Five things to know about the Taiwan-China conflict

Perry World House’s Thomas J. Shattuck on the political and military history of the conflict, as well as its potential economic impact

A woman gets her head massaged while watching a news channel
TV news shows a map marking the areas where China is conducting live fire exercises near Taiwan, at a beauty salon in Taipei, Taiwan, on Aug. 4, 2022. (Image: AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)

Military drones and live fire drills are just one part of the latest conflict between Taiwan and China, which claims the island under its “One China Principle.” The drills, which began on Aug. 4 after Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s departure from Taipei, continued for an additional 72 hours through Aug. 7. Additionally, China has arrested a Taiwanese activist, sent ships and aircraft to the Taiwan Strait, and imposed new import/export bans. China also announced sanctions against Pelosi and her family, canceled eight bilateral talks and meetings with the United States, and announced that it would now conduct regular drills in the area.

Penn Today spoke with Thomas J. Shattuck, the Global Order Program Manager at Perry World House, to find out more about the conflict. In addition to numerous visits, Shattuck has spent three years living in Taiwan, first on a Fulbright English Teaching grant and later earning a master’s degree in international studies from the National Chengchi University in Taipei.

The modern conflict between Taiwan and China dates back to 1949

In 1949, when the political party Kuomintang (KMT) lost the civil war in China, the KMT fled to Taiwan and outlying islands along China’s coast. The Chinese Community Party immediately established what is now known as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), but they never had the power to finish the war, conquer the outlying islands, get over to Taiwan, invade, and fully dispel and defeat the KMT, Shattuck says. The Chinese military attempted to invade one of the outlying islands, Kinmen, but was repelled quickly and decisively in October 1949, largely due to superior weapons supplied by the United States.

While the KMT lost the war, they were able to control Taiwan with the additional protection and support of the U.S., Shattuck says. In 1954-55, the U.S. signed the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, promising that, were the Chinese to attack certain parts of Taiwan, it would be considered an attack on the U.S and the U.S. would intervene. (This treaty expired in 1979-80, after the U.S. severed its official diplomatic ties with Taipei.)

“Fast forward to 2022, when China has developed its military power. It is now challenging Taiwan politically, economically, and militarily, while trying to prove that the U.S. [either] will not come to Taiwan’s defense or will no longer be enough for Taiwan to maintain its sovereignty,” Shattuck says. “China’s goal is to force a peaceful reunification, so that way China doesn’t have to fight a war to gain control over Taiwan.”

Taiwan is both strategically and symbolically important to China

To China, Taiwan represents one of the last few pieces of territory that the CCP believes is rightfully theirs. After the Sino-Japanese war in 1895, the Qing Dynasty had to cede Taiwan to Japan. From 1895 until the end of World War II, Taiwan was a Japanese colony.

The PRC views any territory that was historically Chinese as part of their territory, Shattuck says. “This is the last little bit that they need in order to achieve the ‘Chinese dream.’”

Strategically, with control over Taiwan, China will be able to push beyond the “first island chain,” a string of countries that have security agreements with the U.S., including Japan and the Philippines, and into the Pacific. China could then, in theory, avoid the radar and ships of the U.S. military and their allies. The first island chain provides a ring of defense for the U.S. and its allies. If China has control over Taiwan, that would open up the Western Pacific to Chinese military assets, Shattuck says.

There is historic precedent for U.S. response to Chinese military drills over Taiwanese territory

“The question right now is, what will the U.S. do in response?” Shattuck says. “The last time something like this happened was in 1995-96, after the president of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui, went to Cornell and gave a speech that included controversial remarks about the status of Taiwan.” To protest these remarks, China conducted live fire missile tests in the Taiwan Strait.

“In response, President Bill Clinton sent an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait to show his resolve and displeasure with Beijing,” Shattuck says. “This time, in 2022, the tests are much closer to Taiwan, going over Taiwan’s landmass and capital.”

The U.S. has a historic relationship and a commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, Shattuck says. “If the U.S. does nothing, it would be a severe blow to our credibility in the area.”

Conflict in the Taiwan Strait has implications for global shipping delays

The Taiwan Strait is one of the world’s busiest shipping arteries. Almost half of the world’s global container fleet has used the strait this year so far, Shattuck says. Now, China has ships surrounding Taiwan that simulate a blockade. If ships don’t have access to the strait or if they have to divert away from it, this could potentially damage the global economy and incur further shipping delays on an already stressed supply chain system.

The missiles are only part of the issue

China began live fire missile tests on Aug. 4, continuing until Aug. 7. The trajectory of the at least one missile went over the capital in Taipei, landing in the Pacific Ocean within the Japanese exclusive economic zone. State security police also recently arrested Taiwanese activist Yang Chih-yuen. Since Pelosi landed in Taiwan, government websites have gone done due to distributed denial of service attacks.

In addition, China announced new import/export bans, banning the import of Taiwanese products like fish, citrus, and snack foods, while banning the export of natural sand, which Taiwan uses to make semiconductors. Taiwan is the world’s foremost manufacturer of semiconductors, chips used in electronic devices. These countermeasures will likely continue well after the exercises end on Aug. 7, Shattuck says.

“A lot of things are happening that are less flashy than shooting missiles, and those are the things that really matter, because they’re going to damage Taiwan,” Shattuck says.