The relationship between China, Taiwan and the United States has been fraught with tension for decades, but recent developments have raised the stakes and the risks of a military confrontation. The three sides have different views on Taiwan’s status, its future and its role in the region, and each has its own interests and concerns that shape their policies and actions.
What is the dispute over Taiwan?
Taiwan is an island of about 23 million people, located off the southeast coast of mainland China. It has its own government, military, currency and constitution, but it is not recognized as a sovereign state by most countries in the world. China considers Taiwan a renegade province that must be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary. Taiwan, on the other hand, sees itself as a de facto independent nation that has the right to determine its own fate. The United States, which has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, maintains a close unofficial relationship with the island and provides it with defensive weapons and security guarantees.
The dispute over Taiwan dates back to 1949, when the Chinese civil war ended with the victory of the communist forces led by Mao Zedong over the nationalist forces led by Chiang Kai-shek. The nationalists fled to Taiwan and established the Republic of China (ROC) there, while the communists founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland. Both sides claimed to be the legitimate government of all China, and vowed to reunify the country under their rule.
For decades, the two sides were locked in a state of hostility and confrontation, with occasional military clashes and diplomatic isolation. In 1971, the ROC lost its seat in the United Nations to the PRC, and in 1979, the United States switched its recognition from Taipei to Beijing, following a historic rapprochement between Washington and Beijing. However, the US also enacted the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which authorized continued unofficial ties with Taiwan and pledged to help the island defend itself against any threats or coercion from China.
In 1992, after years of economic and cultural exchanges, representatives from both sides of the strait reached a tacit agreement known as the “1992 Consensus”, which stated that there is only one China, but each side can have its own interpretation of what that means. This formula allowed for a degree of ambiguity and flexibility that facilitated further dialogue and cooperation between Beijing and Taipei.
However, the consensus was challenged by the rise of pro-independence forces in Taiwan, especially after the election of Chen Shui-bian as president in 2000 and Tsai Ing-wen in 2016. Both leaders belong to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which advocates for Taiwan’s sovereignty and identity as distinct from China’s. Beijing views them as separatists who seek to break away from China’s sovereignty and undermine its core interests. Since Tsai took office in 2016, Beijing has suspended official communication with Taipei, increased military pressure around the island, poached several of its diplomatic allies, and imposed various economic and political sanctions.
What is the role of the US?
The US is a key player in the cross-strait equation, as it has significant strategic, economic and ideological interests in maintaining peace and stability in the region. The US is also Taiwan’s most important partner and supporter, as it provides the island with political backing, security assistance and market access. The US has adopted a policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan, which means that it does not explicitly state whether it would intervene militarily if China attacked Taiwan, but it also does not rule out that possibility. This policy is intended to deter both sides from taking provocative actions that could escalate into war.
However, in recent years, some US officials and lawmakers have called for a more explicit and assertive stance toward Taiwan, especially amid growing concerns over China’s rising power and assertiveness in Asia and beyond. They argue that strategic ambiguity is no longer sufficient or credible to deter China from using force against Taiwan or to reassure Taiwan of US commitment. They also contend that supporting Taiwan is consistent with US values of democracy and human rights, as well as its interests in preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
Under President Donald Trump’s administration, the US increased its arms sales to Taiwan, expanded its official contacts with Taiwanese officials, sent high-level delegations to visit Taipei, endorsed Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, and conducted more frequent naval and air operations near or over Taiwan. These moves were welcomed by Taipei but angered Beijing, which accused Washington of violating the “One China” principle and interfering in its internal affairs.
President Joe Biden’s administration has continued to express strong support for Taiwan and reaffirmed its commitment to help defend it under the TRA. In April 2021, Biden said that “the United States will respond” if China attacks Taiwan1. However, he also said that he does not seek confrontation or conflict with China, and that he hopes to cooperate with Beijing on areas of mutual interest, such as climate change and pandemic response. Biden has also emphasized the importance of dialogue and diplomacy to manage the cross-strait relations and avoid miscalculation or escalation.
What are the risks and challenges?
The China-Taiwan-US triangle is fraught with risks and challenges, as any misstep or misunderstanding could trigger a crisis or even a war that would have devastating consequences for all parties involved and the world at large. Some of the main sources of tension and uncertainty include:
- China’s growing military capabilities and assertiveness: China has been modernizing and expanding its military forces, especially its missile, naval and air assets, to enhance its ability to coerce or invade Taiwan. China has also been conducting frequent and large-scale military exercises and operations around Taiwan, including sending warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and sailing aircraft carriers and other vessels near or through the Taiwan Strait. These actions are intended to demonstrate China’s resolve and readiness to use force against Taiwan, as well as to test Taiwan’s defenses and US responses. China has also been developing new weapons and tactics, such as hypersonic missiles, cyberattacks and swarm drones, that could pose new threats or challenges to Taiwan and the US2.
- Taiwan’s changing identity and politics: Taiwan has undergone a remarkable transformation from a dictatorship to a democracy in the past three decades, and has developed a vibrant and diverse society and culture. Along with this process, Taiwan’s identity has also evolved, with more people identifying themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese or both. According to a survey by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University, the percentage of people who identify as Taiwanese only rose from 17.6% in 1992 to 57.6% in 2020, while the percentage of those who identify as Chinese only dropped from 25.5% to 2.4% in the same period3. This shift in identity has implications for Taiwan’s politics and cross-strait relations, as it affects how people view their relationship with China and their preferences for Taiwan’s future status. While most people in Taiwan support maintaining the status quo of de facto independence, there is a growing sense of alienation and resentment toward China’s pressure and hostility, as well as a desire for more international recognition and participation.
