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China and Taiwan: an insolvable friction

By Dr Strobe Driver

The following is a geo-strategic assessment of Taiwan-China relations, the impact on the broader Asia-Pacific in general, actors who take part in the region, and what the future will bring in terms of when (not if) a war breaks out between the two main belligerents. This mini-thesis (in its entirety titled Asia-Pacific and Cross-Strait Machinations: Challenges for Taiwan in the Nascent Phase of Pax-Sino) is and remains predicated on the seemingly insolvable (and growing) frictions between the two actors; the irredentist elements of China’s foreign policy with regard to the retrocession (taking back) of Taiwan; and the way in which this will happen. Commensurate with this, a brief history of Taiwan and China and how the state-of-affairs got to where it ‘is’; the current interactions and what will happen in the future (should issues remain on the current path or worsen); the way in which China will engage Taiwan as its power ascends; the ‘type’ of war it will undertake in order to overthrow Taiwan; and crucially, when this will happen as an evidence-based forecast is offered.

For ease-of-reading the thesis is written in a narrative-style rather than a purely academic-style. It is designed for readers’ who are interested in International Relations/Asia-Pacific as well as others that have a high-level of understanding in the field. It, therefore, does rely heavily on cited explanations (through footnoting), and interpretation from the indications is developed further where necessary. Any comments and/or critique is welcome. Happy reading. Strobe.


In contemporary times Taiwan, Republic of China (ROC)[1] is a robust independent country of approximately 23 million people, which comprise a mix of Taiwanese, Chinese, and Indigenous peoples—estimated at 2018 to comprise 23.69 million people.[2] The voting schematic comprises a liberal-democratic, one-person, one-vote method of political representation. Voting in Taiwan is compulsory; and all citizens over 20 years of age must vote in an election, although there is no facility for an absentee-vote. Taiwan is an island nation and its geographic location 25°03’N latitude and 121°30’W longitude.

Like many island nations, Taiwan has historically experienced visitations from sea-faring peoples, and therefore varying degrees of colonisation and influences from cultures has taken place—the Dutch, Japanese and (mainland) China, is to name only several cultures that have impacted on Taiwan.[3] For the purposes of clarity and for relevance, this study will only encompass the defeat of the Chinese Nationalist—the Kuomintang (KMT) and the ructions that its exit to Taiwan caused in terms of, in the first instance the establishment of a government separate to mainland China; and the continuum of government, governance and thus, independence this has produced. Upon the brief establishment of what transpired as the power of the KMT took hold, this thesis will advance beyond the aforementioned disturbances. It will firmly be ensconced in the late twentieth and twenty-first century issues that have come to the fore in the process of what is now termed the ‘rise of China’; the political, regional, and geo-strategic-machinations that exist. Including where necessary applicable references to other influences such as the Australia, Indonesia, Philippines, United States of America (US), and numerous other countries that manoeuvre within the power-stakes of the region; draw together the dynamics of what is happening as interstate and international relationships evolve or stagnate; and offer an analysis within the realm of the nascent stage of these machinations. The overarching construct will fall within the framework and understanding that the ‘rise of China’—and the concomitant ‘era of pax-Sino’[4]—has begun, albeit in its nascent phase, is what underpins the following analyses.

Taiwan: Independent and prosperous

In order to establish that Taiwan has had a vibrant economic base and with the above-mentioned in mind, the island needs to be focused upon in order to give it context and to posit it in contemporary times. Taiwan (and the P’eng-hu Islands), was ceded to Japan due to the upheavals associated with the Treaty of Shimonoseki[5] which was developed and instated when Japan won the conflict over China, and included Japan’s ongoing hostilities associated with Korea. The political position the populace of Taiwan contained within this paradigm is a moot point and need not be debated here, as what is of interest is the process the populace went through in order to become the society it is in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries.

With regard to Japan ruling the island there were advantages and disadvantages for its peoples and this is summed up

Japan ruled Taiwan strictly, using harsh punishment to enforce the law. Tokyo, initially at least, showed no interest in making Taiwan a democracy. Moreover, in governing Taiwan, Japan experienced a dilemma over whether to make the colony part of Japan or to allow it to be administratively separate and to some degree self-governing. Ultimately, Tokyo resisted assimilating Taiwan, although it did force the population there to learn Japanese and absorb Japanese culture. That strategy had advantages for the people of Taiwan, as it gained for them access to science and technology, but such advantages came at the cost of suppressing local culture and the Chinese language.[6]

Taiwan would continue under Japanese rule and it should be noted that Wold War One (WWI) (1914 – 1918) contributed to an economic advantage for Taiwan, as would World War Two (WWII) (1939 -1945), and it is here that the first notable Asia-Pacific (A-P) strategic ‘footprint’ was formulated by the Japanese. Taiwan would become Japan’s ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier,’[7] and a location from which invasions of Southeast Asia could be launched.[8] This state-of-affairs would last several decades until the populace of Taiwan would be relieved of Japanese rule in 1948, due to the unconditional surrender of Japan and the formal ending of the Pacific phase of WWII in 1945.

