Taiwan – an island off the southern coast of China – is home to over 23 million people. It’s also a prosperous democracy, albeit one that’s become something of a diplomatic outcast.
The island came into China’s political orbit during the 17th century and was formally annexed in 1683. The origins of the major Chinese immigrant influx date from around that period and the overwhelming bulk of the population is now ethnically Chinese. However, there’s still a small indigenous component – about two percent.
After losing the First Sino-Japanese War, China ceded Taiwan to Japan in 1895, initiating 50 years of Japanese rule. This ended with Japan’s Second World War capitulation.
Meanwhile, China was wracked by civil war between Mao Zedong’s communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists. And following his 1949 defeat, Chiang evacuated to Taiwan, bringing along approximately two million soldiers and followers.
From there, he continued to lead a government-in-exile. His regime was widely recognized as the legitimate government of China, continuing to occupy China’s United Nations seat until 1971. Then the tide turned.
Chiang was a dictator who ruled under martial law until he died in 1975. But martial law was lifted in 1987 and Taiwan evolved into a full-fledged democracy. Its development, politically and economically, was thus analogous to that of South Korea.
Alas, there’s a fly in the ointment. The Chinese dictatorship has its eye on Taiwan.
For decades, regimes on the Chinese mainland and Taiwan hewed to the concept of a single country – “one China.” The only dispute was who should be recognized as the legitimate government.
But although Taiwan has downplayed the single country idea in recent years, China hasn’t. Unification, it insists, is non-negotiable. If it can’t be achieved peacefully, it’ll be done militarily.
A couple of years ago, Taiwan’s president declined China’s proposal for a “one country, two systems” formula similar to what was adopted for Hong Kong in 1997. As she put it, that arrangement brought Hong Kong to “the edge of disorder.” And as China’s squeeze on Hong Kong intensifies, the formula’s ominous implications become even more apparent.
So, unlikely though it may be in the near future, what happens if China invades Taiwan? Would the United States step in?
Many people have assumed it would, but the U.S. is under no treaty obligation to do so. And even if it were under such an obligation, it’s virtually inconceivable that any 21st-century American administration – Democrat or Republican – would go to outright war with China to save Taiwan. Militarily, Taiwan would be on its own.
Yes, there’d be indignant protests and presumably some form of economic sanctions. But committing American soldiers to fight China is a different matter. And it goes without saying that no other country, or combination of countries, has the capability or the will to step into the role.
How would Taiwan fare if put to the test?
On paper, the forces at Taiwan’s disposal are grossly inferior to those of China. Estimates indicate that China’s defence budget is about 25 times the size of Taiwan’s. And the ratio of warships and planes is around six-to-one in China’s favour.
That, however, isn’t the entire story.
To occupy Taiwan, China would have to launch an amphibious invasion and such endeavours are complicated. A determined and well-equipped defender can inflict very serious damage.
Taiwan’s new defence minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, has recently talked about this, making it clear that Taiwan’s strategy would be to render an invasion an extremely expensive proposition for China. If the prospective price of invasion can be driven high enough, perhaps that’ll ultimately act as a deterrent.
In Chiu’s words: “It’s not about ability. It’s about willpower. I always tell my peers to stop asking how many days we need to hold out. The question is, how many days does China want to fight? We’ll keep them company for as many days as they want to fight.”
There’s also no question that, if it were willing, the rest of the world could invoke economic sanctions that would really bite. China, for instance, is a big importer of fossil fuels, second only to the European Union.
But how many countries would be willing to get on China’s bad side over the longer haul?
The hitherto portents aren’t auspicious.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit. For interview requests, click here.
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