- US-China strategic rivalry: The US-China relationship has deteriorated significantly in recent years, due to various disputes over trade, technology, human rights, regional security and global governance. The two countries have increasingly viewed each other as strategic competitors or even adversaries, rather than partners or stakeholders. This has reduced the space for cooperation and increased the risk of confrontation or conflict. Taiwan has become a flashpoint of conflict between the US and China, as both sides see it as a vital interest and a symbol of their power and legitimacy. The US views Taiwan as a democratic ally that needs to be protected from China’s aggression, while China views Taiwan as a core issue that cannot be compromised or challenged by the US. Both sides have been signaling their resolve and capabilities to defend their interests and values in Taiwan, but they have also been trying to avoid direct military clashes that could escalate into a full-scale war.
What are the possible scenarios or solutions?
The future of Taiwan is uncertain and unpredictable, as it depends on various factors and dynamics that are constantly changing. However, some possible scenarios or solutions that have been proposed or discussed by experts and analysts include:
- Status quo: This scenario entails maintaining the current situation of de facto independence for Taiwan, without any formal declaration or recognition of its sovereignty. This scenario would require both sides of the strait to exercise restraint and refrain from taking unilateral actions that could alter the status quo or provoke the other side. It would also require the US to continue its policy of strategic ambiguity and provide security assistance to Taiwan, while encouraging dialogue and cooperation between Beijing and Taipei. This scenario is preferred by most people in Taiwan and supported by many in the US, but it is opposed by China, which sees it as unacceptable and unsustainable.
- Peaceful reunification: This scenario entails resolving the cross-strait dispute through peaceful means, such as negotiation or referendum, that would result in Taiwan becoming part of China under some form of autonomy or special arrangement. This scenario would require both sides of the strait to reach a consensus on the terms and conditions of reunification, as well as to obtain the consent and support of the people in Taiwan. It would also require the US to respect the outcome of such a process and adjust its relationship with both sides accordingly. This scenario is favored by China, but it is rejected by most people in Taiwan who do not want to give up their sovereignty or democracy.
- Military conflict: This scenario entails a violent confrontation between China and Taiwan that could involve the use of force or coercion by either side or both sides. This scenario could be triggered by various factors, such as an accidental clash, a miscalculation, a provocation, a crisis escalation or a preemptive strike. This scenario could also involve the US, either as a direct participant or an indirect supporter of Taiwan, depending on the circumstances and the nature of the conflict. This scenario would have grave consequences for all parties involved and the world at large, as it could result in massive casualties, economic disruption, humanitarian crisis and even nuclear escalation. This scenario is feared by most people in Taiwan and the US, but it is not ruled out by China, which sees it as a last resort option.
- Peaceful coexistence: This scenario entails establishing a stable and mutually acceptable relationship between China and Taiwan that would allow both sides to coexist peacefully and cooperate on common issues. This scenario would require both sides of the strait to respect each other’s differences and interests, and to seek common ground and compromise on contentious issues. It would also require the US to play a constructive role in facilitating dialogue and trust-building between Beijing and Taipei, while maintaining its commitment to Taiwan’s security and democracy. This scenario is hoped for by many people in Taiwan and the US, but it is challenged by China, which sees it as a way of delaying or denying reunification.
- What are the prospects and implications?
- The prospects and implications of the China-Taiwan-US triangle are uncertain and complex, as they depend on various factors and dynamics that are constantly changing. However, some general observations and implications can be made based on the current situation and trends:
- The status quo is becoming more unstable and unsustainable, as China’s military capabilities and assertiveness increase, Taiwan’s identity and politics change, and US-China strategic rivalry intensifies. The risk of conflict or crisis is rising, as any miscalculation or provocation could trigger a chain of events that could spiral out of control.
- The peaceful reunification is becoming more unlikely and unrealistic, as China’s pressure and hostility alienate Taiwan’s people, Taiwan’s democracy and sovereignty strengthen its resolve, and US support and involvement deter China’s coercion or invasion. The gap between the two sides’ positions and expectations is widening, as China demands unification under its terms, while Taiwan rejects any compromise on its status.
- The military conflict is becoming more possible and dangerous, as China’s capabilities and readiness grow, Taiwan’s vulnerabilities and challenges increase, and US commitment and credibility are tested. The consequences of conflict or war are dire, as it could result in massive casualties, economic disruption, humanitarian crisis and even nuclear escalation.
- The peaceful coexistence is becoming more desirable and feasible, as China’s interests and incentives change, Taiwan’s pragmatism and flexibility emerge, and US engagement and mediation help. The potential for cooperation or dialogue is increasing, as both sides face common challenges and opportunities in areas such as pandemic response, climate change, trade and security.
The China-Taiwan-US triangle is a complex and dynamic issue that has significant implications for the peace and stability of the region and the world. The three sides have different views and interests on Taiwan’s status and future, and each faces various risks and challenges in managing their relationship1. The status quo is becoming more unstable and unsustainable, as China’s military capabilities and assertiveness increase, Taiwan’s identity and politics change, and US-China strategic rivalry intensifies. The peaceful reunification is becoming more unlikely and unrealistic, as China’s pressure and hostility alienate Taiwan’s people, Taiwan’s democracy and sovereignty strengthen its resolve, and US support and involvement deter China’s coercion or invasion. The military conflict is becoming more possible and dangerous, as China’s capabilities and readiness grow, Taiwan’s vulnerabilities and challenges increase, and US commitment and credibility are tested. The peaceful coexistence is becoming more desirable and feasible, as China’s interests and incentives change, Taiwan’s pragmatism and flexibility emerge, and US engagement and mediation help. The future of Taiwan is uncertain and unpredictable, as it depends on various factors and dynamics that are constantly changing2. It requires wisdom, courage and creativity from all parties involved to avoid conflict or war, achieve mutual benefit or respect, and promote peace or coexistence.