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Tensions between China and Taiwan: what's behind it?

For a while, it was uncertain whether prominent American politician Nancy Pelosi would travel to Taiwan. But last Tuesday, she did visit – much to the displeasure of China. Asia expert Casper Wits explains why China reacted so strongly and what the consequences of the visit may be.

NB: This article was written prior to the current developments

'American ties with Taiwan are very sensitive because any form of recognition of Taiwan is controversial,' says Wits. To understand why it is controversial, we have to go back to the Chinese civil war between the communists and nationalists that ended in 1949. That battle was won by the Chinese communists, and the nationalists fled to Taiwan. Since then, there have been two Chinas: the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People's Republic of China on the mainland. 'The People's Republic of China does not recognise Taiwan and sees it as a breakaway province. Taiwan functions as an independent entity, but it is not recognised as such, because countries are only allowed to have diplomatic ties with Beijing. China therefore sees the visit of a prominent politician like Nancy Pelosi as a step towards official recognition of Taiwan or perhaps even a declaration of independence.'

‘Taiwan is not an uninhabited island’

And while the whole world was watching the scene with trepidation, the atmosphere in Taiwan was surprisingly easy-going, according to Wits. 'The Taiwanese are used to it. They have been harassed and bullied by the Chinese for decades. Moreover, they have known all their lives that a war could break out,' he explains. 'A united China with Taiwan has been a central issue for the Chinese Communist Party for decades. What the Taiwanese think about it seems to be less important.'

This is precisely what Wits finds objectionable - also the way in which the situation is viewed in the West. 'It is ultimately about the will of the Taiwanese people. We mainly interpret it as a conflict between the United States and China on a high geopolitical level. That makes it seem as if we are talking about an uninhabited island, but Taiwan is a vibrant democracy of 23 million people with their own ideas. If there were a referendum on reunification with China, it would undoubtedly turn out to be a 'No'.'

That is why Nancy Pelosi's visit was also an important moment for the Taiwanese government. 'Taiwanese people are very attached to their democracy. The visit is a sign that the solidarity of the democratic world with Taiwan is growing, and the Taiwanese government sees it as a sign of recognition.'

Military conflict?

But it is not all sunshine and roses. Wits sees Pelosi's visit and China's subsequent military exercise as the beginning of even worse relations between the countries. 'If you look at where the exercises are taking place, you can see that they almost surround Taiwan. The mainland wants to show that they can close Taiwan off from the outside world. So it is an aggressive reaction by China.'

Despite the aggression, Wits thinks that in the short term it will remain this way. He rules out a deliberate escalation. 'But of course, with large-scale military exercises that penetrate far into the other side's territory there’s a high risk of miscalculation. If that happens, the other side has to react too, and you can end up in a vicious circle. But a military conflict is in nobody's interest, so all the parties involved will probably try to avoid it.'

Whether we can expect a military conflict between the two countries in the longer term is difficult to say. 'For example, an invasion of Taiwan would result in huge sanctions for China. The Chinese economy is not yet prepared for that. They are still too dependent on foreign markets, but are already working on making their economy more sanction-proof,' says Wits. And given the major role the United States plays in the issue, it will also depend on which president is in the White House. America has a responsibility to provide defensive weapons so that Taiwan can defend itself against China. But it remains to be seen whether the United States would also go to war to defend Taiwan. 'So the future depends on many factors.'

In this article, the name 'China' is used to refer to the People's Republic of China and the name 'Taiwan' to refer to the Republic of China.

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