A Triangle of Tension

The tit-for-tat between China, Taiwan, and the US has the potential to escalate dangerously
Jan van Aken, Linda Peikert (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation) 25 May 2024

The conflict between China and Taiwan is becoming more acute. We regularly hear about political provocations, manoeuvres, and airspace incursions. Two quite different yet closely related conflicts lie behind such phenomena: China and Taiwan’s dispute over sovereignty, and the struggle for global dominance between China and the United States.

The conflict has its roots in the Chinese Civil War, fought between Communists and Nationalists, which ended in 1949 when Mao Zedong’s Communist troops victoriously marched into Beijing and proclaimed the People’s Republic on 1 October. The defeated nationalists of the Kuomintang retreated to the island of Taiwan. Since then, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has ruled the entire mainland but not the island.

Due to the history of the civil war, both sides considered themselves to be the sole legitimate representative of China. Beijing and Taipei thus both acted in accordance with the One China principle, according to which there is only one China, encompassing both the mainland and Taiwan. The disagreement is over who the legitimate government is. In the end, Taiwan drew the short straw, losing its seat in the United Nations in 1971 and being diplomatically recognized by almost no other country in the world today. Germany has no embassy there, but only the German Institute of Taipei.

Despite their opposing claims, the situation between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan is quite stable, and they maintain close economic and cultural ties. Yet this stability has recently faltered due to two developments: Taiwan has increasingly developed its own identity, while China has become an economic powerhouse, accompanied by a very strong military build-up. China now has the world’s second-highest military spending, well behind the US, but also well ahead of Russia.

Washington Versus Beijing
The US has long recognized that its status as the world’s sole superpower is not threatened by Tehran or the Taliban, but by China. The election of Barack Obama as US president saw a pivot to Asia in US foreign policy, with an accompanying shift away from Europe and the Middle East. Since then, competition with China has been at the centre of US foreign policy.

Today, these two highly militarized countries are also in intense economic competition with one another. Due to the ongoing dominance of the US military, there is not (yet) a balance of military power between the two countries. But as both are nuclear powers, a war between them currently seems unlikely. Yet as with the Cold War, proxy conflicts are possible.

In terms of military competition, China has a disadvantage that a quick look at a world map doesn’t immediately reveal: Beijing has no unhindered access to the open ocean. Around the entirety of China’s coastline there is a chain of islands, an arc running from the long chain of Japan’s Ryukyu Islands in the north via Taiwan and the Philippines all the way to Vietnam. All of these countries are more or less closely allied with the US.

Currently, Chinese submarines could barely make it to the Californian coast without being detected by the US Navy, while on the other hand US forces have the Chinese coast pretty much within eyeshot. In this military logic, control over Taiwan would be a real game changer for Beijing, for then a submarine fleet could be stationed there and have access to the open ocean, and China’s defensive zone could also be shifted a few hundred kilometres further to the east.

The Conflict Over Sovereignty
For the Chinese leadership, the claim to Taiwan is closely linked to China’s history, to the military defeats of the Opium Wars starting in 1840, the country’s partial occupation by Japan in 1895, and World War II. This period of suffering, as it is called, has left deep marks upon the country's collective memory, which endure to this day. Two years ago, the Chinese government published a white paper on the question of Taiwan. It argued that, “The fact that we have not yet been reunified is a scar left by history on the Chinese nation. We Chinese on both sides should work together to achieve reunification and heal this wound.”

A wound that can only heal when Taiwan once again belongs to China — that is the dominant narrative on the mainland. Thus to a certain extent the question of Taiwan forms part of the period of suffering that must be overcome — here there is little room for compromise.

This narrative is by no means new, but under President Xi Jinping it has been pushed much more insistently. Author Stephan Thome, whose new book on the China–Taiwan conflict, Schmales Gewässer, gefährliche Strömung is forthcoming in September, explains that in the past the Chinese leadership acted according to the principle of “strategic patience”: affirming the need for reunification, but not necessarily within a single generation. Xi Jinping by contrast has unequivocally formulated the demand that reunification should take place during his time in office.

