The China-Taiwan dispute has been a constant and recurring source of tension in the South China Sea region. In order to understand the complex situation, we first must know the history of the island of Taiwan.
Chinese contact with the island of Taiwan largely began in the 17th century after its conquest by Ming and then Qing generals. Taiwan was then integrated into the Fujan province of the Qing Empire. However, in 1895, after the Sino-Japanese War, Japan took control of the province.
After the Japanese defeat in the Second World War, the province was transferred back to the Republic of China (KMT/Nationalist-controlled). With the start of the Chinese Civil War between the Nationalists and Communists, the island gained importance as the KMT moved to Taiwan after they were defeated in 1949.
In the 1950s, conflict took place between the PRC on the mainland and the KMT/ROC in Taiwan; several Strait Crises took place in 1954 and 1958, with shelling and blockading by naval ships and aeroplanes. However, US intervention and naval protection prevented any Chinese from crossing into Taiwan.
Until 1971, the ROC government in Taiwan was recognised as the legitimate government of China. After the thawing of relations between China and the USA, the People’s Republic of China was recognised as the legitimate government of China. Taiwan’s position thus became much more ambiguous.
Map of China and Taiwan, Image Source: Nat, via Wikipedia
While China adopted the One China policy, seeing Taiwan as a rightful part of China, Taiwan adopted the Three Noes policy of not keeping contact with the mainland.
While both sides claim to be the legitimate rulers of China, most countries recognise the PRC as the legitimate government, while only 13 countries recognise the KMT as the legitimate government. However, many parties in Taiwan have moved away from a unification stance to a pro-independence stance.
Improvement in relations between Taiwan and China
From the 1980s to the mid-2010s, China and Taiwan began to have a thaw in their relations. With families being allowed to visit from Taiwan to their old homes on the mainland, many believed peace was on the table. Many talks and meetings were held between high-ranking officials; however, periods of hostile non-contact and military buildups were also seen such as in the 1995 Strait Crisis.
Since 2008, the economies of Taiwan and mainland China have begun to integrate, and investments have been allowed on both sides. However, the winds have begun to shift in recent times.
Recent Disputes and Deteriorations in Relations
Since 2016, China has been staking its claim in the South China Sea region due to its importance for trade and security. Taiwan sees Taiwan’s close relations with the USA as a threat to its security and sovereignty. It has reiterated its claim over Taiwan time and time again and has quashed any claims of Taiwanese independence.
It has even gone so far as to say that they will enforce their claims with military force. Recent military exercises and blockades around Taiwan have only stoked tensions in the region, with the People’s Liberation Army announcing more patrols in the area.
Image Source: CIA World Factbook
The rocky relations between China and Taiwan have always been of global importance, especially with the US backing Taiwan. However, given Taiwan’s importance to the world economy, especially in the semiconductor industry, any sort of conflict can have a huge global impact.
Similarly, as the Chinese conduct large-scale military exercises in the region, the USA has increased its support for Taiwan and is supporting other countries in Southeast Asia, like the Philippines, to counter Chinese influence. The South China Sea region thus is crucial for both superpowers.
With the Chinese stating that they are willing to enforce claims over Taiwan and any threat to their sovereignty with military power, many experts believe that a conflict in the straits might just be inevitable.