We had an air-raid drill today

Taiwan’s complex geopolitical place in the world

September 2021

We had an air-raid drill this afternoon. First our phones shrieked a warning and then sirens wailed outside. For the next half hour everyone had to remain indoors. Outside the city, earlier in the day, military aircraft had practiced landing and taking off on Provincial Highway No 1.

Why the need for air-raid drills?

The simple answer is because there could be an air-raid. Bombers might attack Taiwan at any time and landing-craft could appear on the island’s beaches. Military aircraft come close to the island almost every week right now, and battleships and aircraft carriers from several nations patrol the waters nearby.

Taiwan, for decades a pawn on the geopolitical chessboard, has become something more like a bishop or a knight, a much more strategically important piece in the game.

Superficially, all this military activity is because there is a dispute between China and Taiwan over who controls the island. China sees Taiwan as a wayward province which needs to be brought back into the fold. Taiwan (mostly and increasingly) sees itself as an independent state.

In practice, there’s a lot more at stake.

Outside Taiwan and China, most of the rest of the world accepts the so-called “One-China Policy”, at least officially. This says that there is only one sovereign state called China, even though there currently appears to be two: the People’s Republic of China, and the Republic of China, which is another name for Taiwan. But this policy is only ‘acknowledged’ by some other states, notably the US, and that does not necessarily mean that it is ‘recognised’.

Words matter a lot here, and interpretations vary.

A small number of nations are directly aligned with Taiwan, and see the island as the legitimate government of all China.

Taiwan itself semi-officially adheres to something called the 1992 Consensus, though the existence of this agreement is also disputed. The 1992 Consensus says that both Taiwan and China agree there is only one China but that both sides accept that their understanding of what this means differs.

The reality is more complex

In reality, very little in this situation is black and white, except perhaps in China. For almost everyone else the situation is grey, and it seems to be getting ever greyer. Its roots go back to 1949, and the end of the Chinese civil war, though they are also bound to what happened, or didn’t happen, depending on your perspective, in the previous 350 years.

For years, this unusual stand-off has been relatively stable. Recently however, views seem to have shifted a bit, at least from the perspective of many people in Taiwan, but also in parts of the international community. China would say that its own position has not changed at all.

One change has been the rise of an independence movement in Taiwan, and a desire to be internationally recognised after so many decades in the shadows. Taiwan is unable to participate in international organisations, such as the WHO, despite having much to contribute, notably over its response to Covid-19.

This push for independence has found support, often unofficially, in many other places. It has perhaps helped that many countries are increasingly in dispute with China.

Taiwan has also become more important to the rest of the world for other reasons. Other nations have become more aware of the strategic value of the island, militarily. Taiwan is also now home to some of the world’s most essential companies, especially in the IT sector. The island is a centre of high-tech manufacturing on a vast scale, and has cutting edge engineering excellence.

All this means that if there were to be an attack on Taiwan, it is likely that other nations would come to the island’s defence – that an attempt by China to control the island militarily could push it into a dangerous and very unpredictable conflict with several other nations simultaneously. The support of these other nations is not clear either, however. Everything is shades of grey – nuanced.

Like an earthquake, perhaps

But a long-unresolved situation has become a little less stable. China is upset that an island it sees as an inalienable part of its territory might be slipping from its grasp, while much of the rest of the world, as well as Taiwan itself, appears to be encouraging this drift. So China’s political rhetoric has turned up a notch. Trade between the mainland and Taiwan has become more unpredictable. It has been hard for Taiwan to buy vaccines to fight Covid-19 because the manufacturers are told to adhere to the One China Policy. Taiwan cannot negotiate deals itself. Recent Taiwanese efforts to join international organisations, even as an observer, have been blocked.

Another consequence is that Chinese military planes now fly regularly into Taiwan’s air defence zone, though this is legally still international airspace. Sometimes these aircraft are chased away by Taiwanese jets, according to the Taiwanese media. They are also tracked by US planes and warships at times. US, Japanese, German, UK, French and Australian warships have become more active in the seas around the island.

The situation has become more volatile in the last few weeks. Lithuania has used the word ‘Taiwan’ on the nameplate of the new office representing the island’s interests in Vilnius, which caused China to sever diplomatic relations. Other countries in the EU as well as the US have hinted that they might make a similar change, and China has promised a robust military response if they do.

It’s not just the earthquakes which mean the ground risks moving in unpredictable ways here.