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Marco Antonio Olivera

Taiwan: the conflict that is brewing between the United States and China

- Relations between the United States and China reached great tension in the four years of the Trump administration.

Taiwan: the conflict that is brewing between the United States and China

Relations between the United States and China reached great tension in the four years of the Trump administration: the trade war, the attack by the US president against Huawei on suspicion of espionage, the blaming of China for the COVID-19 pandemic, the threats to ban the applications TikTok and WeChat, the reciprocal closure of consulates and the expulsion of journalists. To this, we must add the political support and arms sales of the United States to Taiwan. Also, after China lashed out at Hong Kong with the implementation of the new Security Law this year, it sent aircraft and warships to navigate the Taiwan Strait and cross Taiwanese airspace. These were messages that China sent to the government of the island and to which both Taiwan and the United States responded by sending military ships to patrol the area.

Now that Joe Biden is weeks away from assuming the US presidency, it is believed that he will take a less aggressive stance towards China and exercise restraint in his relations with Taiwan. The Taiwan Relations Act is the guideline under which the United States has conducted its non-diplomatic relationship with the island for forty years. This does not guarantee that the North American country will intervene militarily if China attacks or invades Taiwan, but it does not consider the total abandonment of the island in the event of an aggression. This law is ambiguous and hence the name given to US policy toward Taiwan: "strategic ambiguity," designed to discourage Taiwan from a unilateral declaration of independence and discourage China from trying to reunify the island by the force. However, China appears stronger than ever. Not even the COVID-19 pandemic has managed to undermine its morale and economic growth.

Another factor to consider is that the pro-independence president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, was re-elected this year as president, this means four more years of her government in which she will have to face the challenge of neutralizing an aggressive China and getting the unconditional support from the United States during the Joe Biden administration.

Is there a justified fear that a possible new crisis in the Taiwan Strait could imply a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and, with it, the possibility of an intervention by the United States?


Taiwan Strait. Source: PUEAA

Relations across the Taiwan Strait

At the end of World War II, the ROC, established after the 1911 revolution, was in a civil war. Two clearly differentiated factions were facing each other, on the one hand the official and nationalist government of President Chiang Kai-shek and, on the other, the communists commanded by Mao Zedong. In 1949, the communists triumphed and the ROC government fled to the island of Taiwan. At that time, the island was considered to be part of the entire Chinese territory, however, there were two parallel governments, one ruling mainland China – Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China and the area under its sovereignty is called mainland China- and the other on the island of Taiwan -the continuation of the government of the Republic of China-, each considering themselves the legitimate rulers of all of China despite the fact that only one of the two entities governed policies. Almost five decades later, both governments agreed on the 1992 Consensus, in which the existence of a single China was recognized, but with two nations: one of them is Taiwan. It is important to mention that the current ruling party on the island, the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP), does not recognize the 1992 Consensus. In that year of reaching the consensus, the Kuomintang was the ruling party in Taiwan.

Prior to reaching consensus, China and Taiwan clashed twice, these events are known as the First Taiwan Strait Crisis (1954-1955) and the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis (1958). Subsequently, the Third Crisis in the Taiwan Strait (1995-1996) occurred, the last and most recent warning of a possible Chinese invasion of the island, since ballistic missiles were launched against Taiwan from the Continent.

The relationship between China and Taiwan is characterized by the presence of ups and downs. The Kuomintang was the party that ruled Taiwan from 1949 to the year 2000. The confrontation with mainland China was one of the main lines of the party, after which they moved towards conciliation and the establishment of closer relations. Even under the administration of President Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008) of the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP) and under the government of Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016) when the Kuomintang returned to rule the island, they were open to dialogue and conciliation with China. Economic relations strengthened considerably and led to the uprising of the ''Sunflower Movement'' in which young Taiwanese students protested in 2014 against a trade agreement that China and Taiwan would sign. The Taiwanese considered that such an agreement would increase the dependence of the island against the mainlanders.

