Why the Taiwan Question Matters

Antonio Graceffo


Support for Taiwan is not only motivated by ideological commitment to democracy, but also because Taiwan is strategically important. If China seized Taiwan, it would hold both sides of the Taiwan Strait, demanding sovereignty over the international shipping lanes between.


This has already happened in the disputed Spratly Islands, where China issued new maritime rules that certain types of foreign vessels had to notify the Chinese maritime authority before sailing through. The annexation of Taiwan would embolden the PRC to claim the South China Sea and parts of the Indo-Pacific region. This would give Beijing control over 60% of the world’s maritime shipping.


It is the 50th anniversary of the PRC replacing Taiwan as China’s representative to the United Nations. U.S. and Taiwanese officials are meeting to find a way that Taiwan can meaningfully participate in the U.N. and the WHO, but the PRC objects, as it claims Taiwan as a province --  which it has vowed to rule.


On China’s National Day, the PRC sent 25 warplanes into Taiwanese airspace. On Taiwan’s National Day, which falls 10 days later, President Xi Jinping vowed “reunification.” While Xi often spouts “peaceful reunification,” experts around the world agree that a declaration of independence by Taiwan or recognition by the U.S. could easily trigger a war.



In a recent speech, President Joe Biden said the U.S. would defend Taiwan. The White House later walked the statement back, to one of strategic ambiguity, the status quo that has been in effect for decades. The official Taiwan policy of the U.S. government is called the One China Policy, meaning that the U.S. recognizes Taiwan as part of China, but the U.S. does not voice an official position on Taiwan’s sovereignty.


In spite of the U.S. not recognizing Taiwan as an independent nation, the U.S.-Taiwan Relations Act commits the U.S. to making “available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services…to enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities.” This means that the U.S. sells weapons to Taiwan.


The U.S. officially removed its troops from Taiwan in 1979, after closing its embassy. In 2019, then-President Donald Trump moved the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the U.S. representative office, into a massive compound, on the site of the original U.S. embassy. Among the new staff were several uniformed military personnel. Additionally, U.S. naval patrols in the waters around Taiwan increased under the previous administration, and continue under the Biden administration.


Arms sales have also increased over the past five years. In 2020 alone, the Trump administration approved $1.8 billion in arms sales to Taiwan. This year, the Biden administration has proposed an additional $750 million in sales. Recently, it was discovered that U.S. military forces have been in Taiwan, training Taiwanese troops for over a year. The Biden administration has not condemned the deployment of U.S. troops to Taiwan.



Taiwanese President Tsai Ying-Wen, a popular, pro-independence leader who has been elected to her second term, has thanked the U.S. and other Western countries for their support. She gave a speech on National Day, saying, “We will not bow to China.” Taiwan is firmly committed to remaining independent, but is careful not to declare independence. While the U.S. military support for Taiwan is intentionally vague, one thing has been made clear over the decades: the U.S. is not obligated to fight for Taiwan if Taiwan declares independence unilaterally. Taiwan would have to get consensus from the U.S. before declaring independence.


Beyond an ideological commitment to democracy, supporting Taiwan is a significant part of the U.S.’s Asia policy. Maintaining freedom and stability in the region is predicated on Taiwan remaining independent of China. Currently, the U.S. maintains troops in Thailand, the Philippines, and Guam, with the largest troop strengths in Japan and South Korea. Additionally, the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet conducts “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOPs) in the South China Sea.


Countries that have maritime disputes with the PRC in the South China Sea include Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam -- none of whom is strong enough to stand up to the People’s Liberation Army Navy. In addition to issues of territorial sovereignty, $3.37 trillion in cargo passes through the region, including 40 percent of the world’s liquefied natural gas.


Japan also has a territorial dispute with China, while New Zealand and Australia have a strong interest in maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific. To this end, the Five Eyes alliance was formed, comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., as well as AUKUS, which includes Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., and finally, the Quad, composed of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia. All three organizations are dedicated to containing China. And that containment is made much easier by maintaining a free Taiwan, with freedom of movement in Taiwanese waters and airspace.



China, of course, opposes all three alliances, saying “Five Eyes could be poked blind if China’s sovereignty and security are harmed.” By sovereignty, of course, it means Taiwan. Not only does China resent the U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, but even registered “strong indignation” when the U.S. president called to congratulate President Tsai Ying-Wen on her second election victory. The Chinese Communist Party sees any positive engagement with Taiwan as an infringement on its sovereignty. As China’s only officially ally, North Korea echoed the Communist Party line, issuing a statement that the U.S. should stop supporting Taiwan.


Under China’s Anti-Session Law, the PRC claims the legal authority to take Taiwan by force. Liu Weidong, a U.S. affairs specialist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said “China cannot accept any country to develop official relations with Taiwan.” He then went to say that there was a general trend of countries increasing their engagement with Taiwan, issuing a vague threat to those who dared support the island nation.  


Author Bio:

Antonio Graceffo is a Ph.D., and also holds a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University. He works as an economics professor and China economic analyst, writing for various international media. Some of his books include: The Wrestler’s Dissertation,, Warrior Odyssey, Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion, and A Short Course on the Chinese Economy.


For Highbrow Magazine


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 The Kremlin (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)


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