Taiwan, for all intents and purposes, considers itself an independent nation. The island, which is officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), has been governed separately from mainland China since 1949.
On the other hand, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) views Taiwan as a renegade province and considers the region part of its domain. Beijing has vowed to “unify” the island with the PRC and will use force if necessary.
What happens if China invades Taiwan? This article explores everything you need to know about the relations between the two countries.
The PRC vs ROC – Is Taiwan Part of China?
The PRC, also referred to as mainland China, asserts that only “one China” exists and that Taiwan is part of it. According to Beijing, the PRC is the only legitimate Chinese government and abides by the principle of “One China.” It seeks the eventual reintegration of Taiwan into the mainland.
The PRC claims that Taiwan is bound to the PRC through the Consensus of 1992, an agreement that was reached between the Kuomintang (KMT) party, which was Taiwan’s ruling party at the time, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Despite the mutual agreement, the PRC and Taiwan do not agree on the details contained in the so-called Consensus. Taiwan asserts that the contents of the 1992 agreement did not have anything to do with Taiwan’s legal standing.
On the other hand, the PRC contends that the Consensus of 1992 is indicative of an agreement that the territories on both sides of the ChinaTaiwan Strait – mainland China and Taiwan – all belong to one China and that both governments would work together in a quest for national reunification. The KMT interprets this differently, stating that “one China” refers to the ROC and not mainland China.
Taiwan’s constitution, as drafted by the KMT, recognizes China, Taiwan, Tibet, Mongolia, and the South China Sea as part of the ROC. However, in the wake of recent election losses, the party leaders have been in discussions as to whether to change their stance on the 1992 Consensus. KMT leaders have stated that they no longer support Taiwan’s independence, now calling for stronger ties with Beijing.
History of China Taiwan Relations
Over the past few months, Taiwan has seen an alarming increase in Chinese military activity in the country. Whether it is a genuine threat of a looming invasion or a bluff intended to intimidate Taiwan, one thing is for sure – the global community is concerned, especially given the recent events in Ukraine.
Why does China want Taiwan? To understand the history of the tense relations between mainland China and Taiwan, you need to go back in time to where it all began.
The Austronesian people were the first known settlers of Taiwan. This ancient tribe is thought to have originated from what is modern-day Southern China. Based on Chinese historical records, the island first appeared on maps somewhere around AD239 after the ruling emperor sent out an expedition to explore the surrounding area. The PRC frequently uses the findings of this expedition to back its claim on Taiwan.
Taiwan was declared a Dutch colony between 1624 and 1661. In 1683, it became part of the Qing dynasty and was under Chinese rule until 1895.
From the 17th Century, Taiwan experienced an influx in its population after a significant number of migrants started arriving on the island. Mainland China at the time was plagued with hardship and turmoil, which led to the mass exodus out of the country and into Taiwan. The hardest-hit areas were Guangdong and Fujian, which explains why the largest demographic groups on the island are descendants of the Hakka and Hoklo Chinese who hailed from the two provinces.
Japan Takes Control
In the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, the Qing government ceded Taiwan to Japan. However, after World War II, Japan relinquished control over Taiwan and surrendered it back to China. The ROC, which happened to be one of the victors in the war, began its rule over Taiwan, backed by its western allies, the UK and US.
Over the next few years, China was embroiled in civil wars. Mao Zedong’s communist soldiers beat out the troops of the then leader Chiang Kai-shek. In 1949, Chiang and what remained of his KMT government were exiled to Taiwan. This group then went on to dominate the political scene in Taiwan for several decades.
The local population resented this authoritarian government. When Chiang’s son Chiang Ching-Kuo took over rule from his dictator father, he began to usher in a democracy. The year 2000 saw the election of Taiwan’s first-ever non-KMT leader, President Chen Shui-bian.
The relations between Taiwan and mainland China began to improve in the 1980s after China proposed a system dubbed “one country, two systems.” Under this arrangement, Taiwan would get a high degree of autonomy contingent on its acceptance of Chinese reunification. This system was implemented in Hong Kong to entice Taiwan into reintegration.
Hong Kong was given back to China in 1997 after more than 15 decades of British control. Although the Special Administrative Region (SAR) is part of China, it enjoys significant autonomy and is run by a chief executive appointed by the PRC government.
Taiwan rejected the offer to establish it as a SAR. It did, however, relax the policies on investment in and visits to China. Additionally, in 1991, it officially declared the war with the PRC over. Beijing insisted that Taiwan’s ROC government is not legitimate and, as such, would never participate in so-called “government-to-government” meetings.
After the election of President Chen Shui-bian in 2000, Beijing was not pleased with this move. President Chen had openly backed the independence of Taiwan, something that did not augur well with mainland China.
A year after his re-election in 2004, the PRC passed an anti-secession law. It stated that if Taiwan ever tried to secede from mainland China, the PRC had the right to use military force against it.
Ma Ying-jeou’s Succession
When President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008, he sought to improve the strained relations between the two countries. During his tenure, the economic relations between China and Taiwan were on an upward trajectory.