The shift in Taiwan towards pro-independence and confrontational rhetoric emerged in 2016 when Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP) became the island's president. She and the party return to the pro-independence character that they had adopted in the last fifteen years and that they had softened during the presidency of Chen Shui-bian. This change also stems from a more aggressive policy towards Taiwan by mainland China when Xi Jinping becomes president.

China prepares for war?

Economic prosperity and social well-being in China and Taiwan are currently similar, what differentiates these entities is the political system. It is considered that the Taiwanese have forged their own national identity from their democratic regime and the adoption of Western customs and ways of life – although the traditional has not been displaced. Mainland China's onslaught on Hong Kong has been interpreted as a preamble to the Taiwanese of what may happen if they accept mainland China's proposal to adhere to the ''One Country, Two Systems'' status, under which Hong Kong falls. .

This year, Chinese warplanes have crossed the island's airspace and Chinese warships have crossed the Taiwan Strait. The United States reacted by sending ships to patrol the area. Inclusively, on October 13, Xi Jinping visited a naval base in the south of Guangdong province, he addressed the armed forces to tell them to be prepared for war.

Why does China want Taiwan back?

Recovering Taiwan is the last step for the total reunification of all of China, something longed for since the triumph of the Communist Revolution and part of Xi Jingping's plan to reunify the country around the year 2049, the year in which the centenary of Taiwan is celebrated. Communist Revolution and the founding of the People's Republic of China.

His plans to impose himself in his natural area of influence and, likewise, the conflict over sovereign rights over the South China Sea make Taiwan a key target, as this country also claims sovereignty over part of the sea. Until now, in Southeast Asia, China has imposed its will with its neighbors: it has built artificial islands in the South China Sea, seized control of Scarborough Atoll in 2012, negotiates bilaterally with countries in this region to settle their disputes and it ignores the judgments of The Hague. Meanwhile, the United States has limited itself to watching and protesting, without actually doing anything.

Taiwanese national identity

Taiwanese have been polled multiple times in recent years asking whether they consider the island an independent state, whether they would be willing to fight for their nation if China sought the island's reunification through strength and whether they identify as Taiwanese or Chinese. On this, a documentary made by DW points out the following:

‘‘More and more people identify not according to Chinese roots, but as Taiwanese. In May 2020, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey among Taiwanese. And the number and percentage of Taiwanese who identify as Taiwanese just went back up to the all-time high, while the number of people who identify as Chinese continues to decline. This reflects the growing generation gap between the younger generation, who sees the importance of maintaining their Taiwanese identity, versus the older generation, who still feels that a large part of their life has a very deep connection to China. [1]

Proof of this is that on Saturday, October 20, 2018, some one hundred thousand people gathered in front of the headquarters of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), to demonstrate in favor of a referendum in which the independence of Taiwan is decided against to mainland China. This movement was promoted by Alianza Formosa, a political coalition supported by two former presidents of the island: Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian. Said referendum has not been carried out and, moreover, Taiwan has never made a formal declaration of independence.

Taiwan: the conflict that is brewing between the United States and China

After the triumph of the communist revolution, the United States gave its support and recognition to the Republic of China (Taiwan), but in 1978, the Jimmy Carter administration stopped recognizing Taiwan as a State and established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China.

Despite the turn in American foreign policy to legitimately recognize the Beijing government, the United States has maintained a non-diplomatic relationship with Taiwan. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 has governed policy in relation to the island in the absence of a diplomatic relationship or defense treaty. Also, the three US-China Joint Communiqués of 1972, 1979 and 1982, and the Six Assurances of 1982 delineate the US-Taiwan relationship.

At the end of 2016, Donald Trump won the presidential elections in his country and one of the first heads of state to congratulate him was the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. This would cause much controversy in mainland China. Also, President Trump declared at the beginning of 2017 that he was considering recognizing two Chinas, that is, recognizing Taiwan as a sovereign country and, at the same time, maintaining its relations with China, completely ignoring the 1992 Consensus and the communiqués joint ventures between your country and China. As mentioned above, the United States does not recognize China's sovereignty over Taiwan, nor does it recognize the independence of the island.

