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The US defence of Taiwan against an attack from China




This week, during a summit in Tokyo with leaders of an informal alliance known as the Quad, made up by the United States, Japan, Australia and India, Joe Biden declared for the third time in a year that his government will defend militarily Taiwan, named also Republic of China (ROC), against an invasion from mainland China, officially called People's Republic of China (PRC). In response, Beijing said that Washington is "playing with fire" and urged the US to respect the agreements between the two superpowers regarding the political status of Taiwan.


Both territories are separated by a strait of just 160 km and the war rhetoric from Beijing is currently at its highest level since decades; the Chinese Air Force is now violating Taiwan's airspace as much as 56 times per day and the Chinese government states constantly that Taiwan belongs to mainland China and its incorporation 'must be done sooner or later with diplomacy or by force'.


Taiwan was an independent nation until the Dutch made it a colony in 1624, who then lost it to the Chinese Han dynasty in 1662. After that, in 1895, China was defeated in a big war against Japan and Taiwan remained under Japanese control until 1945 when WW2 ended. With the decline of the Chinese Empire in the XIXth century, a new nationalist government took the power in China in 1912, and the Republic of China was established, but the new government was seen as too weak and corrupt among the local population.


Later on, in 1921, the Communist Party of China was founded and a long conflict unfolded between the nationalist, pro-capitalist government called Kuomintang (KMT) against the soviet-backed communists lead by Mao Zedong. The war in the mainland was eventually won in 1949 by the communists, while the nationalists retreated to Taiwan. After that, the ROC and the PRC continued in a constant state of war around the Taiwan strait until 1979, with both sides claiming to be the "legitimate China" and fighting militarily over small islands around the South China Sea.


A turning point came when the United Nations expelled Taiwan in 1971 and transferred its seat to the PRC. The US ceased also to recognize Taiwan in 1979 as a formal country and engaged in close diplomatic relations with the communist mainland China as a geopolitical strategy to exploit the growing ideological tensions between the PRC and the USSR around what 'real communism was meant to be' that followed after the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and that even lead to a small war between them in 1969.


In the 60s, the communist China got also its first nuclear bomb and was gaining importance as an international actor. Since then, Taiwan has increasingly been isolated diplomatically and currently only 14 countries in the world do not recognize mainland China and instead have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, mainly because of financial reasons. These are: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Haiti, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Tuvalu, Palau, Nauru, Marshall Islands, Eswatini, and the Holy See (Vatican City). However, around 60 countries, including the European Union and the US, do recognize Taiwan as a "trading partner" and have commercial offices in the capital Taipei, that serve as de facto Embassies.


Since 1979, US foreign policy towards Taiwan has been called 'Deliberate Ambiguity' which means the US has been purposely unclear about whether it would defend Taiwan in case of an invasion from mainland China. The aim of it is to stabilize cross-strait relations while deterring China from launching a full-scale attack on the island. Diplomatically, the US sticks to the "One-China" policy, which recognizes only one Chinese government with its capital in Beijing and has formal ties with China rather than Taiwan.


However, with the war in Ukraine going on and Beijing's tacit support to Putin amid an open competition between China and the US regarding the control of the South-East Pacific area, and ultimately for global hegemony, the Biden administration is willing to clarify even more the US commitment about defending the island by force. This is because Taiwan has a strong economy that produces 65 % of computer chips in the world, is a vibrant democracy and has a strategic location in the South China Sea.


As the power and authoritarianism of China under current President Xi Jinping has been growing, while democracy in Taiwan has become more liberal in recent years, the nationalists on the island have renounced to the 'dream of taking back the mainland and defeat the communists'. Instead, there is a growing consensus among political parties that the objective should be to achieve independence and gain full sovereignty to be accepted as a formal country in the international system.


Nowadays, the US is the main arms provider to Taiwan and the number of 'military trainers' sent by Washington into the island has grown since the Trump administration. This has angered Beijing that now is putting more pressure on Taiwan in the same way as it happened with Hong Kong. The ambitions of the PRC in the South-East Pacific are growing all the time, and as the rivalry with the US becomes more clear, the tensions around the political status of Taiwan could become one of the most dangerous situations in the world.


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