Much to China’s rage, the US is calling on other countries to support an invitation to Taiwan to join the World Health Organization. However, the Taiwan issue goes much deeper than WHO membership, and it’s approaching a boiling point.
The Taiwan Problem
It is common knowledge that China wants to keep Taiwan isolated from the international community. Recent headlines are centered around China’s efforts to keep Taiwan out of the World Health Organization. However, China actually considers Taiwan a breakaway province, and its ultimate goal is to reabsorb Taiwan into the mainland’s control. The WHO controversy is just one part of a much larger story. The US has always played a major role in it.
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The history of the Taiwan issue goes back to the Chinese Civil War, in which the Communist Party won control of the mainland, and the opposing Nationalists fled to the island of Taiwan. Taiwan’s leadership, an ally of the free world, was considered the rightful government of China for decades by countries in Western Europe and the Americas, even while the Communist Party maintained total control over the mainland.
This made it impossible to have diplomatic relations with the obvious ruling government in China. Eventually, the world, led by the United States, accepted the People’s Republic of China as a legitimate country, which also meant rejecting the legitimacy of Taiwan’s government.
In a rather odd situation, the US has since maintained its close relationship with Taiwan. The countries are allies despite the US snubbing Taiwan as a sovereign country and ending official diplomatic relations. Conversely, it maintains official relations with Beijing while also considering the country as a strategic adversary.
This puts the three nations in a fragile balance. The US officially takes communist China’s side as the rightful ruler of Taiwan and the mainland. However, it also provides Taiwan with military hardware to help defend itself from China. The country also indicates a willingness to help defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. China, on the other hand, patiently puts up with Taiwan’s de facto independence and international isolation. It runs with the public goal of eventual reunification, by force if necessary.
The End of the Status Quo
For decades, this strange arrangement has maintained a delicate balance between appeasing China’s sensitivities and protecting Taiwan. However, a number of factors have combined to make this balance less likely to survive in the coming years.
One major factor: China is not the same country it was 40 years ago, when this status quo was established. A weak China was willing to accept diplomatic recognition over Taiwan from the United States and most of the world, even if it had to put up with Taiwan’s independence under US protection. Today, China is without question the second most powerful nation in the world.
China is reaching a level of military and economic might that makes Taiwan a tempting prize. That makes the US think twice about going to war to defend the island nation.
A second, related factor is the increasing tension between China and the United States. The relationship between the two countries is at a dramatic low point, made all the worse by the Chinese origin of today’s pandemic, as well as China’s likely cover-up early on.
The US may see this moment as a now-or-never opportunity to save Taiwan from Chinese tyranny, and China will see any act to peel Taiwan away as a direct affront to its sovereignty. If these tensions continue to rise, the result could be a major change to the “Taiwan issue” in the years to come. The conflict over Taiwan’s WHO membership may be the opening salvo of a much larger battle.
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