National Security Situation: The Republic of China (Taiwan) exists in a singular position in world affairs. Taiwan is viewed as a breakaway province by the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC), who controls the Chinese mainland. However, Taiwan possesses its own government, economy, and institutions, and its nominal independence has been assured by the United States (U.S.) since 1949. However, the PRC views any move toward actual independence as casus belli under its “One China” policy, which has been in place for decades. Recognition or even acknowledgement of Taiwanese positions is a veritable geopolitical and diplomatic taboo.
The recent election of Donald Trump as president of the United States (POTUS) potentially undermines the previous order that has been in place since the Nixon Administration. Campaigning as a change agent, and one to defy convention, President Trump has suggested the U.S. rethink the “One China” policy. POTUS’ reception of overtures from Taiwan and hard rhetoric towards the PRC brings the question of Taiwan’s status and future to the forefront of geopolitics once again.
Background: The communist victory during the Chinese Civil War caused the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-Shek, with 2 million of its supporters, to flee from the Chinese mainland to the island of Taiwan. The gradual transition of the island to a democratic form of government, its industrialized, capitalist economy, and its reliance on western benefactors for defense established it as a bulwark of western influence in Asia. As a result of Cold War rivalries and competing ideologies, the independence of Taiwan has been assured in all but name for more than 65 years by the U.S. A series of crises, most recently in 1996, demonstrated the inability of the PRC to project military force against Taiwan, and the willingness of the U.S. to ensure Taiwan’s independence. Today, though the PRC is internationally recognized as the government of China, and the “One China” policy is a globally accepted norm, Taiwan still maintains de facto independence.
Events since the onset of the 21st century have caused the balance of power to shift ever more in favor towards the PRC. Impressive military expansion and diplomatic initiatives on the part of the PRC have emboldened it to challenge U.S. hegemony in Asia, and defy United Nations (UN) mandates. The most overt of these initiatives has been the PRC’s assertion of sovereignty over the SCS, and the seeming unwillingness of the international community to overtly challenge PRC claims, beyond referring them to legal arbitration. The emerging policies of the newly elected POTUS may further exacerbate the situation in the SCS, even as they may provide opportunities to assure the continued independence of Taiwan.
Significance: Taiwan is a democracy, with a dynamic capitalist economy. It has diplomatic and military ties to the U.S., and other countries, through arms sales and informal partnerships. It is strategically positioned along major oceanic trade routes from Southwest Asia to Japan and South Korea. The issue of Taiwanese independence is a global flash point due to PRC adherence to the “One China” policy. If the U.S. were to abandon Taiwan, it would effectively terminate the notional independence of the island, and end any hopes of preventing the PRC from becoming the regional hegemon.
Option #1: Taiwan rejects all PRC claims to the SCS, beyond its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and supports the rulings of the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration, with the goal of gaining international support, especially from the new U.S. administration.
Risk: The PRC maintains sovereignty over all Chinese affairs. Such an act would undoubtedly result in a forceful response from the PRC. The PRC may move militarily to isolate Taiwan and/or attempt to force a change in government through any means necessary. Depending on the perceived international response, the PRC may resort to war in order to conquer Taiwan.
Gain: Taiwan must break its diplomatic isolation if it is to survive as an independent state. This means currying favor with the UN, regional powers such as Japan and South Korea, and other regional nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines. Moreover, given the new POTUS’ perceived willingness to break from the “One China” policy, there is a chance to induce greater commitment from the U.S. by ensuring Taiwan’s policies match those of the U.S.
Option #2: Taiwan maintains the status quo and adheres to the “One China” policy, even in the face of tough U.S. rhetoric.
Risk: If the PRC’s ambitions are not curbed, the status quo will no longer be enough for PRC leaders. The creation and subsequent defense of artificial islands in the SCS is a relatively low risk activity. If the response of the international community is found wanting, then it will only embolden the PRC to seek bigger game. The ultimate conquest of Taiwan, while by no means an easy task, is a logical step in fulfilling the PRC’s regional ambitions. Conversely, standing with the PRC may infuriate the new POTUS, and result in the withdrawal of U.S. support.
Gain: The PRC has successfully integrated other economic and governmental systems into its own system before, under the “One Party, Two Systems” policy. While this led to a loss of political freedom for Macau and Hong Kong, the two former enclaves still maintain their capitalist systems, and enjoy very high standards of living. Furthermore, Taiwan is culturally and economically closer to the PRC than to any other nation.
Other Comments: Any conflict between the PRC and Taiwan would be devastating to the island. The PRC is simply too large and too close. However, Taiwan has been nominally independent for more than 65 years. Its people are the descendants of the generations that fought the communists, and stood firm during the Cold War, events that are still in living memory. Independence from the mainland is the legacy of the island, and is worth fighting for.