However, after Tsai Ing-wen was elected to office in 2016 under the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), it became clear that her stance was for Taiwan to eventually gain independence from mainland China and govern itself as a sovereign state.
Shortly after Donald Trump was elected to office in 2016, Tsai reached out to him concerning the 1979 policy that severed the US Taiwan relationship. While there are no formal ties between the two countries, the US made a pledge to supply weapons to Taiwan if China ever invaded the island.
China’s Actions in Hong Kong
China implemented a national security law in Hong Kong. It was seen as Beijing increasing its assertiveness in the region. Hong Kong had always intended to enact a security law. Unfortunately, it was met with widespread resistance, causing mainland China to step in to see to it that the city had a legal framework to address what it termed as a “challenge to its authority.”
The National Security Law
The law, which came into effect on June 30, 2020, exactly 23 years after the British government formally handed over Hong Kong to China, criminalized acts of:
- Collusion: With any external or foreign forces
- Secession: Breaking away from mainland China
- Subversion: Undermining the authority or power of the PRC government
- Terrorism: The use of intimidation or violence against the people
The newly enacted law essentially gave Beijing the power to influence life in Hong Kong like never before. It curtails freedom of speech and demonstrations, which China says will bring back stability to the region. Some critical provisions of the new legislation include:
- Anyone convicted of crimes of collusion, secession, subversion, and terrorism faces life imprisonment;
- Anyone found damaging public infrastructures will be arrested and charged with terrorism;
- Anyone found guilty of these crimes is not eligible to stand for public office;
- Companies convicted of any of these crimes will be fined;
- The PRC would establish a security department in Hong Kong with its own officers, whose operations would not be subject to the local jurisdiction;
- Some cases related to crimes of collusion, secession, subversion, and terrorism would be tried in the PRC;
- Hong Kong’s chief executive would have the authority to appoint judges to preside over cases involving national security;
- Some cases would be tried behind closed doors;
- Anyone suspected of breaking the national security law can be put under round-the-clock surveillance and wiretapped;
- The PRC would have the power to decide on the interpretation of the new law;
- The law would also apply to individuals who are not permanent residents of Hong Kong.
China Military Exercises Taiwan
By the time President Tsai was re-elected to serve a second term in 2020, Hong Kong had experienced months of civil unrest. Protestors demonstrated against China’s growing influence in the region, and Taiwan was watched closely as the events unfolded.
While that was all going on, the US continued to reassure Taiwan of its unwavering support and even sent high-level officials from the State Department to the island. China strongly condemned the meeting and issued a stern warning to the US not to send any misleading signals that could otherwise be misinterpreted as its recognition of Taiwan’s “independence.”
During the visit that was marred with controversy, China conducted live-fire military exercises on the China Taiwan Strait, the waterway that separates the island from mainland China, in what could only be interpreted as a show of strength.
China Warns Taiwan
After Biden’s election into office, his administration issued a statement saying that America’s commitment to Taiwan was “rock solid.” A few days later, Taiwan reported an influx of Chinese military jets into its defensive zone. This military activity went on for a year, with the Pentagon warning that a looming Chinese invasion of Taiwan appeared to be closer than most people think.
With the US’ apparent backing of Taiwan, much to China’s dismay, the question becomes: Does the US recognize Taiwan? Are there countries that do?
The reality is that its legal status remains ambiguous. To mainland China, Taiwan is a renegade province, which it vows to take back using force if that’s what it comes down to. Taiwan leaders assert that it is an independent and sovereign state with its own constitution, armed forces comprising roughly 300,000 troops, and democratically-elected leaders.
When Chiang Kai-shek and his ROC government fled mainland China in 1949, he claimed to represent what is now the PRC and had every intention of re-occupying it when the opportunity presented itself.
The ROC administration even had a seat on the UN Security Council, and many western nations considered it the only legitimate Chinese government. Things changed in 1971 when the UN shifted its diplomatic recognition of ROC to Beijing, forcing the ROC government out.
Since then, there have been only 13 countries that recognize Taiwan, including Belize, Haiti, Guatemala, Holy See (Vatican City), Paraguay, and Honduras. The US maintained its recognition of Taiwan for about three decades after the Chinese civil war but switched in 1979. It has, however, continued to maintain cordial relations with the country.
US Response to Chinese Invasion of Taiwan – What to Expect
On March 9, 2022, the Pentagon stated that the US had learned a lot from the Russian invasion of Ukraine with regard to whether it would come to the defense of Taiwan if China attacked Ukraine. In a statement from the assistant secretary for defense, Pentagon stated that it would deny and deter any form of Chinese aggression toward Taiwan through a combination of Taiwan’s own defense forces, the US, and support from its allies.
The US has made it clear that it will come to the defense of Taiwan should China decide to seize it by force, despite the fact that there’s no existing US Taiwan mutual defense treaty between the two nations. The previous one was effective between the years 1955 and 1980.
While the US explicitly recognizes Taiwan as belonging to China, the US-Taiwan policy is governed by what can only be termed as “strategic ambiguity,” meaning Washington won’t recognize the island’s independence as long as China desists from invading it.
The message is clear. If China seizes Taiwan, the US and its allies will intervene.