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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  • Article: why China could invade Taiwan & could get away with it. Fascinating history of Taiwan & US/Chinese relations

  • Brian Glenn

    I enjoyed your article on China and Taiwan-China. Fortunately, it seems BJ prefers to gradually mesh the two together via economic ties and cultural immersion, instead of military invasion. However, if an actual clash did occur, the US might use the event to suspend repayment of sovereign debt owed the PRC. As the debt mountain grows larger, I am wondering which of the “3 R’s” our country will use: Repayment / Renegotiate / Renege. The latter option is likely to be tied to a opportunistic scenario, such as Taiwan, in my view.
    Posted by Brian Glenn

    • Marc

      Brian, it never occurred to me that reneging on sovereign debt would be an option for the US, but you are right. God, let’s pray it doesn’t come to that.

  • Adrian Horodniceanu

    Because they are China :). Who will stop them ?
    Posted by Adrian Horodniceanu

    • Majda Annalena Jaroš Gilding

      yet the Western countries could – provisionally at least- stop trading with China; there seems to be a growing market for luxuries and bespoke goods with the nouveaux riches there (which is lucrative for exports, admittedly). The biggest problem might lie with the biggest borrowers like the US.
      Posted by Majda Annalena Jaroš Gilding

  • Stephen Russell

    PRC could have agents inside ROC to take action or send in Spec Ops for “protesting” OR do a overty style WW2 Invasion of ROC or use economics to gain control of ROC
    My folks were in ROC when Carter left it in 1979.
    ROC has more in common with Hong Kong than Peking.
    Posted by Stephen Russell

  • Kelly PARKER

    A one China is not inevitable.
    Posted by Kelly PARKER

  • Charles A Chen

    Why invade? According to the Chinese, Taiwan is part of China. But they can’t seem to explain why they need a visa.
    Posted by Charles A Chen

  • Donald Hsu

    Charles, Kelly, Tristan:

    I was born in Shanghai, educated in Taiwan. As an American working and living in NYC for a long time, I am always interested in the development of both sides.

    Taiwan opened up tourism for China, so the individual and group tourists flooded Taiwan. It is good business for Taiwan. Taiwan got 23 million people, with 2-5 million businessman in China, mostly in Shanghai.

    There is no need to use force. Two sides are moving closer every day. The main issue is for people in Taiwan. Do they like to join China? The answer is still NO.
    Posted by Donald Hsu

  • Paul Peters

    Yawn… maybe check out and stop applying the European idea of a “nation state” on a confederate assembly called China, and while we’re at it, maybe stop the American ideas of warmongering. For one, no country will stop trading with China if they invade any surrounding country.. look at e.g. Tibet. Second, China and Taiwan are cooperating.. Taiwan is where the Chinese elites fled to during the ‘revolution’ era, if they would have wanted to invade it, they would have then it then.

    As the RAND report says “While the risk of conflict with China cannot be ignored, neither should it be exaggerated.”
    Posted by Paul Peters

    • Majda Annalena Jaroš Gilding

      Yawn , did you spend your formative schooling years by being indoctrinated with communist ideology? because if you had done you might reconsider, even givenm that the current position there is only holding back a damm … which will burst sooner rather than later.
      Posted by Majda Annalena Jaroš Gilding

  • Why China could invade Taiwan – & get away with it Tristan Fischer ignores most Taiwanese don’t want to be annexed

  • Bohling

    Taiwan is already a part of a “Greater China”, Taipei does not dispute this. All that matters is how much control Beijing has on the Island and how much Taipei, and to an extent, Washington will tolerate. The devil is in the details.

    My wife is Taiwanese, I hold residency here, all our friends are Taiwanese of some political bent. The one thing they all have in common is they are ethnically Chinese, but politically different. They do not want Beijing to have direct control, neither do they want Washington to dictate their fate. Just by putting the pieces together, the best solution that would actually, reasonably work, again, just from what I am told, is if both sides agree that they can exist as a dichotomy -two parts of the same whole. Taiwan would be free of influence from Beijing, keep its current international status, but would not be independent from the Greater China. Under certain offerings from Beijing, this is what is spelled out.