Although the war had ended for the US and its allies and Japan, a peripheral WWII conflict continued in China between Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalists regime—the KMT—and Mao Zedong’s communist rebels. As the advance of the Maoist rebels continued it would eventually involve a mass exodus to Taiwan—then known as Formosa. The Maoist rebels would achieve ultimate victory in 1949 which would result in domestic pressures as a desperate government-in-waiting came to terms with a fractious and fragile domestic environment caused by the said mass exodus. The influx alluded to, whilst it was ongoing gained momentum as Chiang’s forces continued to lose ground to Communist forces in mainland China and would inevitably result in a 1.5 million person exodus from the mainland to Taiwan which in turn, created another monumental upheaval to its established indigenous population and other incumbents that had for many reasons, chosen to make Taiwan their home. Due to the tense domestic environment and the desire of the KMT to establish its authority over its burgeoning population situations would inevitably expand beyond the control of government authorities, as is the wont when a populace is undergoing drastic change. Frictions ‘boiled over’ on numerous occasions and whilst there are too many to list here a cathartic happening did take place which resulted in a subversive reaction by the population of Taipei city and moreover, it offers evidence that the population at this time was heavily controlled and at a ‘breaking point.’ The incident is referred to as the February 1947, ‘2-28 Incident’ (Er-er ba).[9] Civil disobedience peaked and many Taiwanese and Chinese civilians were killed; including Chiang’s security forces incurring casualties. Order was finally restored by Chiang’s forces and there were numerous mechanisms put into place to ameliorate further unrest, however this only happened after Chiang’s forces had created havoc and killed thousands of people. Taiwan remained under martial law, although eventually stability was restored.

With the aforementioned events understood it is pertinent to mention that it was a high priority for the KMT to retain stability, as that the retreat to Taiwan was only intended to be a temporary move. A place from which the retaking of the mainland could be planned and launched in a timely manner through the astute application of assets; and a reforming of strategy.[10] The importance of this element in the overall understanding of political- and regional-thinking cannot be over emphasised as it would shape Taiwanese government regional and geo-strategic-thinking and formulate policies of defence for decades beyond 1949. These have remained steadfast.

Sovereignty: As ascribed by the West and the United Nations

As an independent country Taiwan would exercise its rights to influence and promote the notion (and reality) that it remained an independent politico-entity although through various mechanisms of influence and would seek to elevate this more broadly to that of a ‘sovereign nation-state.’ The maintaining of such would incrementally ‘establish’ Taiwan as separate from mainland China legally and politically—this remains the status quo. From Taiwan’s perspective through to contemporary times it is a stance that has been maintained, regardless of what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) considers to be accurate or correct. Since 1949, respective Taiwanese governments would attempt to gain sovereign-statehood which according to the West exists through the auspices of the Treaty of Westphalia[11] (1648)[12]—hereafter referred to as the ‘Treaty’—and its acceptance by all nation-states as the legal framework of existence, which is interconnected to the unambiguous legalities and dyad of External sovereignty relates to a state’s place in the international order and its capacity to act as an autonomous entity … [and] Internal sovereignty is the notion of a supreme power/authority within the state. Located in the body that makes decisions that are binding on all citizens, groups, and institutions within the state’s territorial boundaries.[13]

With regard to the security of the territorial boundaries alluded to and confirmed by the Treaty, since time-in-memoriam and whether consisting of the group being monarchist, absolutist, dictatorial or democratic—which is to name only some examples of societal groupings—there has required a society to strategically plan its survival. Part of this exemplar of this state-of-affairs has required in the first instance a ‘defence force,’ and in the second, an ‘offence force.’ This remains true of all nation-states in contemporary times, regardless of their political suasion. The military force however, must remain under the direction of a recognised nation-state. Whilst this nation-state cum independence frictions will be dealt with later in this thesis it is enough to introduce the components of sovereignty and independence at this point. To be sure, what is of interest here is the abilities of successive Taiwan ROC governments to sustain Taiwan’s through the mechanisms of astutely applying politico-suasion, diplomacy and soft power; and of being for a time able to side-step the norms of United Nations (UN)[14] protocols without repercussions. This aspect can now be discussed further.

