How to train our sights on the dragon

China's expansionism in Taiwan and South China Sea flows from a self-image that’s in play in Doklam and Tibet too. India should enhance its ties with Taiwan
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only.Express illustrations | Sourav Roy

The recent Taiwanese elections have resulted in a mixed outcome where everyone is both a winner and a loser. The pro-West Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) presidential candidate, William Lai, won the presidential election. However, the DPP lost its majority in the legislature, where the pro-China Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) won enough seats to ensure that their support is needed for the passage of any legislation. This hung parliament with contradicting ideologies will have consequences for the archipelago state, as it is juxtaposed against a belligerent People’s Republic of China that questions its very existence as an independent and autonomous Westphalian entity.

Taiwan is approximately 380 km long and 160 km wide. Despite its small size, it is home to around 24 million people. It also holds an immensely important strategic position in the Indo-Pacific region, situated between China, Japan and the Philippines, playing a pivotal role in Indo-Pacific trade.

Additionally, Taiwan is the world's largest producer of semiconductors, accounting for over 60 percent of the global production, with a direct impact on the global supply chain for microchips used in smartphones, cars, medical equipment, aircraft, and countless other electronic systems. Thus, any forcible regime change in Taiwan that threatens the status quo shall have far-reaching consequences for the global market. That is why it is said that China is protected by the Silicon Shield.

The conflict between China and Taiwan is a clash of two distinct perspectives. To gain a better understanding, some historical context is essential. The initial inhabitants of Taiwan were the aboriginal Austronesian people who settled on the archipelago. Han Chinese gradually encountered the natives in the late 13th century and began settling there by the 17th century.

During this time, the Dutch expelled the Spanish from Taiwan and colonised the islands, while the Qing dynasty defeated the Ming to gain control over China. Consequently, the Ming general Koxinga retreated to Taiwan, where he defeated the Dutch and established himself as the governing authority. Subsequently, Koxinga ceded power to the Qing, and Taiwan became a province of the Qing empire.

The Qing maintained control of Taiwan until 1895, when Japan defeated them in the First Sino-Japanese War. The Qing were compelled to surrender Taiwan to Japan according to the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Imperial Japan governed Taiwan for 50 years until their defeat in the Second World War, after which the island was handed over to the Republic of China.

China was in the midst of an ongoing war between the Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalist Kuomintang. In 1949, the Communists won the Civil War, forcing the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-Shek to retreat to Taiwan. This resulted in the presence of two Chinas: the People's Republic of China on the mainland and the Republic of China on Taiwan, both claiming stake to each other's territory.

The Taiwanese democratic impulse was forged in the wake of the Kaohsiung Incident of 1979, where Taiwanese citizens openly opposed the authoritarian policies of the KMT. The democratisation of the island gave rise to a new vision of Taiwanese identity. The people of Taiwan perceived this as the first time in their history that they had the power of self-determination. They regarded all other entities, including the original KMT, as foreign forces.

This perception is intrinsic to the Democratic Progressive Party, which advocates for the independence and international recognition of Taiwan. On the other hand, the KMT advocates for forging better ties with China, with the ultimate objective of reunification with the mainland.

On the other hand, China's perspective is built on the revanchist instinct to reclaim all its territories lost due to the interference of the European imperial powers. China views the period from 1839 to 1948 as its ‘Century of Humiliation’. During this period, the Chinese state suffered from foreign imperialism and colonialism, leading to the undermining of the Middle Kingdom. In order to rebuild China, the Chinese Communist Party has always aimed to re-extend China’s borders and influence to those that existed during the Qing dynasty.

This accounts for the misplaced attempt by China at expansionism in the South China Sea, Doklam, Tibet and Taiwan. China believes that Taiwan is its territory, taken from it in a moment of weakness, and it will employ all means to ensure that Taiwan reunifies with the mainland.

However, this is easier said than done. In the early months of 1944, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff conceptualised two war plans to accelerate the march towards Japan.

While General Douglas MacArthur was a proponent of advancing towards the Philippines and capturing Luzon, admirals Chester Nimitz and Ernest King, General George C Marshall, and Army Air Force Chief of Staff Henry H Arnold advocated bypassing Luzon and seizing Taiwan. The name given to the proposed invasion of Japan, then called Formosa, was Operation Causeway. The option was ultimately given up by the military top brass due to the high human cost and risks estimated.

There is a world of a difference between 1944 and 2024 in terms of Taiwan’s ability to defend itself and how any aggression on it would become a litmus test for the entire Indo-Pacific interests of a large number of nations involved.

While the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1996 became the trigger for China’s military modernisation after the US sailed two aircraft carrier battle groups through the Straits to send a clear message that Taiwan’s sovereignty had the US’s strategic backing, notwithstanding the US’s avowed ‘One China’ policy. The One China policy is distinct from the One China principle, by means of which China claims that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the mainland.

However, conversely it also sent a loud message to Taipei that it would also have to build a robust defensive capability coupled with a broader outreach to those countries who are subjected to extra-territorial claims by China. That is where India and Taiwan have a convergence of interests.

India is also combating China’s aggressive moves along the Line of Actual Control or LAC. Moreover, China has managed to court India’s neighbours and create a so-called String of Pearls to try and constrain India.

New Delhi should improve its relations with Taiwan by enhancing its trade ties as the first step. A robust semiconductor industry is a necessary imperative for a developed India. There, a partnership with Taiwan would be critical to begin with.

Manish Tewari

Lawyer, member of parliament and former I&B Minister

(Views are personal)

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