Can the situation in Taiwan trigger a Third World War?

the essential China has been leading incursions into the Taiwan air defense zone for a year. These incidents have rekindled tensions between China and the United States. The President of Taiwan defends the maintenance of the status of the island.

What if Taiwan was at the origin of a World War III one day? The island of 14 million inhabitants, located at 110 km offshore in eastern China, is experiencing new tensions with its powerful Chinese neighbor. The consequences extend beyond Asia and could have global repercussions between China and the United States.

To understand the situation, we have to go back to the history of Taiwan, which was first Chinese and then deeply marked by a Japanese occupation of half a century of 1895 To 1945. Since 1945, the island has been a unitary republic with a semi- presidential that China claims as one of its provinces. The relations between China and Taiwan are strained in 1949 with the arrival in power under President Xi Jinping in China and President Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan three years later.

Tensions have accelerated since September 2020. La Dépêche explains them to you in five dates.

End of September: Taiwan wants to join an agreement transpacific trade

Eleven countries in Asia and the Pacific have joined the CPTPP (Comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-pacific partnership), a major trade agreement created in 2013 between Australia, Canada or Mexico. It represents 13, 5% of the world population. At the end of September, China in turn wishes to join. Taiwan makes the same request. “Taiwan cannot stay away from the world and must integrate into the regional economy,” said a government spokesperson. Out of the question for a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “We firmly oppose official exchanges of any country with Taiwan.”

October 1: China enters Taiwan air defense zone

On the occasion of the National Day of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, China sends 33 aircraft, including a nuclear capable bomber, in the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone. Three days later, 52 planes burst into the Taiwanese sky. The Prime Minister of Taiwan Tseng-chang reacts strongly: “China has been belligerent and undermined regional peace while engaging in numerous acts of intimidation.”

La présidente de Taïwan Tsai Ing-wen, le 10 octobre 2021 à Taipei.
The President of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen, the October 2020 in Taipei. Photo MaxPPP

October 3: the United States provides military support to Taiwan

The United States urges Beijing to “cease its military, diplomatic, economic pressure and its coercion against Taiwan,” wrote the US State Department in a statement on October 3. “We will continue to help Taiwan maintain sufficient self-defense capacity,” the text added. As revealed by the Wall Street Journal on October 7, American soldiers have been quietly training the Taiwanese army for at least a year.

October 9: Chinese President promises “reunification”

On the occasion of 110 e anniversary of the Chinese Revolution, Chinese President Xi Jinping pronounces a speech where he promises a “reunification” with Taiwan by “peaceful” means.

“Achieving the reunification of the homeland by peaceful means is in the general interest of the Chinese nation, including the compatriots of Taiwan (…) The reunification of our country can and will be achieved”, details Xi Jinping. And he warns: “The question of Taiwan is a purely internal matter for China. No one should underestimate the strong determination (…) of the Chinese people to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Le président de la Chine Xi Jinping, le 14 octobre 2021 à Pekin. President of China Xi Jinping, the 13 October 2021 in Beijing. Photo MaxPPP

October 9: Taiwan defends democracy

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen – Beijing’s pet peeve – responds the same day that she will not give in to China: “No one can force Taiwan to follow the path China has laid out for us (.. .) We absolutely must not imagine that the Taiwanese people will give in to the pressures. Tsai Ing-wen defends the maintenance of Taiwan’s status but has never officially requested the island’s independence from China.


Mark Julienne: “We can talk about harassment of the Chinese army”

Marc Julienne is a researcher, responsible for China activities, Asia Center at IFRI (French Institute for International Relations).

Can we talk about an escalation between Taiwan and China?

Absoutely. It accelerated in late September-early October but it actually started longer than that. China’s first air forays into the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone date back to September 2018. These incursions are almost daily. We can talk about harassment of Chinese aircraft on the Taiwanese army. It’s a daily pressure.

Are the tensions still as strong?

It is possible that this escalation has calmed down a bit today. There was a phone call between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping; Joe Biden’s national security adviser met China’s number one diplomat in Geneva; and communications take place at a high level between the US military and the Chinese military.

Marc Julienne est chercheur à l'IFRI.
Marc Julienne is a researcher at IFRI. Photo IFRI

China, however, still considers Taiwan to be one of its provinces.

China shows great determination in its desire to be powerful and its desire to reclaim Taiwan by force or peacefully. Question the status quo that has existed since 1945 and doing it on a daily basis is a will, in fine , to denounce it.

Is talking about a possible Third World War between the United States and China being abused or is it a possibility?

We cannot rule out any scenario. Objectively, everyone agrees that China does not have the military capabilities today to retake Taiwan and even less if we put the United States and its allies in the equation. Japan has not stopped, for a few weeks now, to affirm its support for Taiwan by saying that the security of Taiwan is the security of Japan, it is still very, very strong. The other hypothesis is that with nuclear weapons, political leaders will come to their senses and will not want to go into conflict. On the other hand, not all wars are rational. History teaches us that. You can’t be absolutely certain what would happen, and what each other’s reactions, if there was an incident. Xi Jinping has such a strong nationalist rhetoric that in the event of an incident, one wonders whether China, even for ideological reasons, would not go into conflict. We must consider all the possibilities, even the least rational, and the most dangerous.

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