Published On: Tue, Nov 27th, 2012

Why China could invade Taiwan – and get away with it

The story of how the Republic of China became Taiwan and its relationship with mainland China is fascinating.  How many people in the West know that Taiwan was once a Dutch colony and that it only became part of China in 1683? Or that its aboriginal people speak a language that is Austronesian in origin, closer to what was spoken on Easter Island and Madagascar than across the 180 km stretch of water to mainland China.

Today, 98% of the population of Taiwan are Mandarin speaking Han Chinese.  Their government once was the government of mainland China and claimed all of the country.  Today the reverse is true.   The mainland Chinese People’s Republic of China sees Taiwan as a renegade province which will, eventually, be reunited with the rest of mainland China.  They have stated that if Taiwan declares actual independence from mainland China, China would keep it by force.

This is where things get really interesting.  The US sees Taiwan as a natural ally and China as an emerging rival.  In 1979 the US enacted the Taiwan Relations Act, which states that the US would consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts of embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the region.  As a result, the US is a major arms supplier to Taiwan, providing it with the means to defend itself against an attack by China.

And yet the US is deliberately vague as to what they would do if China did attack Taiwan.  If Taiwan peaceably joins China and brings its US designed and built military hardware over to mainland China, the US will have essentially been transferring military hardware and know-how to its emerging regional rival.

History Future Now looks at how China could invade Taiwan without firing a shot, and why it would get away with it.  But first, a quick historical overview of how Taiwan became Taiwan.

How Taiwan became Taiwan.

Taiwan first appears in Western maps in 1544, when Portuguese spotted the island and called it Ilha Formosa – Beautiful Island.  At the time it was populated with Taiwanese aborigines who spoke an Austronesian language that is similar to what is found across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, ranging from Madagascar to the west, Hawaii and Easter Island to the east and New Zealand to the south.

In 1623 Dutch traders built a fort on the island and within ten years had fully established themselves on the island.  The Dutch co-opted the aboriginals into hunting deer – whose hides were sold to the Japanese for armour – and Han Chinese immigrants from the mainland who grew sugar cane and rice for export.

Mainland Chinese forces invaded and kicked out the Dutch in 1662 and the island officially fell under Qing Dynasty rule from 1683.  Under Qing rule the number of immigrants from mainland China increased substantially and in 1885 Taiwan was made a Chinese province.

Japan also had eyes on Taiwan and had attempted to take over the island from the 1590s.  After the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95, which China lost, Japan took over Taiwan.  Japanese language education eventually became compulsory and over 100,000 Taiwanese served in the military of the Japanese Empire during WW2.  It appears that the Japanese ran Taiwan quite well, with low levels of corruption.  In 1943, at the Cairo Declaration, the Allies declared that the return of Taiwan to China was one of the war objectives and in 1952 Japan formally renounced its sovereignty over the island.

And now things start to get more complicated.

The Allies had declared that Taiwan was to be returned to China.  But who was the legitimate government of China?

Throughout most of the 1930s and 1940s China had been both at war with Japan and with itself.  The Chinese Kuomingtang (KMT) government, headed by Chiang Kai-Shek were on the losing side of the civil war against the Communists and fled to Taiwan in 1949, along with 2 million refugees and set up a provisional Republic of China capital in Taipei.  A few months later, in October, the victorious Communists founded the People’s Republic of China.

Until the early 1970s most Western countries recognized the Republic of China as the official government of all China and deemed the Communist government on the mainland as illegitimate.  However, in 1971 the UN General Assembly kicked the Republic of China out of the United Nations and replaced the Republic of China with the People’s Republic of China.  At a stroke, the Republic of China ceased to exist diplomatically.

For much of the post war period Taiwan was in a state of marshal law with the expectation that Taiwan would mount an invasion of mainland China to retake what was “rightfully” theirs.  As the reality of the situation set in, the country began to open up to democracy and the country’s first democratic presidential election took place in 1996.

Mainland China took the opportunity of the election to intimidate the Taiwanese electorate with a series of missile tests in the Taiwan Strait, forcing the US, under President Clinton, to send two aircraft carrier task forces to Taiwan to “monitor the situation”.  China stopped the missile tests.

Over the past two decades Taiwan has gradually become more democratic, despite assassination attempts and corruption charges on its political elites.  In 2004 the People’s Republic of China enacted an anti-secession law that allows the use of force against Taiwan in the event that the Republic of China formally declares independence from the mainland.


Becoming one China, again

Today, relations between the two Chinas are better than they have been for a long time.   There are direct flights between China and Taiwan and there have been high level meetings with officials on both sides.   Under the 1992 Consensus both sides recognize that there is only one China and that both mainland China and Taiwan belong to the same China.  They disagree, as to be expected, on which party is the legitimate representative of that one China.  The People’s Republic of China say that the PRC is the sole representative and the Republic of China says that the ROC is the sole representative.

In 2009 mainland Chinese investors were allowed to invest in Taiwan’s stock exchange, so long as they do not exceed a 10% stake in Taiwanese companies.  Mainland Chinese are also now allowed to visit Taiwan as tourists.

Despite all of this good talk, the People’s Liberation Army has over 2,000 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan.  According to a RAND report on possible causes of a US – Chinese military conflict:

As China’s military modernization progresses, the US ability to confidently accomplish these missions is eroding. In the near term, China is deploying capabilities that threaten US land and sea power projection platforms – air bases and Aircraft carriers – as well as Taiwan’s own defences.  Absent and unlikely reversal in the ongoing rebalancing of military power in the area, and even recognizing very considerable difficulties in mounting an amphibious assault against determined local resistance, a direct defence of Taiwan has already become a challenge and is likely to become increasingly difficult in coming years.

The People’s Republic of China has been very patient with Taiwan.  It knows that time is on its side.  However, it could also force the issue within the next few years and force Taiwan to rejoin mainland China under the authority of the PRC.

It could show Taiwan a stick and a carrot.  The stick is that mainland China will invade to reestablish control over Taiwan.  Both the Taiwanese government and the mainland Chinese government say that they are not separate nations, but one, with different governments. The US would not enter into a “civil war” with the two Chinas.  In addition, bearing in mind that the US has a huge trade deficit with both China and Taiwan and that the Taiwan Straits are effectively already off limits to the US Navy, it is hard to see the US defending Taiwan, even if it could afford to do so, which it cannot, or were able to do so, which it could not.

As a carrot, the mainland Chinese market has become increasingly attractive to Taiwanese businesses.  The PRC could offer increased incentives, such as low cost loans from the PRC, to Taiwanese companies, and better market access making the business classes increasingly open to reunification with mainland China.

So here is the critical defence question for the US:  if a one China is inevitable and the People’s Republic of China will end up being in control of Taiwan, why is the US continuing to provide sophisticated weaponry to Taiwan?  It will inevitably end up in the hands of mainland China.

Is this such a good idea?




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