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Rising imperialist tensions and war games over Taiwan

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With agitation growing between the US and China over Taiwan, Simon Basketter explores how US intervention and rival imperialisms are at the root of the current dangerous crisis
Issue 2777
Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen is pushing for independence
Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen (Pic: Flickr/ Presidential Office Taiwan)

Warships have been ­playing war games in waters east of Taiwan. The vessels were from the US, Japan, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

Chinese warplanes weren’t asked to play, but they still joined in and apparently simulated attacks on some of those vessels.

It was the latest escalation in a year of rising tensions over Taiwan, an island about 100 miles east of China. The situation, said Taiwan’s defence minister Chiu Kuo-cheng, is the most dangerous it’s been in 40 years.

Xi Jinping, China’s president, said that China has the resolve to achieve “complete reunification” between the two countries.

Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen said for her part that the island should “resist annexation or encroachment upon our sovereignty”.

US president Joe Biden’s recent tour of Europe saw the G7 and Nato summits shore up the US’s allies for a tough approach to the growth of China.

The CIA has announced a new China Mission Center, describing China as “the most important ­geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century”.

The agreement by the US and Britain to supply Australia with nuclear ­submarines is part of this too. As is the continuing diplomatic bluster over the islands in the South China Sea, and a new US trade agreement with Taiwan.

Is there a ‘new cold war’ between the US and China?
Is there a ‘new cold war’ between the US and China?
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China is firmly ensuring the domination of its sphere of influence to keep up its economic growth against push back from the US and its allies.

There are countervailing pressures. On the economic side between the US and China there is huge interdependence as well as competition.

A few business spies have been swapped and trade talks rumble on. They are currently negotiating phase two of a trade deal.

It essentially covers who makes the most from importing and exporting to the other. This is based on deciding how high tariffs will be on Chinese goods and how much US stuff China must import. The US wants to hold back the Chinese economy while ­relying on it at the same time.

Worried about the prospect of war hitting profits, the bosses’ Financial Times newspaper said, “Any war would overturn a global order under which Taiwan and China have both prospered mightily, to their own benefit and that of their trading partners.

“Beijing and Washington would emerge from such a conflict to a world riven into hostile blocs. Whoever the ‘winner’, all would lose. The choice across the Taiwan Strait is between a tolerable status quo and a disastrous conflict.”

Maintaining a state of uncertainty is long term US policy—known as “strategic ambiguity”. Essentially “we might be prepared to go to war, or we might not”.

And the real problem with war games is they can stop being games.

Taiwan’s history of anti-Communism and civil war

In 1895, Japan won a war and the Chinese government ceded Taiwan to it. Then in 1911 popular uprisings in China forced out the monarchy.

The new Republic of China was led by the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT).

Josef Stalin in Russia insisted the Communists must form an alliance with the KMT to liberate the country from foreign influence.

But after it got what it wanted, the KMT turned on the Communists leading to thousands being massacred. That meant a protracted civil war which began in 1928.

But from 1937 the two forces allied against Japan, which occupied large parts of China.

Communist forces then fought the Republic of China again, now run by General Chiang Kai-shek. After World War Two the KMT was beaten back by Mao Zedong’s Communist armies.

Chiang Kai-shek’s troops fled to Taiwan in 1949 and, with the backing of the US and Britain, took charge. This group is often referred to as the Mainland Chinese and made up 1.5 million people.

1949 — Mao & the Chinese revolution
1949 — Mao & the Chinese revolution
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They accounted for 14 percent of the population and completely dominated Taiwan’s politics.

Martial law was declared in Taiwan in May 1949 and was only repealed in 1987.

During this White Terror, 140,000 people were imprisoned and around 4,000 executed for being perceived as ­pro-Communist.

One writer, for instance, was imprisoned because of their translation of a Popeye comic.

Chiang’s son Chiang Ching-kuo followed him into office, and after protests began a slow process of democratisation.

The first non-KMT president was elected in 2000.

The US resumed formal relations with Taiwan under Donald Trump.

Current president Joe Biden has said US commitment to Taiwan is “rock solid”. In reality they never broke off real relations in the first place.

Sovereignty based on armed power

China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province. Taiwan’s leaders say it is a sovereign state.

Taiwan has 300,000 active troops in its armed forces to prove the point.

Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (ROC) government in Taiwan claimed to represent the whole of China, which it said it intended to re-occupy.

It held China’s seat on the United Nations Security Council and was recognised by many Western nations as the Chinese government.

But in 1971, the UN switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing.

Since then the number of countries that recognise the ROC government diplomatically has fallen drastically to about 15.

Those that don’t include the US and Britain who prefer to keep diplomatic ties with China.

Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen leads the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

It favours eventual independence for Taiwan. Its competitor the Kuomintang favours eventual re-unification.

While Taiwan is clearly part of China, in truth the decision over its future currently rests with the interplay of imperialist powers.

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