    But I digress…

    The article does make a point in that the PRC could just take Taiwan without any retaliation. But why don’t they? If they did, especially if they did it militarily, that would put the entire region on notice: the PRC takes what it wants, when it wants. An attack on Taiwan from the PRC is not if, it is when. As reported in Taiwan, a recent strategy session in Beijing showed a video of how an attack on Taiwan would commence. If Taiwan falls, the rest of Southeast, and East Asia is not far behind. Effectively, they become just like Soviet dominated Eastern Europe.

  • Thomas Thanos MBA

    Chinese people need a visa to visit Taiwan and must join a tour group as well. I don’t think China will invade Taiwan since relations are getting better and the US sold fighter jets to Taiwan last year to help them defend against any attacks.

    Chinese people need a visa to visit Hong Kong which is actually part of China. I believe that in the future in will become easier to travel as China becomes more international.
    Posted by Thomas Thanos MBA

  • Vincent Yip

    With what happened in recent months, the chance of China invading Taiwan has been reduced to next to zero. Now even one of the founders of the Green Party that advocated Taiwan Independence has gone to the mainland to “smoke the peace pipe”. Unification is only a matter of time, as had happened to East/West Germany and North/South Vietnam. It may just happen in our lifetime. In contrast, China’s problems with its Tibet and Xinjiang territories are much more troublesome and will not be solved anytime soon.
    Posted by Vincent Yip

  • Weifeng Wang

    Peace is very important.
    Posted by Weifeng Wang

  • Yue Ding

    I don’t think this invade thing can happen in the at least three generations. If you ask the people under 40 yrs old, they don’t care about the ONE China that much. talking about tourism, to visit Taiwan they feel no difference to visiting Korea or Japan.
    Posted by Yue Ding

  • Donald Hsu

    Thomas, Vincent, Weifeng, Yue and all:

    Agreed. Why do you think there is no difference for Chinese to visit Taiwan, Korea or Japan?

    Personally I was in all three countries and I found significant differences. In January Korea is very cold, and Japan is not too bad. Taiwan is warm. I saw many Chinese tourists in Japan, few in Korea, some in Taiwan.

    English speaking: Japan did little, Korea some, Taiwan more. Chinese can communicate better with Taiwanese, but not the other two.

    Food, Japan is great, Korea is so so, Taiwan is the same as China. Many more….
    Posted by Donald Hsu

  • Gerbrand Wiersema

    China will not invade Taiwan. Invading is not a Chinese thing. Time and time is what China has will change the situation. Already many treaty are there, many business is going on. Taiwan business people need China. In the next 30 years it wll become a real provonce of China what it now a days practically already is.
    Posted by Gerbrand Wiersema

    • Muraleedharan Changalath

      India China bhai bhai
      This was the slogan by our late and first Prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, when China was under Mao.
      This is just a reminder for the current Generation of China. Arunachal Pradesh is belongs to India and our integral part since pre & post independence.
      Posted by Muraleedharan Changalath

  • Michael (Kit Keung) Yuen, MEng

    From the article: “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.”. I believe why Taiwan is considered a province from the mouth of current China leadership is based on this history. Personally I think it is not very convincing to bring historical colonism far before 1WW and 2WW to proof the ownership of a region…

    @ Yue Ding: I am from Hong Kong and I will say I am “Chinese” – not to stress whether I am “China’s citizen” or not. I also agree that it’s difficult (and may be not necessary) for China to “invade” Taiwan before Taiwanese believe they are “China Citizen”. Keeping all of these regions belonging to “Chinese” regions (without stressing the ownership) will be better than having conflicts.
    Posted by Michael (Kit Keung) Yuen, MEng

  • Guillaume Rosec

    This clearly won’t happen. The position of the US might be ambiguous, but they most likely would avoid this by supporting Taiwan.
    In 2008, during the Taiwanese presidential elections, Beijing warned Taiwan that if the the candidate to be elected was to declare that he was going to achieve a real independence, they would launch an attack on the island. During the elections, US battleships were around Taiwan. Officially it was just for training, but ever one knew it was to defend the island in case of an attack.

