The US speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, landed in Taiwan’s capital city, Taipei, on Tuesday. The visit is extremely significant as it represents the first time a United States House Speaker has made an official visit to Taiwan in 25 years. Speaking publicly, Pelosi promised the US “will not abandon Taiwan”. This follows US president Joe Biden’s comments from last year, where he vowed to defend Taiwan should China invade.
This blog will explore why Taiwan is such a contentious issue in international politics by looking at the geopolitical and geo-strategic importance of the small but highly significant Asian island.
Why are there tensions between China and Taiwan?
The question of who holds sovereignty over Taiwan is a highly contentious issue. Beijing sees Taiwan as a breakaway province that will, eventually, come back fully under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. However, the majority of Taiwanese people consider Taiwan as an independent, self-ruled democratic island, irrespective of a declaration of independence.
The comparisons between Taiwan and Ukraine
In February, Russia began the largest invasion seen in Europe since the Second World War. 200,000 Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border intending to take control of large segments of the country, including separatist regions in the East.
Internationally, this was hugely significant as it represented a full-scale attack on a democratic Western nation. The style of the invasion, has sent shockwaves throughout the international community.
Ukraine is a nation which many Russians, including President Putin, believe is a breakaway state which rightfully forms part of the Russian motherland.
The Western world has rallied in response to the invasion by implementing a string of sanctions designed to apply economic pressure on Russia. The impact has been mixed.
Ukraine has been calling for military support from Western nations throughout the conflict. Its arrival has been perilously slow. The support has not given Ukraine enough power to the land a knockout blown on Russian forces. However, it has been just about sufficient to keep Russia at bay. It has resulted in a long war of attrition.
The Tawaninese will have been following the Ukraine situation with a watchful eye. Taiwan’s situation is in many ways, highly similar to Ukraine. Both Taiwan and Ukraine are smaller de facto independent states sitting next door to culturally similar but larger and greatly more powerful nations that once ruled over their territory. China and Russia consider Taiwan and Ukraine to be within their sphere of influence, if not, within their outright control.
China’s stance on Taiwan
China considers Taiwan as a renegade province, currently under rebellion, which falls under the control of Beijing.
China, for decades, has stated that if diplomatic efforts to reunify Taiwan as part of China fail, they have the legal right to use military force to reconnect the nations.
Xi Jinping stated in 2021 that “resolving the Taiwan question and realising China’s complete reunification is a mission and an unshakeable commitment of the Chinese Communist Party”. Xi, similar to Putin speaking about Ukraine, has been overtly public about his intentions.
The war in Ukraine has underscored for China that a full-scale invasion of another nation is possible in the modern era. For Taiwan, the lack of international military response has underscored its vulnerability.
Who forms Taiwan’s allies?
One of the major differences between the Ukraine and Taiwan situation is that Taiwan is not recognised as a sovereign nation-state by the United Nations.
Even the US, Taiwan’s unofficial protector, does not recognise Taiwan as a nation-state. This is mainly because Beijing refuses diplomatic relations with any nation that recognises Taiwan. Given the economic and military power of China, it is difficult for any nation to opt to hold diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Nancy Pelosi’s visit and speech promising not to abandon Taiwan, therefore, came as a major shock as it represented an apparent major shift in policy from the White House.
The US has sold tens of billions of dollars of military equipment to Taiwan over the past few decades despite ties with Beijing. The US navy also routinely patrols the Taiwan straits between Taiwan and China.
The question is, why does the US place so much importance on its unofficial relations with Taiwan, and why is China so determined to reassert full control over the small island?
What makes Taiwan so important?
Taiwan has become the most strategically important island to control in the 21st century. It represents the epi-centre of cold war-style tensions between China and the US. In the same way that Berlin represented the centre of the tensions in the US-Soviet cold war. Below we look at two reasons why Taiwan is of such crucial importance to the current world order.
China is a global manufacturing hub which is heavily dependent on maritime exports. The issue for China is that its coastline, which stretches 32,000km, is essentially boxed in by US-allied islands, including Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
The US’s influence in the Asia Pacific region makes it near impossible for China to assert naval dominance. The US Navy passes with unrestricted ease throughout the entire area. Whereas China is unable to send any trade of military ships into the Pacific without passing through US-controlled chokepoints. This is known by the US as the First Island Chain which contains all Chinese naval forces.
If a conflict ever erupted, the US and allies would already be in an extremely strong position to halt Chinese military forces. Moreover, the Chinese economy can be strangled via the blockage of all trade routes.
Taiwan sits in the centre of the First Island Chain, making it the most strategically important island in the whole region. If the US loses unofficial control relations, the chain will be broken, and the Chinese will have free passage into the entire Pacific Ocean.
The breaking of the chain, in theory, would mean China could send nuclear-armed submarines free of detection into the Pacific Ocean and towards the US West Coast. The US, of course, would like to avoid this situation, and therefore, Taiwan is of core importance to both of the world’s largest powers.
Taiwan’s global economic and technological influence
Before 2020, many had not come across the term semiconductors. However, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, a major global supply chain disruption meant that semiconductors became a scarce commodity.
Semiconductors are used in almost all tech products; they power all civilian and military software worldwide. Their importance simply cannot be understated.
Why this is important with regards to Taiwan, is because they dominate the global semiconductor market. 92% of all semiconductors are produced in Taiwan. The territory produces the most advanced software on earth, which is sold to both the US and China. Both nations rely almost entirely on Taiwanese semiconductors for their military and civilian technology, and therefore, any disruptions to Taiwanese supply would have unthinkable consequences for modern society.
Taiwan’s importance to both the US and China makes them, in many ways, untouchable. Taiwan has stated on several occasions if Beijing does invade, they would not only stop trading semiconductors with them but would destroy all of their semiconductor fabrication plants.
The technology of US and Chinese semiconductors is several years behind Taiwan’s, meaning the world’s tech cannot function without them.
What happens next?
China has responded to Nancy Pelosi’s trip with a string of military drills held in the Taiwan Straits. As part of the exercises, China launched several missiles near Taiwan. This show of force was done to deter the US from making any further political moves.
Taiwan’s economic and technological importance provides it with a ‘silicon defence shield‘. If a conflict does erupt, it will potentially set the world back decades in terms of technological development.
The US will likely use all economic sanctions available and may indeed commit itself militarily to ensure it maintains the First Island Chain.
Beijing, on the other hand, will be keen to move away from its technological dependence on Taiwan to give it the freedom to act militarily to retake control. At this stage, a stalemate appears the most likely option; however, if recent events have taught the world anything, it is that everything appears on the table.
Written by Ciaran McDiamond