It is precisely the Law on Relations with Taiwan that allows the supply of arms to the island. During the Trump administration, the United States sold $17.997 million worth of weapons to Taiwan, just over the $14.70 million sold under the Obama administration. On October 22, 2020, the sale of 1,811.3 million dollars was announced, on October 26, 2,370 million dollars, and on November 4, 600 million dollars. This in a span of only two weeks.

Why is Taiwan an important ally for the United States? Once the Second World War ended, the North American country created a system of alliances in Asia and the presence of its troops guaranteed relative stability that would later help Asian countries to prosper. In this way, the Americans strengthened their presence and influence in this part of the world. However, the American world order is collapsing. China's stability, prosperity and influence allow it to question and challenge the presence of an external actor in the region. Taiwan is an important ally of the United States to continue maintaining some of the influence that it maintains in the Asia-Pacific and the Indo-Pacific, in addition to achieving the containment of Chinese influence, although a question that academics and analysts ask is if Truly, the United States is willing to risk or sacrifice Los Angeles or San Francisco to defend Taiwan and the nearly 80,000 American citizens who live on the island. "Otherwise, Washington must decide what price it is willing to pay to help Taiwan." [2]


The tense Sino-American relationship had Taiwan as one of its causes. A new crisis in the Strait threatens to put the United States and China on the brink of direct conflict because there is no strategy that the North American country should follow in case China directly attacks Taiwan. In the Third Crisis of the Straits, the United States carried out a military deployment by sea, but how will it act if China decides to bomb Taipei or invade the island? The United States is badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, relations with its main allies, except for Taiwan and Israel, are deteriorating due to Trump's abandonment of multilateralism, internally the country is very fragmented. Will China take advantage of this?

Furthermore, if the mainlanders planned a peaceful reunification in which Taiwan decided on its own to reintegrate, it will not be possible for at least the next three years of the presidency of Tsai Ing-wen and his party, the Democratic Progressive Party ( PDP), who hold a majority in the Legislative Yuan and who have a clearly pro-independence agenda.

Finally, China has no non-hostile means to attract Taiwanese youth, a population that self-identifies as Taiwanese. They live in peace, they have prosperity on the island and, something very important, they have a democracy.

These factors denote that they will be three to four complicated years. The stability of the region depends on the three actors, since if a conflict broke out, other countries would be attracted to it.


    [1] DW News (2020). ‘‘Taiwan: China’s next target? | DW Analysis’’, video de Youtube, Recuperado de:

    [2] Bandow, D. (2016). »Would the U.S. really risk Los Angeles for Taipei?», China-US Focus, Recuperado de:

    Chung, L. »Taiwan independence protesters take to the street in Taipei», South China Morning Post, 20 de octubre de 2018. Recuperado de:

    Celis, B. (2018). ‘‘Vientos independentistas agitan las aguas de Taiwán’’, El País, 26 de abril de 2018. Recuperado de:

    Conelly, Marisela. (2014). Historia de Taiwán. México: El Colegio de México.

    Gao, C. (2018). ‘‘China Takes Revenge for Tsai Ing-wen’s US Trip – Via a Taiwanese Cafe Chain’’, The Diplomat, Recuperado de:

    Merle, Marcel. (2003). Sociología de las Relaciones Internacionales. España: Alianza Editorial.

    Oficina Económica y Cultural de Taipei en España (2018) ‘‘Postura de Pdta. Tsai hacia lazos Taiwán-China recibe más apoyo’’, Oficina Económica y Cultural de Taipei. Recuperado de:

    Ríos, X. (2020). ‘‘Estrecho de Taiwán: la crisis que se avecina’’, Observatorio de la Política China, Recuperado de:

    Toro, A., Chacón, A. y Pérez, M. (2001). ‘‘La República Popular China y el conflicto con Taiwán: un estrecho margen de maniobra’’, Instituto de Estudios Internacionales, vol. 34, núm. 133. Recuperado de:

    Wingfield-Hayes, R. (2020). ‘‘Taiwán, el conflicto latente que espera al próximo presidente de EE.UU’’, BBC News, 30 de octubre de 2020, Recuperado de:

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