Whilst the above-mentioned is a complex environment per se, sovereignty largely consists of a recognised territory and a Eurocentric/Western model of government within that geographical space. What sovereignty allows for and what Taiwan has—as an independent country with an independent government—is to defend its citizens. In broad terms, this consists of a commonplace military triad: a standing army; a navy and an air force. It is a germane yet necessary point for clarity to state that these assets vary and sometimes overlap; and are dependent upon many elements. For nation-states without a coastline a navy is redundant and moreover, there are often fiscal, political and competency constraints within governments that impinge on their abilities to organise and develop adequate mechanisms of defence and offence. Notwithstanding these aspects, a declaration of independence is able to be made by an actor, however whether the action leads to ‘sovereignty’ is also dependent upon other factors in a post-WWII political environment is the UN—it is only the UN that is able to extend the legalities and formalities associated with the granting of sovereignty. Returning to the matter-at-hand, Taiwan ROC for all intent and purpose has all of the ‘requirements of sovereignty,’ such as an independent government; a civil and orderly society; rule-of-law; and a disciplined defence force comprising an army, navy and air force. There has been no attempt on the part of other nation-states to withdraw the right of Taiwan to build upon its society (including organising its military) and therefore, it has gained the status of being independent. Taiwan therefore, has many of the benefits of ‘sovereignty’ without the legal status of actually being a sovereign nation-state per se. It is here that an, albeit brief, initial understanding of the Taiwan – China state-of-affairs and the nuances therein, are able to be given an interpretation albeit from a Western cum Eurocentric, UN-driven perspective.

Notwithstanding this non-recognition by the UN and the politico-vulnerabilities this state-of-affairs consigns to Taiwan it has built a strong defence force with robust capabilities—albeit with some limitations. Taiwan has very limited offensive capabilities beyond the kinetic phase of mounting a defence platform, and due to its current asset mix and its small population it is safe to argue, its capabilities (without the support of allies) would disallow it to invade another country beyond gaining a limited military foothold. Hence, Taiwan’s defence force it can be further argued, remains strictly within this strategic proficiency and competency of defence. Whether Taiwanese forces would be able to sustain an invasion of another regional nation-state with the help of a powerful ally (or allies) is a moot point and need not be debated here. The primary concern at this point is to establish Taiwan’s regional, international geo-political and geo-strategic status; reflect on its immediate strategic capabilities; and assemble an overall understanding of its domestic proficiencies, regional, geo-strategic, and politico-capabilities.

The history alluded to in the above-mentioned proffers the following: Taiwan is a vibrant and independent, recognised ‘quasi-state’ by numerous other nation-states; is a liberal-democracy that has a sophisticated defence force; and has a cosmopolitan international presence (despite its limitations). Nevertheless, since the 1950s successive governments of Taiwan ROC—although only having been a liberal-democracy since 1986 and of having its first independent and free elections in 1996—has sought and continued to influence and exert regional and international politico-pressure. Consecutive governments have utilised their aforesaid qualities and largely, given the constraints mentioned (although they are only some of the impediments), succeeded in establishing a strong regional and international presence which can now be examined further.

Continued tomorrow … Taiwan ROC: A forthright political and economic actor


[1] Taiwan has been known as Formosa due to the Spanish and Portuguese influence and mainland China governments refer (and continue) to Taiwan as a ‘Province of China,’ however and for ease of understanding, the common term ‘Taiwan’ will be used in this analysis; and when referring to the country in the context of an international sphere, or in a broader regional sense the term ‘Taiwan ROC’ will be used.

[2] According to the Taiwanese Ministry of the Interior, ’The vast majority (98%) of people living on Taiwan are Han Chinese, including around 12% of the population who are classified as Waishengren – people who fled from mainland China after the Chinese Civil War (and their descendants). The remaining two percent are Taiwanese Aborigines, descendants of the Austronesian peoples who dominated Taiwan until the 17th century.’ See: World Population Review.

[3] A brief, yet concise history of Taiwan is able to be accessed. See: ‘Taiwan profile – Timeline.’ BBCNews. 9 Jan, 2018.

[4] This study will when and where appropriate refer to the ‘rise of China’ in the more immediate tense of China gaining incremental and then exponential influence within the region. However, it is important to note that the era of ‘pax-Sino’ refers to a long-term expansionist elements within the ‘rise’ referred to and therefore, when the term is used it will embrace the connotations of acknowledging the historical elements of the Latin term ‘pax,’ which refers to ‘a period in history marked by the absence of major wars usually imposed by a predominant nation.’ See: ‘Pax.’ In general terms and placing the term in context the meaning of the word usually implies ‘peace through force,’ with minor forces remaining peaceful due to the inherent kinetic repercussions a major force would impose on a conflict.

