A History of Tensions in the Taiwan Strait
In late May 2022, the Taiwanese Defense Ministry reported that “30 Chinese military aircraft, two-thirds of them fighter jets, entering the southwestern part of its air defense identification zone (ADIZ).”
The incursion was the second largest of the year, with Beijing sending 39 aircrafts earlier in January. Since then, Beijing has sent numerous aircrafts into Taiwan’s ADIZ, which Taiwan has responded to repeatedly with its own league of fighter aircraft and deployed air defense missile systems. While the confrontation between China and Taiwan has yet to escalate significantly, current Chinese air incursions into Taiwan have opened up greater threats of militaristic actions.
- Taiwanese independence is tied to Chinese threats of war
- U.S. involvement provokes warnings from China
Chinese interference in Taiwan has been prevalent since Taiwan’s inception. However, international concerns about a Chinese invasion of Taiwan have reached a peak with recent military incursions into Taiwan’s airspace combined with the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine war. In response, the U.S. reaffirmed its support to aid Taiwan in its efforts to defend itself militarily. However, in response, a Chinese Defense Minister warned U.S. officers that it would not hesitate to “smash to smithereens” any effort for Taiwanese independence. With such claims, along with previous demands of reunification, the possibility of war seems increasingly likely. However, to understand the conflict in its entirety, it is important to look back at the beginnings of Taiwan.
Modern Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China (ROC), was created in 1949 following a civil war between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Zedong and the Kuomintang Party (KMT), also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party. After losing the civil war to Mao, KMT leader Chiang-Kai Shek and his nearly 1.4 million followers fled to the island of Taiwan, eventually forming the ROC. The son of Chiang-Kai Shek, Chiang Ching-Kuo, would catalyze democratization in Taiwan, a process that was continued by former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui through his constitutional reforms. However, on the mainland, the Chinese Communist Party would take over and form the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Both parties, from their respective territories, would continue to claim themselves as the legitimate government of China.
Initially, the U.S. and NATO recognized the Republic of China as the legal government, as both were adamantly against the communist principles of the CCP. However, by the 1970s, the U.S. was in the midst of a Cold War with the Soviet Union and, in an attempt to counter Soviet influence, favored relations with the People’s Republic of China. The U.N. followed suit and, in 1971, shifted recognition to the PRC. Under such change, the U.S. aimed to foster diplomacy with the PRC but maintain a relationship with Taiwan at the same time. However, American businesses sought to exploit the Chinese market, while many U.S. policymakers saw diplomacy with China as an opportunity to deter Soviet influence. In 1979, seeing the mutual benefits provided, President Carter formally recognized the PRC, severing the long-standing ties with Taiwan and leading to the closing of the Taipei Embassy.
President Carter’s announcement drew sharp criticism. To alleviate tensions, the Taiwan Relations Act (1979) was passed that same year in order to guarantee support for the island and continue the sale of U.S. arms to Taiwan. Such an act was passed in accordance with the U.S. “One China Policy,” which recognizes the PRC as the sole legal government of China but only acknowledges—rather than recognizes—the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China. By the 1980s, with intentions of reunifying the island with the country, China offered Taiwan the “one country, two systems” model. Taiwan rejected such an offer, knowing that under the framework, Taiwan would be unable to preserve its political and economic systems with a “high degree of autonomy.” Nevertheless, although China and Taiwan continued to be politically opposed, the nations opened dialogues between their unelected representatives. However, government-to-government meetings remained limited.
While dialogue between the PRC and ROC were relatively cordial, relations would change by the late 1980s as a result of rising tensions against the KMT. The ruling KMT Party of Taiwan did allow non-party members to run in elections, but these candidates were unable to form their own political parties. Those who ran from outside the KMT became members of the “Tangwai/Dangwai” (Outside the Party) movement. The Formosa Incident was a highly galvanizing moment in the Tangwai movement’s history. In 1979, Formosa Magazine, along with other opposition politicians, commemorated Human Rights Day in Taiwan during a time when KMT authorities did not allow the expression of public discontent. The protestors were met with heavy force, and many of the opposition leaders were arrested. These opposition leaders, known as the “Kaohsiung Eight,” were sentenced to heavy prison terms, but their effectiveness in demonstrating the injustices inflicted by the KMT Party during the protest and subsequent interrogations was a catalyst for the Tangwai movement. In 1986, opposition leaders formed the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party). The DPP gained political power, and DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian would eventually win the presidency in 2000.
The KMT was met with greater criticism following investigations into the “1992 Consensus.” In theory, one of the seminal moments in China-Taiwan relations is the “1992 Consensus.” The consensus stems from an alleged meeting in 1992 between KMT officials and the CCP where it was agreed that both parties must adhere to the “One China” principle, which states that there is only one Chinese government rather than a separate Taiwanese government. This policy is recognized by the US and is used in foreign policy to isolate Taiwan. However, the existence of this meeting is disputed. In 2006, KMT legislator Su Chi admitted that he made up the “1992 Consensus” term in 2000 before the KMT lost power to the DPP. Raised doubts about the legitimacy and even existence of this meeting have strained cross-strait relations.
