The government of China has escalated diplomatic tensions between Beijing and Washington by launching a strong rebuke over a recent security meeting between officials from the US and Taiwan.
According to CNN, Beijing is furious with Washington for “engaging with Taipei”, which it considers a rogue province of the People’s Republic of China, and has “ordered the Trump administration to cease diplomatic engagements with the island”.
China spoke out after Taiwan confirmed that its national security chief, David Lee, attended talks with White House national security adviser John Bolton earlier this month in the US. The meeting was the first of its kind since 1979, when Washington severed formal ties with Taipei in favour of China.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said on Monday that Beijing “deplored and strongly objected” to the meeting and that President Donald Trump must cease “having official exchanges or upgrading substantive relations with Taiwan”.
“China is extremely dissatisfied and resolutely opposed to this,” he added.
The talks took place as Taiwan was carrying out its annual anti-invasion drills, a massive military operation designed to “showcase the military’s capabilities and resolve to repel an attack from across the Taiwan Strait”, says the Associated Press.
The Daily Express notes that Beijing has also been “ramping up military and diplomatic pressure to assert its sovereignty over the island, conducting drills near Taiwan and snatching its few remaining diplomatic allies”.
Is Taiwan an independent state?
Officially called the Republic of China, Taiwan is one of the most highly developed states in the world, with a GDP per capita on a par with those of Australia, Denmark and Germany, and some of the best academic test results on the planet.
Yet Taiwan is still viewed as a “wayward province” by China, and is not recognised as a country by the United Nations or most of its member states, says Reuters. Established in 1949 by refugees from the new communist regime in mainland China, Taiwan has its own constitution, armed forces, currency, parliament and president.
In January this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke of the island’s rapprochement with the mainland as an inevitability, during a speech marking 40 years since Beijing adopted a “one state, two systems” policy that allows Taiwan to operate autonomously, CNN reports.
“Reunification is the historical trend and the right path, Taiwan independence is … a dead end,” he warned.And while Xi is seeking a “soft” pathway to unification, Beijing maintains that it would “reunite” Taiwan with the mainland by force if separatists were to succeed in their drive to declare formal independence from China.
Could China invade Taiwan?
Taipei certainly isn’t taking its chances. In June 2018, the Taiwanese military staged its annual mock invasion drills after a particularly tense year that saw China “repeatedly conducting provocative overflights” of the island, reports US-based international affairs magazine The National Interest.
Xu Guangyu, a retired major general of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), assured the state-run Global Times that Taiwan’s attempts to fend off any invasion would be like “throwing an egg against a rock”.
But in reality, “despite the vast discrepancy in size between the two countries, there’s a real possibility that Taiwan could fight off a Chinese attack,” writes Chinese strategy analyst Tanner Greer in an article for Foreign Policy.
Internal PLA documents reveal trepidation over Taiwan’s highly developed defences, as well as concerns that its troops are “better trained, better motivated, and better prepared for the rigours of warfare” than their mainland counterparts.
Despite its bellicose rhetoric, behind the scenes Beijing is clearly aware that “in an era that favours defence, small nations like Taiwan do not need a PLA-sized military budget to keep the Chinese at bay”, says Greer.
Does that mean democratic Taiwan is safe?
Taiwan’s position on the world stage has grown weaker in recent years as a result of China’s sustained campaign to isolate its “rogue province”.
So-called dollar diplomacy has drawn a series of long-standing allies in Africa and Latin America into Beijing’s orbit in recent years, leaving Taipei with an ever-shrinking circle of international partners to call upon.
As of 2019, only 17 countries formally recognise Taiwan, although another 47 nations – including the UK – maintain unofficial diplomatic relations with Taipei.
But would even an ostracised Taiwan ever voluntarily become part of China?
Although “cross-straits ties, particularly economic links, have flourished” since formal conflict ended in 1979, polls consistently show that support for unification is low, reports The Globe and Mail.
Decades of separation have also seen “a deepening sense of local identity” distinct from China emerge on the island, particularly among the younger generation, the Canada-based news site adds.
“President Xi is worried that the number of Taiwanese who identify themselves as Chinese is dropping,” Ding Shuh-fan, an international relations expert at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, told German newspaper Deutsche Welle.
“I can feel that Xi is desperate to get some quick results on Taiwan,” Ding said. “That is why he wants to draw a clear line on the unification issue.”
CNN suggests that, after decades without US-Taiwan diplomatic relations, the recent security meeting could herald the beginning of a “new normal”.
A statement from Taiwan described the US as “diplomatic allies” and said that the meeting saw both sides “reiterating support and commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region”.
However, the South China Morning Post says that the meeting is likely to be seen as a “sign of support” for Taiwan by the US, which will sit badly with the Chinese government.
Taiwan military spokesperson Major General Chen Chung-Chi said Taiwan and the US would continue to work together, regardless of Chinese interference.
“In the Asia-Pacific region, we are just like the US, who share common core values including freedom of democracy and human rights,” he said. “We also hope that we can play the role of defender of peace in the region. This is to serve the common interests of Taiwan and the US.”
However, Beijing continues to insist that Taiwan will eventually fall under its influence. Addressing a delegation from Hong Kong in China this week, Wang Yang, chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee, said that the city-state was an example of how the “one country, two systems” model can work, and that he hoped to “make Taiwan compatriots realise the superiority of the policy”.