Country Report: What To Know
Taiwan is a major manufacturing hub in Asia. With many countries around the world and the United Nations not recognizing its sovereignty and the Peoples's Republic of China threatening to annex it, the country faces a major and constantly hovering security challenge. This has been characterized by constant gunboat diplomacy and the threat of war from the PRC. With the US committed to defending the island, tensions remain high in the region. Producing vital products and with a huge economy, these threats have the potential to destabilize the country and affect its economic success.
This notwithstanding, more communication between the major players in the region including Taiwan could help de-escalate the situation. Anything opposite as is seen in recent times could result in miscalculations that could plunge the region and the world into chaos.
Security Situation Update
Taiwan is one of the countries in the Asia Pacific region that have no rebellion or separatist groups within its territory. Apart from urban crimes and occasional political protests--normal in most democracies--the country is largely stable.
Much of the security challenges faced by the country is therefore outside its boundaries, enormous and embedded in its modern history.
In 1949, the Nationalists who had dominated the politics of mainland China were defeated by the Communists. This led to the occupation of the relatively small island lying about 100 miles southeast of the mainland by the former. This island is Taiwan.
For decades, western antagonism towards communism meant that the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong was not recognized by many nations, especially in the West. Notably, the United Nations Security Council permanent seat that belonged to China was occupied by the Taiwan-based Nationalist government.
Over time, differences between Communist Russia and Peking (Beijing) had slowly endeared the latter to the West. In the 1970s US rapprochement towards China led to a symbolic visit of President Richard Nixon to the country. By 1974, US nuclear armament stationed in Taiwan to deter aggression from the bigger mainland was removed. Earlier in 1971, Beijing had replaced Taiwan in the UN General Assembly and Security Council.
By 1975, the People's Republic of China (PRC) was a fully recognized political entity demure and de facto in the comity of nations. With this switch arose the responsibility of the allies of Taiwan, especially the US to protect it against a powerful neighbor.
Right from the beginning and even before, the PRC has always laid claim to Taiwan as its bonafide territory. These claims have, however, gathered steam with time. It appears the more Beining becomes powerful, the higher the intensity of such claims. It has moved from mere statements to the frequent use of gunboat diplomacy to achieve its goals.
On the part of the United States, it had given assurances to Taiwan about its safety or protection against an ever-growing China. The US had over a long time resorted to what has been called "strategic ambiguity" as an approach to its commitment to the independence of Taiwan. By this the US has been ambivalent about the likelihood of intervening should Beijing be in awe of Taiwan.
Recently, however, the Biden administration has been forthright with US commitment to the defense of the Island. The PRC has not taken this new approach in Washington lightly.
What has been the security situation?
In recent times, the PRC has increased military activities in the 100-mile Taiwan Strait in some form of gunboat diplomacy rarely seen before. The growing global power has engaged in jet scrambles that have frequently breached the air space of Taiwan. Civilian vessels using the Strait have been harassed regularly. In a very recent video, a US vessel almost collided with a Chinese military vessel. That could have been disastrous.
China is not only using gunboat diplomacy against Taiwan. In recent times Beijing has doubled down on its effort to reduce the diplomatic clout of Taipei in the international community to the barest minimum. After the sovereignty of Taiwan was officially "removed" in the 1970s some states kept diplomatic relations with it or recognized it as a separate political entity from China.
In recent decades, China has been hostile or displeased with states that give the island such recognition. As a strategy, it has promised billions of dollars of investment to states that cut such ties. This is a major national security threat to Taiwan. The deliberate effort to reduce the diplomatic clout of the island means limited diplomatic pressure on Beijing if it occupies Taiwan.
Another threat against Taiwan has been what appears to be a deliberate policy by the PRC to build its military strategy on deterrence against the United States. In recent decades, and especially the last one, China's armament and focus have been on how to keep the US off the western Pacific in the event of a conflagration in the region. With the US commitment to protect Taiwan, this remains a security threat to Taiwan.
China has acquired new fleets of naval equipment including some aircraft carriers that will give it primacy in Asia Pacific. More critically, it has invested heavily in building anti-ship missiles that could overwhelm US naval assets that may come to the rescue of Taiwan in the event of an invasion. This has gone concurrently with the acquisition of amphibious equipment for its military. While the region has many coastal states, any concentration in amphibian warfare is targeted at Taiwan. Experts believe that for any occupation of Taiwan, an amphibious landing would be inevitable. China's heavy investment in the area is therefore potentially threatening to the island.
While China scrambles jets close to the island, it is still investing in new-generation fighter jets and bombers. The philosophy in China has been that, for Taiwan to be taken, aerial dominance of the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) must dominate the skies, at least across the immediate areas of the Taiwan Strait. Consequently, Beijing has acquired modern jets including the J-20. The stealth fighter has been called China's "fifth" generation jet. It has been equated to the US F-22 by some experts. If it possesses equal capabilities with the American jet, it poses a real security challenge to Taipei.
How has Taiwan responded?
