The Formosa Strait coming to a simmer

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Now that the turmoil in Hong Kong has somewhat subsided, China is turning its attention to what it considers a rebel province – Taiwan. 

Since the split from mainland China at the end of the civil war in 1949. Taiwan has been a long and burning issue for Beijing. The communist leadership vowed to integrate the democratic island with the country again, but many Taiwanese insist on a separate nation. 

Beijing has ratcheted up pressure after the election of President Tsai in 2016, who rejects the view that Taiwan is part of “one China”. 

Recent reports have registered a flurry of Chinese military activity around Taiwan. Although such activity is nothing completely new, the increased intensity is ringing alarm bells in Taipei which was even forced to scramble fighters to intercept Chinese warplanes flying towards Taiwan’s airspace. 

Beijing and Taipei disagree sharply on the island’s status. China is adamant that there is only “one China” and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of it. Taiwan, on the other hand, tacitly observes a 1992 agreement that it will not seek independence. 

But China is taking no chances. In a high-profile speech in 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping himself declared that: “We do not promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to use all necessary measures.” 

Nor is the United States’ position on the matter reassuring to Beijing. Although Washington does not officially recognize the Taiwanese government, it has sold billions of dollars’ worth of arms to Taiwan and has refused to rule out defending the island against a Chinese attack.

However, some observers point out that American commitments do not imply that the US would come to Taiwan’s defence in the event that it is attacked. The military commitments towards Taiwan are considered highly ambiguous and stipulate, among other things, that the American military capability in the West Pacific must be maintained to prevent intimidation and coercion against the island. 

Taiwan ranks among the largest recipients of arms globally, primarily from the United States, but the military gap with China is widening considerably in Beijing’s favour. And with a population of under 24 million, Taiwan is dwarfed by China. 

Moreover, just 15 countries around the world recognize Taiwan as an independent state and it is frozen out of international bodies like the UN and the World Health Organization. 

As the US election approaches, tensions between Beijing and Taipei could potentially develop into another polarising factor. Beyond the Whitehouse presidency though, unresolved questions about the China-Taiwan situation pose far graver implications for the region and the international community.