Relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), have long been fraught. Tensions have risen in recent years due to increased military activities by the PRC near Taiwan, including air and naval patrols.
More recently, the last few months have seen a ramping up of military sabre-rattling by the PRC as it continues to stress its sovereignty over the island formerly known as Formosa. Taiwan’s defence minister described China’s increased military activities around the island as “abnormal” and warned that it increased the risk of an accidental clash and the situation “getting out of hand”.
By way of historical background, the origins of the tensions being exercised over the Taiwan Strait go back to the Chinese Civil War of 1945-49, during which the Mao Zedong-led Chinese Communist Party (CCP) defeated the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) which was led by Chiang Kai-shek.
The KMT retreated to Taiwan and established the ROC there, whilst the CCP established the PRC on the mainland. However, the PRC still claims Taiwan, which it regards as a breakaway province, to be an integral part of its territory and seeks “re-unification”. Conversely, the ROC maintains that the island is a sovereign state with its own government, constitution, and military.
The PRC has not rules out using force to effect reunification and has brought pressure on other states not to recognise Taiwan diplomatically. Most countries, including the USA, do not officially recognise as a separate country due to their commitment to the “One China” policy, by which the PRC is recognised as the legitimate government of China.
However the USA, for example, still maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan, selling it arms for its defence and supporting its participation in international affairs. Efforts have been made over the years to reduce tensions and promote dialogue between the PRC and ROC but an acceptable resolution to the dispute has yet to be found.
China’s bourgeoning economic and military power threatens to bring matters over Taiwan to a head in the next few years. The present fear is that an accident or unplanned incident might spark an out-and-out conflict. This is always a risk when the military forces of opposing sides manoeuvre and demonstrate their capabilities in an attempt to deter.
More worrying are the predictions that te PRC could start a “hot” war in the not too distant future by attempting a direct invasion and takeover of Taiwan. Does it have the means to do so? Probably yes, although Taiwanese resistance would make it a costly adventure and there’s no guarantee it would succeed. Nobody would relish the sort of stalemate we are currently witnessing in Ukraine.
Does the PRC have the intent to do so? Perhaps yes, but an assault on Taiwan would inevitably result in a wider regional conflict involving the USA and its allies Japan, the Philippines, and possibly Vietnam. China, I suspect, does not yet have the confidence that it could defeat such a powerful alliance by military means and so for now is biding its time.
When might the PRC make its move? US intelligence apparently believes that Xi Jinping, China’s leader, has ordered the country’s military to be ready to launch against Taiwan by 2027. Since he came to power in 2012, Xi has stressed that the Taiwan issue “cannot be passed on from generation to generation”.
Some US officials believe a conflict may come sooner. In January, General Mike Minihan, a former deputy commander for US Indo-Pacific command, said his “gut” told him to expect a conflict in 2025. This may prove to be a tad pessimistic, but the truth is that at the moment nobody really knows – except possibly Xi Jingping and his inner circle, and he’s not giving anything away.
So we are back to the old catchphrases of the Cold War in Europe – “be vigilant” and “be prepared”. Vigilance is probably guaranteed given the quantity and sophistication of mainly US-owned surveillance capabilities now focused on the region, although we must almost bear in mind that many such technologies can be jammed, spoofed, and downgraded.
Prepared? I’m not so sure that we ever can be fully prepared. The US is a mighty military power and its allies can bring their own forces to the game, but they are bound to be reactive at best. The PRC, and Xi Jinping, hold the initiative here. Let’s hope that wiser heads prevail and we proceed by jaw-jaw rather than war-war.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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