    In the end, Ma YingJiu was elected, which is better for Beijing than if it were Xie.

    Still, China is quite aggressive towards Taiwan, with missiles permanently pointed towards the island. Just in case.

    With Ma YingJiu, things are changing. Thanks to him, direct lines are open between the continent and Taiwan, and not only for CNY as it used to be before. He is working on closing the relationship between Beijing and Taipei.
    But the biggest issue here is not the Taiwanese government, but the taiwanese people. The biggest majority of them don’t want to be Chinese. They have their own identity, and they don’t want to lose it together with their freedom of speech, right to vote and so on.
    Posted by Guillaume Rosec

    • NO way

      Taiwan is a part of china,the only question is which china? PRC or ROC? To me ROC still survive to this days as Nationalists govt retreat to the island in 1949.

  • Donald Hsu

    Guillaume, Rueben, and all:

    Agreed. I see that both of you enjoy working in Hangzhou and Shanghai. If you ask the local people in China, how do they view this issue?
    Posted by Donald Hsu

    • Michael (Kit Keung) Yuen, MEng

      Indeed Chinese is very diversed among regions: how Chinese in one region think may not 100% the same as other people.

      I always remember a word from one of our customer – “China is not one China, there are Shanghaiese, Beijingese, Guangdongese, etc…”. Base on this, if we are not talking about the ownership or how to define China as a country, we may just put “Shanghaiese”, “Guangdongese”, “Taiwanese”, “Hongkongese” side-by-side as Chinese in different region.
      Posted by Michael (Kit Keung) Yuen, MEng

      • Guillaume Rosec


        To be honest, this is a question I stopped asking after a year or so in China. When I first arrived in Shanghai, when people asked me how long I have been in China, I said it’s been a few weeks, or months. Then they were shocked by how good I could speak Chinese in such a short time. Then I explained that before that I lived in Taiwan for several years. And 80% of the time, at least, they replied that Taiwan is China, there is no question about it.

        Here is a big difference about this subject between Taiwan and Mainland China. In Taiwan, I had very often discussions with friends, colleagues and customers about this. All of them had their opinion, and were able to defend their ideas. But basically, I could say that most of the people I talked to recognized their Chinese culture, but Taiwanese nationality.

        Then, when I say I stopped bringing up this topic, it is because in Mainland, over 99% of the people reminded me that Taiwan is part of China. So far no one could really make a clear point about why. The basic answer is “that’s just the way it is, period”.

        So now, when people ask me how long I have been living in China, I adapt my answer if I talk to a Taiwanese or a Mainland Chinese.
        Posted by Guillaume Rosec

        • Vincent Yip

          However, if one asks ethnic Chinese in a neutral country like Singapore or Malaysia or Thailand, I am certain that the overwhelming number (say 80%) would say people in Taiwan are Chinese by race and culture and the island is part of China, period. Since I first visited Taipei in 1968, I have been there many dozens of time and I speak the local dialect and in fact had an ex-sister-in-law was from Taiwan. In today’s Taiwan, most locals have gradually changed their past attitude, and accept themselves as Chinese and waiting for favorable conditions to rejoin China. This is an unstoppable historical trend.
          Posted by Vincent Yip

          • Donald Hsu

            Vincent, Guillaume and all:

            Agreed. Yes mainland Chinese recognized that Taiwan is part of China. But people in Taiwan do not feel this way. They want to keep the status quo, two different countries. This is the main issue.
            Posted by Donald Hsu

          • Teck Chwee Tan

            Hi Vincent, I would not go so far as to presume that ethnic Chinese in a neutral country like Singapore, Malaysia, or Thailand would overwhelmingly say Taiwan is part of China. (We must not read too much into the official positions of these governments). Just like Taiwan, these ASEAN countries have their own views (of Chinese culture, etc.) and it is changing with the younger generations. Our forefathers etc. hold tightly to their allegiance to China, etc., but now our own national identities are very well developed. Hence I am sure the younger generations in these countries can empathise and “feel” the same for the Taiwanese too. It is best to let the people concerned choose their own path. We outsiders can only comment and watch.
            Posted by Teck Chwee Tan

          • Donald Hsu

            Hsing, Teck and all:

            I agree with most of your post.

