Updated: Jun 23, 2022
This article has been written by contributor Carson Siu
The One China policy has long been at the top of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) to-do list, with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping stating that it is the ‘unswerving historical tasks of the Chinese Communist Party and the common aspiration of all Chinese people’ during his speech on the party's 110th birthday. However, Taiwan’s position as an autonomous region still stands despite being challenged by the CCP for as long as it has existed. So, why is the People’s Republic of China (PRC) yet to reunify with Taiwan?
To understand the complex situation that Taiwan finds itself in, it is key to first look at the history of the region itself. Known to have first been settled by Austronesian tribal people from modern-day southern China, it first appeared in Chinese records in AD239, in which the Chinese emperor sent expeditionaries to explore the island – something Beijing uses as its rightful claim to the territory. It then became part of China’s Qing dynasty from 1683 to 1895, when the region was then ceded to Japan following the First Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese empire held control over the island up until the end of WWII, when the Allies agreed with Chinese Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, that Taiwan was to be returned to China. However, within four years, Chiang had lost control of mainland China to the Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War, and fled to Taiwan along with the remnants of what is now known as the Kuomintang (KMT). Once there, his party dominated the political landscape, until increasing domestic backlash triggered a transition to a more democratic political environment.
For many decades the CCP has attempted to persuade Taiwan to reunify through adopting the ‘One Country, Two systems’ approach. Established in the wake of the handover of Hong Kong and Macau back to the PRC, the system would potentially allow for Taiwan to enjoy a high degree of autonomy over its political, socio-economic, and legal arrangement, though it would come under the bracket of a unified China. To say that such an arrangement has been successful would be a gross overstatement. Although Macau has enjoyed a successful and peaceful period under the system, its neighbour Hong Kong has recently experienced over a year of violent protests in response to the now-withdrawn extradition bill.
Having previously rejected the proposal of reunifying under the ‘One Country, Two System’ approach, Taiwan continues in its malaise. This is reflected through the increasingly pro-independence stance the population has adopted, with the more pro-Beijing KMT party left in the dust by the leading party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The DDP’s leader and Taiwan’s current President, Tsai Ing-Wen, firmly stated the system poses ‘a serious challenge to regional stability and peace’ and that ‘the overwhelming consensus among Taiwan’s 23 million people is our rejection of ‘One Country, Two System’, regardless of party affiliation or political position’.
Aside from facing rejection from Taiwan’s local population, China has also endured criticism on the world stage. Currently Taiwan is officially recognised by a mere 15 countries, such as Belize and Guatemala, with the United Nations and most countries recognising the CCP as the sole legal government of China, rather than the Republic of China in Taiwan, or Taipei as it is known in the international community. However, Taiwan has established unofficial diplomatic ties with 59 countries, including the UK and Germany. One key supporter of Taiwan is the U.S., and although they have not recognised Taiwan as its own sovereign state since 1979, has long held political affiliations with the self-governing island.
Despite continued warnings from China that Taiwan is part of its internal affairs, the US continues to engage with Taiwan. President Biden recently invited Taiwan to the inaugural Democracy Summit. This is happening at a time of rapidly deteriorating U.S.-China relations during the Trump administration. Beijing and Washington are still engaged in a trade war and frequently clash over the coronavirus pandemic, human rights issues, and much more in the realm of Asia-Pacific Security. Thus, it is no surprise to see mounting pressure on the Biden administration to deepen diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The most recent materialisation of this has been Republican lawmakers pushing to pass legislation guaranteeing $2 Bn per year in assistance to help Taiwan’s defense.
Behind the political front, China has quickly grown to be a military powerhouse. Through intensive modernisation programmes, China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has evolved to be the world’s largest and its recent hypersonic weapons test demonstrates its technological advancement. The rapid development of China’s military capability has led Taiwan's Defence Minister, Chiu Kou-cheng, to predict that the PRC will be able to mount a ‘full-scale’ invasion of Taiwan by the year 2025. In response, Taiwan has also continuously invested in its military capability. Aside from supporting Taiwan diplomatically, the U.S. has a deep military affiliation with the island, acting as their main military equipment supplier for many years as well as basing 39 U.S. military personnel on the island. Moreover, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently stated that they would ‘take action’ should China invade Taiwan, a position being adopted by other countries such as Japan and Australia.
Faced with growing international support for maintaining the status quo and currently not capable of launching large-scale amphibious attacks, it is unlikely that China will launch an invasion on the island in the near future. It is against this backdrop, however, that Xi Jinping said ‘reunification through a peaceful manner is the most in line with the overall interest of the Chinese nation, including Taiwan[ese] compatriots’, a suspicious turnaround after years of touting military re-unification and vowing to ‘smash’ any attempts of formal independence.
The complexity of reunifying Taiwan with China is further exacerbated by Taiwan’s monopoly over the semiconductor market. Dubbed the ‘Silicon Shield’, Taiwan’s role at the centre of the global semiconductor industry is mainly thanks to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). This megafirm has meant that the region is indispensable to both China and the US. The chips are the building block of modern digital economies, and any disruption to domestic production will undoubtedly result in billions lost. As TSMC’s chairman Mark Liu puts it: ‘…the world all needs Taiwan’s high-tech industry support. So, they will not let the war happen in this region because it goes against the interest of every country in the world.’
Taiwan has long been in the crosshairs of the CCP, though its position as a self-governing state continues to remain ambiguous. As Sino-American tensions have flared in recent times, Taiwan is increasingly emerging as the central flashpoint of the Great Powers' rivalry. Returning to Xi Jinping’s speech, his firm announcement that ‘the historical task of complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled’, leaves us with the million-dollar question: With so many opposing forces, will the Chinese Communist Party ever be able to reunify with Taiwan?