Taiwan is not acknowledged as a country by most of the world’s two hundred or so nation-states, with only fifteen countries having formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Taiwan lost recognition from the international community due to the Republic of China government, which the KMT brought to Taiwan after its retreat, losing recognition in favor of the People’s Republic of China government.
Nevertheless, the US has historically been Taiwan’s security guarantor in the event of a Chinese invasion. The US’s official position on Taiwan is that it does not have one, a position referred to as “strategic ambiguity” justified on the basis that this keeps China on its toes because it cannot predict the level of US support vis-à-vis Taiwan in the event of an invasion. The position also allows the US to avoid commitments to Taiwan beyond a certain point, while pushing Taiwan in a subordinate relation.
Either way, the US is Taiwan’s provider of arms, and US military exercises in the region are intended to signal its relationship with Taiwan to China. Unlike other countries in the region that were built up as US client states after World War II, Taiwan does not have US military bases on its soil, given the lack of any official diplomatic relationship between Taiwan and the US, though overall its historical relationship with the US is like other Asian countries which host US bases on their soil, such as South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines.
China has stated that it would view the establishment of US bases in Taiwan as an act of war. More recently, the US publicized that US special forces have been present in Taiwan training Taiwanese troops. This is a fact that was already widely known in Taiwan and which China itself could not have been unaware of, but the US decided to publicize this fact after China’s air incursions, as a warning.
At the same time, the US has made it clear that if Taiwan were to pursue formal independence, this would lead to the loss of US support. If so, the shoe would be on the other foot: Taiwan would be labeled the provocateur of cross-strait relations and, in this way, the US would not back Taiwan.
The US has seen fit to sabotage Taiwanese elections before, even very recent ones; a phone call from the White House to the Financial Times sought to sabotage Tsai Ing-wen’s 2012 presidential run by expressing lack of faith in Tsai to maintain stable cross-strait relations.
Indeed, Tsai’s DPP has historically been the party of Taiwanese independence, but has backed away from this position for fear of upsetting the US. Though the KMT came to Taiwan after its military defeat to the CCP, in the decades since, it has abandoned any ambitions of ousting the CCP, and instead aims for the unification of Taiwan and China, regardless of what the will of the Taiwanese people is. And, in the meantime, identity polls consistently show rising Taiwanese identity and declining Chinese identity, with only one percent of Taiwanese advocating immediate unification with China.
Invasion Fears Are Overstated, But Not Off the Table
Alarmist headlines in the wake of the Chinese air incursions sometimes make it seem as though these were incidents that could lead to sudden warfare. This is not so; though, again, that does not rule out the possibility of more limited conflict.
A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be difficult to manage. Though China would like to make it appear as though it could take Taiwan at any given time, something that can be categorized as a means of psychological warfare, this is not the case. Yet, behaving as though it could and attempting to project this is probably in the hopes of demoralizing Taiwan, limiting the possibility of resistance.
The PLA has historically had to cope with its lack of “lift capacity” to mount an invasion, that is, the inability to transport sufficient numbers of troops to overcome Taiwan’s military defenses and conduct a long-term occupation. Modern military science favors the defender, meaning that estimates for China’s military losses are in the tens of thousands to even hundreds of thousands. Some scenarios have invading Taiwan as the largest naval invasion since D-Day.
Taiwan’s military draft also means that, in theory, many male members of the population know how to use firearms. In the event of invasion, this could mean years of armed resistance. Combined with the number of troops lost on an invasion, it is to be questioned whether the CCP could shrug off the blow to its political legitimacy from an invasion. One thinks of domestic blowback in the US against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would necessarily be many orders of magnitude larger and would entail far greater loss of life.
Another deterrent to invasion is the deep integration of the Taiwanese and Chinese economies. Taiwan produces over half of the world’s semiconductors, meaning that China also relies on Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturing for its own supply chains. China would ideally hope to preserve Taiwanese infrastructure and prevent loss of life, given the sophisticated know-how required for semiconductor manufacturing.
An invasion would likely throw both economies into crisis, given how deeply interlinked they are. One notes that China’s economy was slowing before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This, too, would have global shockwaves affecting the world as a whole, beyond just the region.
Frankly, it is not in China’s interest to invade Taiwan, whether measured in terms of loss of life or economic impact. Yet nationalist considerations are what drive this pursuit onward. In particular, Chinese president Xi Jinping may view retaking Taiwan as a legacy accomplishment, hoping to have some accomplishment under his belt in the manner of Mao’s establishment of the PRC, or Deng’s economic reforms.