According to most experts, this time limit should be taken seriously. Yet whether it will be pursued militarily is another question. German journalist Felix Lee has so far rather seen the lessons of the old Chinese strategist Sun Tzu at work: encircle, infiltrate, fill gaps, economically integrate. For Sun Tzu, the best war is the one that needn’t be fought at all.

Fifteen years ago, China almost achieved a decisive step forward with this strategy. The Kuomintang was in power in Taipei, and it had concluded an agreement with China that would have allowed extensive Chinese investments in Taiwan. All that remained was for parliament to ratify the deal, yet broad resistance flared up in Taiwan in the form of the Sunflower Movement. Ultimately the agreement fell through, and the Kuomintang was voted out at the next election.

Stephan Thome refers to the fact that by now, Taiwan has developed its own identity. Almost all Taiwanese people emigrated from the mainland at some point; but from the mere fact that it once belonged to China and the people there still speak Chinese, it by no means follows that Taiwan is China. Since the democratic opening up of Taiwan around 30 years ago, a kind of Taiwanization has taken place, an awareness of the fact that the long period of separation from the mainland has led Taiwan to develop in a different direction. In Thome’s pointed formulation: “Taiwan is as Chinese as Australia is British.”

A charged conflict over sovereignty, in which one side has run out of strategic patience while the other has developed its own national identity: the result is a highly complex situation. This is then overlaid by the struggle for global dominance between China and the US, with one side being at a strategic disadvantage, which could end up becoming the driver of a military adventure.

Experts are largely in agreement that no military escalation is to be expected in the coming years, while longer-term prognoses diverge. Some see a real danger of war, while others believe Beijing will continue to stick to its Sun Tzu strategy in the future, which may involve military threats but not actual attacks.

Semiconductor as Peacemaker?
It could be the semiconductor industry that tips the scales. Around 90 percent of all modern microchips are produced in Taiwan by a company called TSMC. The entire global economy is dependent on its supplies — no one outside of Taiwan is able to produce chips for iPhones, for example. Whether it be smartphones, armaments, or industrial management: TSMC can grind everything to a halt if it decides to. Access to the chips is decisive for a company or country’s economic competitiveness.

It could possibly be precisely this chip industry that could prevent a war between China and Taiwan. Experts speak of a “silicon shield”, a protective shield made of microchips. For these production lines cannot simply be recreated elsewhere. A whole microcosm of suppliers has developed in Taiwan over the last three decades, which depends on an extreme amount of technical knowledge. For the foreseeable future in this industry, Taiwan has a unique advantage.

On the other hand, TSMC is completely dependent on supplies from abroad. Ninety percent of the raw materials, machinery, and chemicals it needs come from the US, Japan, and the EU. To that extent, it would not be an option for China to conquer Taiwan and take control of the microchip industry, for then deliveries from abroad would cease.

Views diverge on how strong this silicon shield really is. The only thing that is certain is that it will not hold forever. For however unique the industry is in Taiwan, ultimately it is not rocket science. Both the US and China are currently making significant investments in their own semiconductor industries. Even if it takes one or two decades, at some point Taiwan will no longer have a unique advantage, and the silicon shield will come down.

This ultimately only emphasizes how much will depend on whether all three parties are seriously interested in a peaceful solution. Should that be the case, there will be cooperative solutions to the military-strategic problem of China, as during the best moments of détente between East and West during the Cold War. Yet as long as the China–Taiwan conflict is only conceived in military terms in the West, the prospects for a peaceful solution to the conflict will remain blocked.

Yet currently, all parties’ willingness to compromise is limited. This is because it is ultimately about control of the South China Sea, through which two-thirds of global trade passes. Whoever controls the sea can therefore exert a lot of pressure, which is why everyone is currently playing hardball over it.


This article first appeared in nd.aktuell in cooperation with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Translated by Marty Hiatt and Marc Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

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