Sino-Taiwanese conflict — a dangerous flashpoint

DND Thought CenterSino-Taiwanese conflict — a dangerous flashpoint
  • If China wants unification with Taiwan it must seek the will of the people of Taiwan in a referendum

By Dr Moonis AhmarSino-Taiwanese conflict — a dangerous flashpoint

In the year 2023, growing conflict between China and Taiwan is turning out to be a major flashpoint in the world today. Danger of direct collision involving the US in Sino-Taiwanese conflict is a warning to destabilise world order.

Is the world moving towards a third world war over Sino-Taiwanese conflict? How did the Russian invasion of Ukraine act as a catalyst in triggering a Chinese reaction to official interaction between the US House of Representative Speaker and the President of Taiwan? Is the Chinese stance on declaring Taiwan its integral part justified? Will the people of Taiwan support their unification with China in a referendum? Both China and Taiwan are accusing each other of belligerence and offensive behaviour as it may lead to escalation in their conflict and plunge the world into a third world war.

When Communist forces led by Mao Zedong took control of mainland China in October 1949, the nationalist government, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Formosa (now Taiwan) and claimed that it was a legitimate government of the whole of China. Since then, the conflict between Taiwan and Communist China continues unabated.

Taiwan is the redline for Beijing because in October 1971 when Communist China obtained membership of United Nations along with permanent membership in the Security Council it was under the condition that Taiwan, which was holding the seat of China from 1949 till 1971, will be expelled from the world body. The US ditched its ally Taiwan in order to seek normal relations with China. It’s Beijing policy that any member of the UN having diplomatic relations with Taiwan will have nothing to do with Communist China. After getting back Hong Kong and Macao, it is China’s ambition to unify Taiwan with it. China is aware of the fact that it cannot occupy Taiwan and must have patience by relying on soft power so as to lure the people of that island to join their fold. But, it seems that under the prevailing circumstances, China in view of its enormous resources is thinking in terms of unifying Taiwan by coercive means provided its principal backer i.e. the US is weakened.

The Economist (London) editorial ‘How to avoid a third world war?’ published in its March 11th issue states: “Europe is witnessing its bloodiest cross-border war since 1945, but Asia risks something worse: conflict between America and China over Taiwan. Dozens of Chinese jets breached Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.” The editorial further states: “No one can be sure how an invasion of Taiwan might start. China could use grey zone tactics that are coercive, but not quite acts of war, to blockade the self-governing island and sap its economy and morale. Or it could launch pre-emptive missile strikes on American bases in Guam and Japan, clearing the way for an amphibious assault. Since Taiwan could resist an attack on its own for days or weeks, any conflict could escalate quickly into a superpower confrontation.” Yet, China’s following the path of confrontation will contradict its decades old policy: not to get itself involved in an armed conflict because such an exercise will be at the expense of its economy. Since January 1979 when China fought its last war by attacking Vietnam, it decided not to get itself involved in any armed conflict.

Soon China will be world’s number one economy and given its enormous resources its armed conflict with Taiwan would be at the expense of its global power status. For how long China can wait to accomplish its age old dream of unifying Taiwan depends on its leadership as to what extent President Xi can afford to take the risk of getting involved in an armed conflict which can plunge the world in another global war. If the US defence expenditures are $800 billion, China is spending $230 billion on defence.

The possibility of a third world war over Taiwan depends on two major conditions, as follows.

First, if China is totally frustrated by Taiwan’s behaviour in defying gestures from its sides for unification. So far, Taiwan has not declared its independence. Once Taiwan declared itself as an independent state, it will cross the redline set by Beijing. Another redline set by China is Taiwan’s efforts to seek legitimacy from various countries particularly Latin America. If China has done well in the recent past by emerging as the world’s second economic power, Taiwan is also a success story.

Second, America’s unabated support to Taiwan to withstand Chines pressure is disturbing because according to estimates of RAND corporation, in case of a Sino-American war over Taiwan, China’s GDP would slash by 25-35% and America’s by 5-10%. It would be a zero sum game which both China and the US cannot afford. Hawks in the US are bent upon provoking China because they know very well that if China is dragged into a war with Taiwan, it will destabilise its economy. In fact, a three-pronged provocation is going on: China provoking Taiwan by acts of brinkmanship and belligerency; Taiwan provoking China by high-level contacts with the US Congress; and the US provoking China by conducting simulation exercises in which it tried to prove that Beijing will lose heavily if it dares attack Taiwan.

Like the US, China has also conducted simulation exercises trying to assess how Taiwan will be able to defend itself if attacked. A story entitled ‘Taiwan’s pro-China islands In the dragon’s mouth’ published in April 8, 2023 issue of The Economist (London) states: “Think about this way. If in a conflict between American and China it is Taiwan that will be the front line, then in confrontation between Taiwan and China that role will be played by Kinmen, an island that is 187 km from Taiwan, which administers it, but only 3 km away from China, which does not.” The residents of Kinmen unlike the people of Taiwan are not hostile to China because it is located a couple of kilometers from mainland China and will be the first battlefield between Taiwan and China.

This brings one to another realistic condition that if China wants unification with Taiwan it must seek the will of the people of Taiwan in an internationally supervised referendum: whether they want to have independence or want to become part of China. If the people of Taiwan want to unify with China willingly then it will be fine but if they vote against joining China then Beijing will have no claim over Taiwan.

The writer is former Dean Faculty of Social Science, University of Karachi and can be reached at


Note: The above article by Dr Moonis Ahmar was originally published by the Express Tribune on April 25, 2023. 


The views and opinions expressed in this article/Opinion/Comment are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the DND Thought Center and Dispatch News Desk (DND). Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of the DND Thought Center and Dispatch News Desk News Agency.

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