by Alan Heil
The tiny democratic Chinese-speaking Pacific island republic lies within sight of Communist China and is now facing twin crises: a coronavirus outbreak in addition to long-standing potential threats from the mainland superpower.
Taiwan’s population is 24 million, compared to mainland China’s 1.4 billion. Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University describes the Taiwan Strait separating the two countries as “the single most dangerous place in the world.”
Mandelbaum’s chronologyThe issue, according to historian Mandelbaum, is the future of Taiwan. Since 1949, when mainland China was taken over by a communist regime, Beijing has claimed that the island should be part of the PRC and incorporated into it.
But Taiwan has insisted for more than seven decades that it will retain its democratic, multi-party democracy despite sporadic threats from the mainland. Why this relative stability?
Mandelbaum says it rested partly on deterrence and the prospect that the United States would support Taiwan militarily in the event of a PRC effort to seize it militarily. However, mainland China’s leader Xi Jinping consolidated his power in 2012.
Annexation of Taiwan by the PRC, the professor adds, would increase the mainland’s power in East Asia. That would immediately raise doubts about the U.S. commitment to defend democracies in the region such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea.
Conflicting signals from PRC media
As a May 1 edition of The Economist puts it: “China’s public stance involves much saber-rattling, to be sure. Viewers of (PRC) state television are never far from their next sight of an aircraft carrier, or gleaming Chinese mainland jets screaming through azure skies. But calls for sacrifice to prepare the public for full-on hostilities are missing.
“The Chinese Party-controlled media’s claim to legitimacy are overwhelmingly domestic and based on order at home and material prosperity. They are buttressed by images of gorge-spanning bridges and high-speed trains (on the mainland), villagers freed from poverty, and heroic doctors beating back COVID-19 even as it rages around the world.”
“Nevertheless,” The Economist concludes, “China’s visible capabilities and veiled intent are grounds for alarm. Its scorn for Western opinion, as over Hong Kong, is a bad sign. War over Taiwan may not appear imminent in Beijing. But not, shockingly, is it unthinkable.”
A major constraint China must consider
One of the busiest stretches of navigation in the western Pacific is that narrow strip of ocean — a few places just over 90 miles wide — that separates Taiwan from mainland China. Alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, PRC and American warships are sailing through that strait.
The U.S. Navy’s largest overseas-deployed unit, the 7th Fleet, consists of 50-70 ships and submarines across the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans. Its principal mission: to interact with 35 maritime countries while fulfilling a primary goal: “to preserve and protect a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
So the stakes are clear for Japan and other Far East democracies cited earlier. Taiwan must remain a free society safeguarded by the United States, with firm backing by NATO, the European Union and other Western allies.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More