23 Mar 2021 19:54 IST

Is Taiwan the world's latest flashpoint for war?

Taiwan gains traction as Biden bolsters support for the island nation, further straining US-China ties

Writing for the Yahoo News website this month, James Kitfield, the national security and foreign affairs correspondent for National Journal magazine, quoted from a recent report from the Council on Foreign Relations — Taiwan is “becoming the most dangerous flashpoint in the world for a possible war” between the United States and China. He also quoted the head of the U S Indo-Pacific Command, Adm Phil Davidson, in Senate testimony — China might try to annex Taiwan “in this decade, in fact within the next six years.”

Most people cannot place Taiwan on a world map and are unable to relate to it, other than perhaps recognise the “Made in Taiwan” label on thousands of electronic devices and components. Taiwan’s flagship airline Eva Air, flies to India but many don’t know much about the carrier or that it flies one of the most extensive routes in Southeast Asia.

So, why is Taiwan relevant? How could a relatively unknown region be the world’s next flashpoint for conflict between two great powers?

For starters, Taiwan is about as close to China in identity as China itself. Taiwan’s official U N name is the Republic of China (China’s official name is the People’s Republic of China). Taiwan is a group of self-administered islands in the South-East China sea, home to 23 million people, about 180km south-east of mainland China.

China's last dynasty was the Qing (1644–1912). In 1912, Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Xinhai Revolution and the Kuomintang (KMT) party, helped end 5,000 years of Chinese monarchy rule by forming the Republic of China with its capital in Canton (now Guangzhou). Elections were held in 1912 and KMT won them handily. In 1921, KMT formed a government with the support of the then small Communist Party of China (CPC), but in 1927, KMT’s new leader began an oppressive policy to begin killing members of the CPC, mainly in Shanghai. He also moved the capital to Nanjing.

Historic backdrop

For the next twenty years, the KMT and CPC fought a bloody civil war which finally ended in 1946 when the CPC won and established the People’s Republic of China with Peking (now Beijing) as its capital. The displaced KMT moved its capital to Taipei, across the Taiwanese Strait, and established an independent region called the Republic of China.

As the PRC slowly began to become the world’s face as the land of the Chinese people, the Taiwanese revelled in their independent status. The PRC insisted that there was only one sovereign Chinese state emphasizing its so-called One China policy. The U.N. agreed, and in 1971, Taiwan lost its seat at the world body, to be replaced by Beijing’s PRC.

But Taiwan has continued to thrive as an independent region, with its own government, free elections, and a wealthy economy, with a per capita GDP of nearly $31,000, thrice that of China’s. Taiwan has its own Central Bank. The currency is the New Taiwan Dollar, different from the Chinese Yuan.

America, always trying to manage the balance of power in the world’s regions, has drawn a fine line between supporting the One China policy and supporting Taiwan. The United States maintains a de-facto embassy in Taipei but doesn’t call it that. Taiwanese citizens get easy electronic-visa approvals to visit America and Americans get visa-free 90-day privileges to visit Taiwan. America has sold over $25 billion in arms to Taiwan, since 2007. Taiwan maintains a large standing army with sophisticated defensive capabilities on its coast facing mainland China.

Diplomatic ties

On December 2, 2016, President-elect Donald Trump called the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, for a first since 1979. The two leaders spoke for around ten minutes, focusing on politics, economy, and security in the Asia-Pacific. This upped America’s ante against China, and tensions with China continued to remain high throughout Trump’s four years in office — to include trade and security issues.

As NBC News reported this week, many Taiwanese favoured Trump because of his administration's hard-line stance against China and support for Taiwan. When Trump lost to Biden, Taiwan feared that Biden would embrace China at Taiwan’s expense. But, so far, Biden has continued to display strong support for Taiwan, at times even going further than the Trump administration did.

China has retaliated by pushing the envelope like never before. Kitfield writes that last September, actual Chinese combat aircraft intentionally flew over the rarely crossed median line in the Taiwan Strait in the direction of Taipei an unprecedented 40 times and conducted simulated attacks on the island. Since Biden took office, China has aggressively acted in Hong Kong, stamping out its fledgling pro-democracy movement.

On March 18, 2021, a high-level Sino-American delegation began talks in Alaska, to kick off relations between a new American administration and a confident China under President Xi Jinping. The meeting didn’t start well. Top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi, the highest diplomat under CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, criticised the United States as having deep-rooted human rights problems including a long history of killing Blacks. In a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, Jiechi charged the U S as the champion of cyber attacks.

The world will be watching.