In recent decades, China has become an economic powerhouse and an increasingly confident player on the world stage. As a result of its growing power, it now seeks to resolve many of its long-standing grievances which, until recent years, it has not been able address.
Perhaps chief among these concerns the future of Taiwan, which China sees as a breakaway province but is a de facto independent country. In recent years, China has increased covert activity in Taiwanese territorial waters and airspace, with the latest aerial incursion (involving 25 aircraft) occurring in March. In addition, Chinese fishing boats have been seized and their crews detained for violating Taiwanese waters.
This increased level of Chinese activity is matched by its growing military budget; while still far below the exorbitant military budget of the United States (at $700bn), China’s military budget is now at $208bn, up 6.8% from the previous year. In addition to growing military spending, China has undertaken efforts to upgrade its naval capabilities by commissioning the development of nuclear submarines and developing its own aircraft carriers. Currently it has two, with a third carrier expected to be operational by 2022.
Taiwan has not stood idly by: while it cannot hope to match China’s vast superiority in manpower and resources, it has fostered closer relations with the United States in the hopes that the world’s lone superpower will come to its rescue should an invasion attempt ever occur. The US, craving a geopolitical rival since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has jumped on this chance to antagonise China having facilitated its rise in the first place.
Fearing a retaliation by the US, as well as the potential domestic consequences of a failed attempt at invading Taiwan, China has stopped short of launching conventional military attacks on the small island nation. Instead, it has sought to influence matters through other means, primarily through spreading misinformation in an effort to shape political discourse and launching cyberattacks against Taiwanese government agencies and officials. In one instance, it was reported that 6,000 Taiwanese email accounts attached to ten government agencies were the subject of hacks originating from the mainland.
China has increased pressure on Taiwan on the diplomatic front. Since 2016, Taiwan has lost international recognition from several states who have swapped their recognition to the People’s Republic, including Panama, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic to name a few. While seemingly small, the loss of recognition has steadily eroded Taiwan’s ability to act on the world stage. It now has full diplomatic relations with just fourteen UN member states.
In addition, trade tensions have increased between the countries. While trade has steadily increased since the 1970s, hitting $150bn in 2018, Taiwan has begun to seek ways to diversify its economic portfolio and China has begun to use this economic relationship to put pressure on the Taiwanese economy. Most recently, China has banned imports of Taiwanese pineapples, citing the risk of “harmful creatures”. This has been met with anger in Taiwan and leaders have begun a campaign of solidarity in Taiwan, encouraging citizens to buy local pineapples.
While it is clear that tensions will continue to increase for the next few years, it is unclear as to how the underlying issues will be resolved. For now, an uneasy peace still reigns between China and Taiwan, even as both countries seek to strengthen their respective positions and probe each other for weaknesses.