[5] The Treaty of Shimonoseki ‘concluded the first Sino-Japanese War (1894 – 95) which ended in China’s defeat … [forcing China to] cede Taiwan [to Japan].’ See: ‘Treaty of Shimonoseki. 1895. China – Japan.’ Encyclopædia Britannica. The Editors of the Encyclopædia Britannica.

[6] ‘Taiwan. Self-governing island, Asia.’ Encyclopædia Britannica. The Editors of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Emphasis added.

[7] Taiwan. Self-governing island, Asia.’ Encyclopædia Britannica

[8] Taiwan. Self-governing island, Asia.’ Encyclopædia Britannica.

[9] Tomas Shattuck. ‘Taiwan’s White Terror: Remembering the 228 Incident.’ 27 Feb, 2017.

[10] For a comprehensive and succinct explanation of the Nationalist and guerrilla civil war on mainland China and the political happenings, see: ‘The Chinese Revolution of 1949.’ United States of America. Office of the Historian.

[11] The Treaty of Westphalia is widely recognised as the cornerstone of sovereign statehood and the legal framework therein. For the sake of understanding the Treaty is historically referred to as the Peace Treaty of Westphalia, the Settlement of Westphalia, the Peace Settlement of Westphalia, and the Peace Treaties of Westphalia. The Treaty of Westphalia was not borne of a single document as each, to some extent consisted of, and constituted, a ‘treaty’ of sorts. The most pertinent ones were of Franco-German intercession: the Treaty of Münster, and the Treaty of Osnabrück respectively. See: Leo Gross. ‘The Peace Treaty of Westphalia.’ The American Journal of International Law, 42, 1, January, 1948, 20-41.

[12] First and foremost the Treaty of Westphalia is a document designed to benefit the elites of Europa/Europe and its paradigms were imposed unilaterally on other rulers and their populations. Nevertheless, it is important to offer an historical perspective in order to understand its ramifications per se; and to come to terms with the ‘rise of China’ in the main body of the text and which will be explored later in this thesis. The Treaty of Westphalia is also referred to as the Peace Treaty of Westphalia, the Settlement of Westphalia, the Peace Settlement of Westphalia, and the Peace Treaties of Westphalia. The Treaty of Westphalia was not borne of a single document as each, to some extent consisted of, and constituted, a ‘treaty’ of sorts. The most pertinent ones were of Franco-German intercession: the Treaty of Münster, and the Treaty of Osnabrück respectively. See: Leo Gross. ‘The Peace Treaty of Westphalia.’ The American Journal of International Law, 42, 1, January, 1948, 20-41.

[13] See: Andrew Heywood. Key Concepts in Politics. Houndsmills: Palgrave, 2000, 29. Key Concepts in Politics, 37. Emphasis in original.

[14] The merits or shortcomings of the UN as a body-politic—and its forerunner the League of Nations—need not be debated here, as an acknowledgement of the UN’ power need be acknowledged and the UN as a body-politic, explained. Jentleson succinctly sums up the specific function of the UN, in terms of its place in the international arena since its immediate post-WWII inception and of it constituting, ‘the world’s only multilaterally universal political [representative] body … [which] possesses a unique role in providing collective [nation-state] legitimisation. No other body or international actor can claim comparable legitimacy for establishing global norms and for the authorising of action in its name.’ See: Bruce Jentleson. ‘Preventative Statecraft: A Realist Strategy for the Post-Cold War Era.’ Turbulent Peace. The Challenge of Managing International Peace. Edited by Chester Crocker, Fen Hampsen and Pamela Aall. Washington: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2001, 259.

Strobe Driver completed his PhD in war studies in 2011 and since then has written extensively on war, terrorism, Asia-Pacific security, the ‘rise of China,’ and issues within Australian domestic politics. Strobe is a recipient of Taiwan Fellowship 2018, MOFA, Taiwan, ROC, and is an adjunct researcher at Federation University.


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  1. Jon Chesterson

    Will China invade Taiwan?

    Yes of course they will, they invaded Tibet and got away with it and Taiwan is next. US invaded Iraq and got away with it but it is too far away and hard to own, so they pull out and pull strings instead. And Putin still has his greedy little eyes on the Middle East, probably Iran all the way to the Persian Gulf.

    Between the three of them they will continue to carve up the world like the game of Risk – Power is a game and addictive. But the decline of oil, more so than coal will be a big game changer, but not as much as the food bowl and minerals of mass production, which means land and sea resources.

    After this it is War or Space.

  2. Steve Davis

    I seem to recall that China’s right to Taiwan was recognized by the US and others including Australia as far back as the Nixon era.

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