For decades, Taiwan has loomed as a geopolitical flashpoint, a regular on the list of top national security concerns for the United States, though the prospects of actual conflict with China over Taiwan have always seemed highly unlikely. China has never renounced its claim over Taiwan, never dropped “reunification” from its long-term planning, and the U.S. has walked a fine line — acknowledgment (but not support) of Beijing’s view that there is only one China; a commitment to be prepared to defend Taiwan, without a pledge to do so. Year in and year out, think tanks and policymakers have gamed out war scenarios, but there have always been actual wars or other global tensions that felt far more immediate.
Lately, however, the calculus has shifted. And the prospect of conflict in Taiwan has moved from the back burner to a very real concern, one that increasingly worries policymakers, businesspeople and of course residents of mainland China and Taiwan themselves. Driving the shift are regular threats and military exercises from China and heightened U.S.-China tensions — most recently the visit to Taiwan of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The war in Ukraine may be playing a role. Whatever the causes, one consequence is that more people are asking a fundamental question: Why is Taiwan so important to China?
It’s certainly not a “dumb question.” As Grid China Reporter Lili Pike said in this week’s edition of our series, China’s goal of controlling Taiwan is as old as the People’s Republic of China itself; and to understand it, one needs to understand the history — the Chinese Civil War and what followed — as well as the priorities of the current leadership in China. As Pike noted, the historical answer to the question involves the war’s immediate aftermath; the 2022 answer has everything to do with the powerful nationalistic messages of China’s current president, Xi Jinping. In Xi’s view, and the view of many nationalists in mainland China, Chinese rule over Taiwan is not a matter of if — but when.
So that’s the question for the latest installment in this Grid video series. Watch Pike’s answer here:
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.