On the kinetic side, Taipei has resorted to massive acquisition of military equipment to deter a possible invasion from across the Strait. While the island is aware of the overwhelming power of Beijing, it has not shied away from the probability of repelling any invasion. The United States has been the main external supplier of this equipment. Domestically, Taiwan has developed a robust arms industry that has produced some capable armaments. The island is seeking to acquire the largest fleet of F-16 jets of any Asian country.
Furthermore, the island has acquired US Patriot missiles and the homemade Sky Bow system to be its main air defense system. These have replaced other systems that have been decommissioned in recent years. These combined with other domestic capabilities have created some deterrence.
Another major measure of Taiwan has been the holding of regular military drills in its waters and air space that often have the object of breaking possible blockades or repelling an invasion. These simulations have often infuriated Beijing. In response, Beijing has held similar drills. The last one held by the PRC last April was much more aggressive and involved so much naval and air equipment.
On the diplomatic front, Taiwan has increased economic ties with the handful of countries that recognize its independence or sovereignty. It has also engaged with the US at different levels of diplomacy despite Beijing's condemnation of such engagements. Recently, a meeting between the Taiwanese president and leaders of the US Congress in California ignited a lot of Chinese "indignation".
Also, the presence of the US military in the region has further bolstered the defense confidence of Taipei. With the many military bases of the US in nearby Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, there has been some "faith" in the probability of protection in the face of aggression from Beijing. Also, Guam and new facilities in Papua New Guinea add to such guarantees. Despite the PRC's efforts in recent times to limit the effect of US presence in the region, the Eastern Pacific power is still a force to reckon with in Asia-Pacific.
Some domestic risks include seismic activities in some areas and some local geographies that are flood prone, especially in the East. Urban crime in densely populated urban areas is also a major concern.
Currently and for a long time, the major security risk of the island is its security, political and economic relations with mainland China or the PRC. As of 2022, mainland China remained the most important export partner to the Taiwanese economy. This has been the case for many years. This means that the security tensions between the two entities risk negatively affecting the economy of the island. In recent years, the United States has among other reasons resorted to producing microchips domestically. This is an industry that has been dominated by the island for a long time. Continued tensions could further hurt the economic security of the country.
Geographically, the west coast of the island that faces the PRC is lower in topography and the most densely populated section. This suggests that any decision by China to invade the island is likely to be concentrated on the Western side. The lower elevation makes amphibious landing less easier in the western areas than it would be in the east. Most of the recent security breaches have occurred on the west coast.
This makes this side of the island potentially more risky to live and work. This notwithstanding, the island is too close to the PRC for any place to be beyond its military might. It is not beyond the tactical range of the PRC missiles and the combat range of its fighters.
Also, the Taiwanese side of that Strait naturally separates it from the PRC and has become relatively dangerous for ships that ply the waters. Despite it being an international waterway, Beijing has militarized it in recent times.
Urban crimes are not not considered to pose major risks in the urban centers.
Assessed Operational Risk Levels for International Organizations
Despite the threats posed by the increasing militarization of the region and the risk of conflict that may result from a possible invasion of Taiwan by China, the country's economy remains robust. The export-driven economy which is largely based on manufacturing in the information and communication industry has an important role in the global economy. The economy is projected to reach some $990 billion by 2028. It is currently worth over $760 billion.
The vitality and lucrative nature of the economy, make different businesses around the world continue to trade with the island.
As a democratic country, Taiwan remains a tolerant environment for NGOs. The constitution of the territory remains one of the most liberal in the Asia-Pacific.
Travel and Transportation Issues
Taiwan has a well-developed transportation network that makes reaching anywhere on the island possible. Domestic security is well effective enough to guarantee safe movement around the country.
Country Monitoring: Events and Triggers
Continued military breaches across the Strait remain a major trigger to an escalation in tensions between the two countries. With the frequent scramble of jets and military vessels breaching the territorial waters of Taiwan, tensions remain high. Any miscalculation on both sides could lead to a dangerous escalation of the problem.
Again, further diplomatic engagement by external powers with Taiwan could escalate the situation. Since the PRC officially claims the island as part of its territory, any diplomatic recognition by other entities is considered hostile to Beijing. Beijing has often responded to such engagement with increased military activities across the Strait.
Also, continued US military support to Taiwan and military drills by forces on the island are also escalation triggers. The PRC has mostly responded to such actions with increased gunboat diplomacy and show of aggression in the waters between and around the two territories.
More communication between the United States and China could help de-escalate what has become one of the most dangerous hotspots in the world. This could be at different levels: between The Pentagon and the Ministry of Defense of China, senior military officers among others. The very recent incident where China did not allow its Defense Minister to meet with the US Secretary of Defense was not a good signal.
Also, some level of communication between Beijing and Taipei could help avert the situation. In the short term, any constructive engagement between the two entities seems farfetched. Beijing seems to have taken a more hardline position. When they agree to talk more, that would be a good signal for de-escalation.
Also, cooperation between China and other regional actors on other issues including the maritime disputes in the region could signal a thaw in the relations on other issues including inter-Strait relations.
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