This week, China has started to extend its military drills in the waters surrounding the island of Taiwan. These supposedly ‘routine’ military exercises have already disrupted shipping and air traffic in the region, further fuelling concerns around a Chinese invasion of a state that has, as of yet, resisted the social and political interference of Beijing.
China’s interest in Taiwan is no novel curiosity and, considering the turbulent political context surrounding eastern Europe at this moment in time, it is certainly not surprising that it has reached a point of relative climax.
This article will explore China’s intentions in their increased military activity around Taiwan, discussing the political history of the tensions between the two nations, and assessing the potential consequences this activity could have for other geographical regions burdened with a constant state of political instability.
The History of China and Taiwan
Though the region has been the subject of much political hostility throughout its history, Taiwan’s turbulent relationship with the Republic of China began to really intensify shortly before the turn of the 20th century.
Having served as a useful point of refuge for Chinese migrants fleeing turmoil or hardship on the mainland for much of the 1800s, the island was ceded to Japan in 1895, as the Japanese imperial forces successfully deposed the Qing government in the first Sino-Japanese War.
Taiwan remained under Japanese occupation until the end of the Second World War, when they were forced to relinquish their control over all overseas territories by the prevailing forces of the United Kingdom and the United States. With the allies’ consent, the Republic of China regained control of Taiwan, bringing it back into the fold of Beijing’s post-war governmental regime.
This was, however, before the outbreak of an explosive and bloody civil war between the Kuomintang government, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, and the insurgent forces of Mao Zedong’s Communist army.
Following their defeat in 1949, Chiang, the remnants of his Kuomintang government, and all of their supporters – totalling around 1.5 million – fled to the island of Taiwan, where they established a government in exile that would rule under Chiang’s leadership for the next 25 years.
At first, Chiang’s government-in-exile claimed to represent the whole of mainland China, holding the country’s seat on the United Nations Security Council, and being recognised by a number of prominent Western nations as the only Chinese government.
The 1970s, however, represented a decade of considerable change for Chinese geopolitics, with the United Nations switching democratic recognition to Beijing over Taipei in 1971. Furthermore, in 1978, mainland China began to open up its economy to the wider world, establishing diplomatic ties with the United States in 1979 and essentially confirming their status as the seat of Chinese political power in the eyes of the wider world.
To this day, Taiwan’s legal status remains unclear; despite having all the characteristics of an independent state, and a political system that is entirely distinct from that of mainland China, only thirteen countries worldwide recognise Taiwan as a sovereign nation.
What is important however, is that both countries claim sovereignty over the other. Taiwan claims that the ousting of Chiang’s Kuomintang government, and the subsequent rise of Mao’s Communist regime, does not diminish their authority of mainland China, nor should it impact their representation of the people of China at global political summits.
Beijing, however, now operating as the principal political authority in the region, argues that the island of Taiwan has historically served as a Chinese territory, and should therefore be brought back into the fold of a united political system, governed by the mainland.
This is the historical context that now surrounds the extension of Chinese military activity around the island of Taiwan. Naturally, the turbulent political history between these two territories suggests the potential for a serious and violent escalation to these supposedly routine military exercises.
Russia and Ukraine
The full-scale Russian invasion of neighbouring Ukraine has dominated much of Western broadcast news in recent months, and the conflict plays a pivotal role in the story of China’s development of their own military presence around Taiwan as well.
In the same way that the island of Taiwan has historically been an overseas territory of mainland China, Ukraine was formerly a member state of the USSR, an empire that spanned from the eastern tip of northern-most Asia into eastern Europe.
A number of significant factors – including the separation of the presidency of the Soviet Union from any alignment they formerly had with the Communist Party in Russia constituted through Mikhail Gorbochev’s resignation from head of the party, whilst continuing to serve as President of the USSR, albeit for a very short period of time – contributed to the dissolution of the Russian Empire, and a state of independence finally achieved for previously occupied territories such as Belarus and, crucially, Ukraine.
Many prominent Russian politicians came to power at a time when the Soviet Union was at the forefront of global politics, a ‘Communist monolith’ that was revered in war and economy across the world.
They were forced to observe the liquidation of this once great empire, a process which, while not affecting Russia’s status as the greatest nation in the world by terms of land area, certainly hindered their authority on the geopolitical front – Vladimir Putin, long-standing President of the Russian Federation, was one of these men.
Putin has long had ambitions to return Russia to its former glory, bringing those former member states of the Soviet Union back under Moscow’s control. These ambitions manifested themselves first in Russia’s invasion of neighbouring Georgia in 2008, and have played out once again, this time in Ukraine
The significance of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, seemingly, is not isolated to the invasion itself. Evidently, Putin’s imperial sentiment has encouraged China to consider its own historical domain, forcing them to question the validity of Taiwan’s claim to nationhood, and their continued defiance to the politics of Beijing.
What Does This Mean?
On the surface, this doesn’t mean very much. An extension in military activity does not necessarily lead to military involvement and potential invasion.
However, with the historical context that surrounds the tumultuous relationship between Taiwan and mainland China, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine that shares many of the same historical and political qualities as China and Taiwan, it is important to recognise that more military activity may potentially be on the way.
The Western World, and the majority of the members of the international organisation N.A.T.O., will likely condemn any further escalation on behalf of the aggressor, and have already denounced China’s involvement in the raising of tensions in the area.
For now, at least, military escalation has slowed down, though China still maintain a relatively heightened military presence in the seas surrounding Taiwan.
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