In 2005 the People’s Republic of China passed the “Anti-Secession Law,” which codified the “One China” policy and allowed China to use violence against Taiwan if the Republic of China attempted to separate from mainland China. China and Taiwan continued to grow closer under KMT leader Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency between 2008-2016. Ma campaigned on the slogan of “no unification, no independence, no use of force,” and based his foreign policy views on the “1992 Consensus.” Under his presidency, the KMT moved to become a more “pro-China” party during the 21st century. Furthermore, under Ma, Taiwan authorized the exchange of Chinese currency, allowed Taiwan’s mayors to travel to China, and relaxed rules for investments of Chinese funds in the Taiwanese Stock Exchange. These actions, along with other reforms to bring Taiwan closer to China, proved to be unpopular with the Taiwanese population. As such, in 2014, student protestors occupied Taiwan’s national legislature in response to a proposed free trade policy with mainland China. The protest was named the Sunflower Movement and gained widespread support in Taiwan. This support manifested in the 2016 election when DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen won with 56.1% of the vote. Voters had become frustrated with the KMT’s attempts to improve economic ties with China, which was further proven when Tsai was re-elected in 2020 in a landslide victory. Following crackdowns on protests in Hong Kong, President Tsai has rejected the Beijing “one country, two systems” policy and continues to advocate for Taiwanese autonomy. In response, China has escalated the current cross-strait situation via military action.
When questioned about its intentions following frequent military action within the strait, the Chinese Defense Ministry stated that incursions of aircraft within Taiwan’s ADIZ were merely People's Liberation Army of China (PLA) military drills. However, shortly after in early June 2022, Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe claimed that “If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese army will definitely not hesitate to start a war no matter the cost.” Similar threats have been issued previously, both towards Taiwan and other relevant nations, namely the U.S. The threats are in line with the fact that Beijing has not ruled out force as a method of taking control of the island.
Chinese aggression towards Taiwan heightened specifically following 2016 with the election of Tsai as president. As stated previously, Tsai strongly opposed reunification with mainland China, a difference from previous pro-China KMT leaders. However, as a result, Beijing has refused to deal directly with Tsai and denounced the Taiwanese president with claims of inciting confrontation and distorting facts. With growing opposition from Taiwan, analysts believe that Chinese President Xi Jinping aims to bring Taiwan under its authority by force, a goal said to be possible by as early as 2025. As such, the recent display of military prowess by China has put Taiwan on alert. Taiwan's Defence Ministry said the incursion of Chinese aircraft “has seriously damaged regional peace and stability." With pressures mounting, the U.S. has made clear that it plans to aid Taiwan in defending itself as necessary.
In the past, Taiwan and the U.S. have enjoyed a robust informal relationship. As the U.S.’s eighth-largest trading partner, Taiwanese investment and imports supported an estimated 188,000 American jobs in 2019. Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturers have also been cooperating with U.S. sanctions amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, strengthening the U.S.-Taiwan tech supply chain partnership.
The U.S. has long warned China against attacking Taiwan and has been joined internationally by nations such as the U.K. and Australia. Under a “One China” policy, the U.S. acknowledges China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but doesn’t officially recognize Beijing’s claim to the island. The U.S. has intentionally been ambiguous on whether it would intervene militarily in the case of a Chinese attack—a policy known as strategic ambiguity.
Nevertheless, since the Taiwan Relations Act of 1971, the U.S. has sold defensive arms and offered military support to Taiwan. Furthermore, U.S. special operations forces were reported in 2021 to have secretly been training Taiwanese troops since 2020. In June, U.S. senators introduced the bipartisan Taiwan Policy Act of 2022, which would give Taiwan $4.5 billion in security aid over the next four years, positioning the country as a major non-NATO ally. In May 2022, President Biden issued a strong warning that the U.S. would defend Taiwan militarily in the case of a Chinese attack. Following the remarks, however, the White House downplayed the vows, reaffirming its commitment to the “One China” policy. Amid America’s outward support of Taiwan, China has responded to U.S. inference as undermining peace in the strait.
In past decades, China has exerted influence on Taiwan through election interference and disinformation, though due in large part to U.S. deterrence, it does not have the capabilities to engage in military conflict with Taiwan. However, the U.S. Department of Defense said the PLA is likely preparing to unify Taiwan by force. In May 2020, the Chinese government removed the word “peaceful” when referencing reunification with Taiwan. In the following months, Beijing enacted gray zone warfare in which the PRC military would intimidate and exhaust Taiwan into submission without initiating a full-scale conflict.
