rate of its economic growth with a destructive war in the pacific, nor to damage its image as a new rising peaceful power that seeks to grow only through relations based on mutual benefit.
Nevertheless, as a power that is losing its global position as a world leader, the US might just push Taiwan to seek independence from China to, perhaps, try to lure it into a trap. The scenarios are infinite and hard to anticipate, but what is sure is that a radical change in the world order is underway.