            China is growing leaps and bounds. It is an opportunity and a threat for its neighbor: Japan, S. Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, etc. So why will China invade Taiwan or any of these countries above?

            Economically, I believe China and Japan make the best team. One has the people and the other has the technology. Although culturally they are totally different.
            Posted by Donald Hsu

  • Hsing Wei

    Doesn’t matter if they are from RPC or ROC. The most important think is, they were from the same civilization and history. Unique identity.
    Posted by Hsing Wei

  • Barry Howard

    Agree with Kelly that one China is not inevitable. To say that “the mainland Chinese market has become increasingly attractive to Taiwanese businesses” is not news. China is attractive to businesses the world over. Stating “both the Taiwanese government and the mainland Chinese government say that they are not separate nations” is political talk. Put a gun to my head, and I’ll tell you what you want to hear.

    I see things opposite to Vincent. Tibet and Xinjiang problems are being solved with the mass movement of Han Chinese into these areas. The fact that mainland Chinese and Taiwanese are ethnically Chinese does not make unification inevitable. Mao’s influence on China (and lack of it on Taiwan) runs deep.

    Where Guillaume has experienced – “over 99% of the people reminded me that Taiwan is part of China.” For me it was 100%:). It was the one topic where public words matched private thoughts. In contrast, the Taiwanese are proud to be Chinese but the majority do not want to be citizens of China.
    Posted by Barry Howard

    • Donald Hsu

      Barry and all:

      Your statement, ”the Taiwanese are proud to be Chinese but the majority do not want to be citizens of China”, is the main issue here. That is why we are discussing the possibility of China invading Taiwan.
      Posted by Donald Hsu

    • Haha

      Taiwan will be annexed. It’s definitely inevitable.

  • Mark Wang

    You guys are nuts, how much do know China and Taiwen, from book or story! Please learn first, then talk!
    Posted by Mark Wang

  • ChenZhong Wang

    Can you discuss why Greece may invade Athens which was once a Roman colony?
    Posted by ChenZhong Wang

  • Sharon Yang

    As I am a China citizen, I will say the word “Invade” between China mainland and Taiwan is a fundamental error opinion.
    Why the Dutch and Japan come to Taiwan and made it a colony? Only because there was people and province in the island already.and the resource attracted the foreigners.
    Though there is problems between China mainland and Taiwan, the same culture accepted by both is the theme.
    China is a very big area, the area of one province maybe the same to a country of Euro or even bigger. It’s not hard to understand that the voice of different political leaders have different voice. As the Chinese saying “The grove has been really big, any bird has. ”
    Posted by Sharon Yang

  • Meng Q.

    The reason why Taiwanese don’t want to become citizen of China is mainly because it has better economy then the mainland before. But now the situation is getting changed. With limited resources in Taiwan, more and more Taiwanese come to Mainland to do business or just find better jobs. So there is no reason for Chinese government to invade Taiwan as we are from same root anyway. If the mainland China can keep developing the economy and provide better opportunities, Taiwanese will be happy to become part of China. Why not? Both parties don’t want to use force to solve the problem, it will be the worst result for both sides.
    Posted by Meng Q.

    • Donald Hsu

      Meng, Sharon and all:

      Agreed. I was told there are 2 million Taiwan business owners that set shops in China, including 500,000 in Shanghai. The total population of Taiwan is 22 million, so that is 10% are investing in China.

      My numbers may be off. But the two sides are getting closer every week.
      Posted by Donald Hsu

  • Read: Why China could invade Taiwan – and get away with it – The story of how the Republic of China became… #HFN

  • Kenny

    Of all these arguments of the PRC invading the ROC, has anyone discussed the potential of the ROC retaking China? While the idea is hard to even fathom at this time, embracing such wishful thinking of the ROC retaking China would be pretty good for moral thought.

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