The geopolitics of the Fourth Taiwan Crisis

If China loses Taiwan for good, Beijing’s attempts to establish regional hegemony would be complicated further

August 18, 2022 12:16 am | Updated 06:31 pm IST

‘China sees Taiwan as the last vestige of its “century of humiliation’

‘China sees Taiwan as the last vestige of its “century of humiliation’ | Photo Credit: AFP

At the 16th Supreme State Council Meeting on April 15, 1959, Mao Zedong told the delegates a story called ‘The Cocky Scholar Sitting at Night’. A young scholar was reading in his room. A ghost, with its long tongue stretching out, appeared by the window. It wanted to scare the scholar. But the scholar took his ink brush, painted his face “as dark as that of Zhang Fei”, the dreaded third century Han dynasty general, and stared back at the ghost with his tongue reaching out. The ghost eventually disappeared. Mao told this story to explain why he had ordered the shelling of the Kinmen and Matsu islands, lying along the mainland but governed by Taiwan, a year earlier. The ghost in Mao’s story was the United States. “Never be afraid of the ghost. The more you are afraid, the more difficult it is to survive,” he said.

A brief history

China’s response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on August 2 reminds one of Mao’s story. Its unprecedented military drills around the island and the repeated threats of using force for unification suggest that China’s views on the Taiwan issue and the U.S.’s role in it have not changed a bit over the years, even though it never managed to scare away the “ghost” and had to make several tactical retreats in the past. Mao wanted to be the leader who achieved “national reunification”. But he knew that it was practically impossible for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which did not even have a proper navy in the early 1950s, to cross the Taiwan Strait and retake the island. Besides this, U.S. President Harry S. Truman’s decision to send the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet to the Strait had created a buffer between the communist-ruled mainland and Kuomintang-held Taiwan. What he could do was to shell the Kinmen and Matsu islands, in 1954 and then in 1958, triggering the First and Second Taiwan Strait Crises. However, taking the island by force remained a distant dream.

By the time China started building military capacities (including a nuclear bomb), the geopolitical dynamics of the region had begun shifting. In the 1970s, faced with the Soviet problem, China’s focus shifted to bettering its ties with the U.S. and, later, on its own economic development. The Taiwan issue was put on the back-burner without making compromises on the goal of unification. The issue would resurface in 1995 when Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui visited Cornell University in the U.S. China started military drills and missile tests in the Strait, triggering the Third Strait Crisis. But U.S. President Bill Clinton responded by sending U.S. aircraft carriers to the Strait, eventually forcing Beijing to de-escalate. For China, it was another crude reminder of the gap between its objectives and actual strength. “The ghost” was still the king of the Taiwan Strait.

New normal

Over the past 27 years, the regional situation has changed dramatically. If the Soviet Union brought China and the U.S. closer in the second half of the Cold War, the successor state of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation, today, is not only one of China’s closest partners but also a power that militarily challenges the U.S-led post-Cold War security architecture in Europe. If Mr. Clinton had confidently sent aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait in response to China’s drills in the 1990s, U.S. President Joe Biden would not dare do that today without factoring in the possibility of a military conflict with the world’s largest Navy. The sharpest manifestation of these changes was the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis, unleashed by China’s response to Ms. Pelosi’s recent visit to the island.

Mr. Biden has repeatedly said in recent months that the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defence if attacked. Every time Mr. Biden made the remark, the White House issued a statement explaining that the U.S.’s policy of strategic ambiguity (being ambiguous on the question of whether the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defence) had not changed. But Mr. Biden’s repeated statements suggest that U.S. policy is becoming less and less ambiguous than certain. Against this already tense background, China viewed a visit by an American leader (who is second in the line of succession to the presidency) to an island which it sees as a breakaway province as a clear act of provocation.

For China, “the ghost” has been incrementally violating the status quo. And it responded by establishing a new normal. Its warships and jets breached the median line of the Taiwan Strait, rendering it meaningless. The drills were held in the territorial waters and airspace claimed by Taiwan. China’s missiles flew over the island. As Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu put it, “China has openly declared its ownership of the Taiwan Strait.”

China sees Taiwan as the last vestige of its “century of humiliation” that began with its defeat in the first Opium War (1839-42). And the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants the island back for historical, political and geopolitical reasons. Historically, the Party sees Taiwan as always a part of China. It was a part of imperial China before it became a Japanese colony in 1895. When Japan was defeated in the Second World War, Taiwan was returned to the nationalist Republic of China, ruled by the Kuomintang. Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang supporters fled to Taiwan in 1949 after they lost the civil war to the communists in the mainland. Since then, Taiwan has remained a self-ruled island, while “national reunification” has stayed one of the most important promises and objectives of the CCP.

Politically, no Chinese leader, not even Xi Jinping who is arguably the most powerful leader since Mao, can compromise on the Taiwan question without damaging their authority, career and legacy. On the contrary, Mr. Xi, who is expected to get an unusual third term in the 20th Party Congress later this year, would like to go down in history as a leader who achieved what even Mao could not do.

On hegemony

Geopolitically, Taiwan is critical for China’s great power ambition. No country can become a global superpower without establishing regional hegemony. The U.S. is protected by the world’s two largest oceans — the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean — and has successfully established hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. The Soviet Union had enjoyed hegemony in the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea. On the contrary, China, despite its military capabilities, is a caged naval power in a crowded neighbourhood. And if it loses Taiwan for good, which is just 180 kilometres from its mainland, China’s attempts to establish regional hegemony would be complicated further. So, it would like control of the island not only to fulfil a historical promise (political benefits for the leader or, as many have pointed out, taking control of the global semiconductor supplies), but also to shore up its geopolitical stature as a great power in the western Pacific. The question is whether China thinks the time has come to take risks to meet its objectives.

This does not mean that military action would be easy for China. Taiwan has been outside its control since 1949. Even if China takes Taiwan, keeping it under its thumb would be challenging, given the island’s topography and nationalist groups. And there is no geographical contiguity from the mainland to Taiwan, which could continue to pose security challenges. Moreover, any strategic miscalculation would prove counterproductive to China’s standing in the region, like what has happened with misadventurous peak powers in the past. But the counter-arguments are also equally persuasive.

China thinks the strategic environment around Taiwan has shifted to its favour, with a window of opportunity to make the move as the U.S. is caught in a triangular entanglement — its failures in the Muslim world, its desire to defeat Russia in Europe and a strategy to contain China’s rise in the Indo Pacific. Once the structures of the new Cold War are in place and Taiwan emerges as a front line, it would be as difficult for China to get the island back as it was for the German or Korean unification under the communists. This is what is making the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis the most dangerous one.

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