China stakes its claim over Taiwan through its ‘One China’ policy. The policy has been more of a diplomatic stance since the Chinese civil war forced the defeated Kuomintang, or Nationalists, to flee to the island in 1949. China has repeatedly expressed its commitment to bring the island under Beijing’s rule, by force if necessary. The delicacy of the situation in the Indo-Pacific has been compounded by the US’ continued support for Taipei and the recently agreed AUKUS security pact involving Washington, the UK, and Australia.
Here is are some key facts regarding the often-tumultuous ties between Taiwan and China amidst the relatively unprecedented rising military tensions in the region:
Island’s political landscape
Taiwan-China ties have extensively deteriorated since the election of the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen as president in 2016. China has since cut off a formal dialogue mechanism, flown fighters and bombers near Taiwan, forced foreign firms to refer to Taiwan as part of China on their websites, and whittled away Taiwan’s diplomatic allies.
China is concerned that Tsai – who won re-election by a landslide last year – will move to push for Taiwan’s formal independence in negation of the ‘One China’ policy. Any effort in that direction will mark a red line for China. Tsai has repeatedly said that Taiwan is already an independent country. Taiwan’s president says that her government will defend the island’s freedom and democracy.
Tsai’s political rivals Kuomintang party favours close ties to China. During its reign, before Tsai swept to power, the island had warm relations with China under Ma Ying-jeou who won the presidency in 2008 and was re-elected in 2012. The former Beijing-friendly president even went on to hold a landmark meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore in 2015.
There have been several near-misses in terms of a full-time war between China and Taiwan since 1949. The most recent crisis hit the region ahead of the 1996 presidential election. At the time, China carried out missile tests in waters close to the island in a bid to prevent people from voting for pro-independence candidate Lee Teng-hui. Lee ended up winning the elections with commanding ease.
Taiwan has repeatedly criticised China’s military posture toward the island. Taipei says that the Chinese military is equipped with thousands of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles as well as cruise missiles pointed at Taiwan. Taipei has also accused that China of running a sophisticated online disinformation campaign to undermine Taiwanese people’s confidence in the government.
Taiwan and China last faced off in a large-scale battle in 1958. Chinese forces carried out more than a month of bombardments of the Taiwan-controlled Kinmen and Matsu islands. All the while, both parties waged naval and air battles as well.
Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the US is required to support provide Taiwan with all necessary means to defend itself from the Chinese threat. China has always vehemently criticised rather frequent US arms sales to Taiwan. China also blames the US for the latest rising tensions citing Washington’s support for Taiwan’s government.
China employs the world’s largest armed forces and they have continued to rapidly modernise. Under President Xi, the military has undergone an ambitious military expansion program where the Chinese military has added stealth fighters, aircraft carriers, and new submarines to its already humongous military power.
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s understandably far smaller military is mostly supplied by the US. Recently, Tsai has bolstered domestic production, including developing long-range missiles and new, heavily-armed “aircraft carrier killer” warships. In particular, Taiwan’s air force is well trained, but experts say if it comes to war, the island would only be able to hold out the Chinese military might for a few days unless the US quickly came to its aid.