Amid rising tensions, the Taiwan Strait is showing visible signs of escalation into a conventional crisis. In the past two years, Chinese air incursions into Taiwanese buffer zones have grown more frequent than ever. In May 2022, the Taiwan Defense Ministry reported that thirty warplanes were sent near Taiwan in the largest training drill in months. With Chinese President Xi Jinping disclosing plans to achieve military parity with the U.S. in Asia by 2027, China has been preparing and expanding its military, one that easily surpasses the capabilities of Taiwan. Developments in the Russia-Ukraine conflict may have also contributed to the cross-strait tensions, as China may feel emboldened by Russia's efforts. Indeed, Admiral John C. Aquilino, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, described the scenes as “the largest military buildup in history.”
Given its economic and geopolitical interests in the region, the U.S. should actively pursue strategies that reduce the risk of cross-strait conflict. Initial steps to enhance deterrence include:
Reassure and Communicate Regional Goals
Currently, the intentional ambiguity of US policy is leaving allies in the Indo-Pacific unsure about U.S. intent and open to Chinese adventurism. While there are certain advantages to strategic ambiguity, the U.S. must balance this hallmark of foreign policy by ensuring that it sends a clearer, unified, cross-administration message about U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific. U.S. relations with allies cannot be viewed solely through the actions of the last presidential administration. The Trump administration reduced foreign commitments, pulling back from historical allies in NATO and emerging partners in the Indo-Pacific.
However, the Biden administration’s retreat from Afghanistan may provide the opportunity to change the tide. Rather than further reducing relations with other states, the Biden administration should reorient U.S. foreign policy focus away from Middle Eastern oil competition and toward the Indo-Pacific. Criticisms about the U.S. failure in Afghanistan primarily concerned U.S. military power, but this is not the chief worry of emerging allies in the Indo-Pacific. Rather, potential partners, in particular South Korea, are wary about the reliability of U.S. commitments to the region.
But commitments to the Indo-Pacific should not be exclusively military-based. Economic partnerships within the region are the additional step needed to demonstrate commitment: they go beyond verbal commitments by creating close U.S. ties to the region and establishing a sense of safety. Strengthening U.S. economic commitments to the broader Indo-Pacific, apart from China, is a persuasive warrant for states to pursue closer ties with the U.S.
Working with Taiwan is considerably more difficult, as the U.S. must be careful not to implicitly recognize Taiwanese independence in order to evade conflict with China. Fortunately, the U.S. can use the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) to communicate directly about U.S. continued and expanding commitments without inciting conflict.
The U.S. must be willing to work closely with Beijing in order to establish three standards that will help maintain peace: 1) each side commits to peaceful resolution of evolving tensions; 2) China recognizes Taiwan will require special diplomatic dealings and allows its participation in international organizations; and 3) China and Taiwan commit to abstain from nuclear dealings.
In the past, conflict in the region has been sparked by the U.S. over preemptive military involvement. This is not to dismiss Chinese aggression as a key factor, but it is important to recognize that, while a crisis is far from guaranteed given close U.S.-China economic linkages, U.S. leaders must be willing to uphold the same norms of peace that they expect Beijing to support.
While comparisons to Ukraine abound, Washington must remember that China is fundamentally different from Russia. Beijing’s primary goal is not rebuilding a formerly more expansive bloc (i.e. the Soviet Union); it is ensuring China’s peaceful defense while expanding influence through economic means.
Enhance Relations with Taiwan
President Biden has been very open about his willingness to protect Taiwan with force. In talks with other regional allies—notably South Korea—Biden specifically expressed a guaranteed commitment to the island in case of invasion. These comments have already sparked a backlash from China, indicating the fundamental importance of striking a balance between deterring conflict and providing the precursor for war.
Ensuring Taiwan’s security in the case of invasion and convincing China that drastic action will be met with certain force, however, is very different from active troop buildups and encroachment into the South China Sea (SCS). The Taiwan issue is a question of sovereignty to the PRC, and so U.S. advancement into the SCS to demonstrate regional capacity—where there are additional disputes over Chinese claims to sovereignty over vast swaths of the sea—risks causing a broader conflict.
As with regional efforts, commitments to Taiwan can be economic in addition to military—and are perhaps the better alternative, as they provide veiled reasoning for cooperation on economic grounds and are thus less likely to anger China. Closer trade ties between the U.S. and Taiwan provide “market-based alternatives” to China as the island becomes increasingly reliant on the mainland for economic support. Diversification from this partnership is an important step to convince the people of Taiwan that they will not be economically overwhelmed by Beijing and thus dissuade invasion.
In this way, the US can recommit itself to the region and Taiwan in a way that is a concrete deterrent, yet does little to warrant Chinese accusations of the US meddling in issues of sovereignty.
Taiwan is a cornerstone of power projection in the Indo-Pacific, and whatever country holds influence over the island gains a sizable advantage. With Taiwan being determined as the “top risk” in Asia for this year, it deserves policy attention and resources—even as the world continues to deal with the aftermath of the Russian war in Ukraine. The Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea have all the workings of a catalyst for war.
The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Lucas Yang, Elizabeth Miller, Marielle DeVos, Luke Drago, and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Policy Department within the Institute.