The People's Republic of China (PRC) has undergone one of the most intense periods of economic growth and development in history, making it the second largest economy in the world and forecasted to become the largest by 2032.
This was possible because the country opened up to foreign trade and embraced the free market with Chinese characteristics.
As such, China has transitioned from a famine plagued backwater into the superpower that we know today. This sustained development has lifted hundreds of millions out of absolute poverty.
But behind the futuristic facade of glass-clad skyscrapers and mega-projects, the Chinese government is unfortunately regressing into an increasingly authoritarian rule.
By definition, China is now a totalitarian state.
However, the PRC is the world’s most unconventional totalitarian state in the sense that its people seem to be content with the establishment, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
With little to no regard for individual freedoms and rights, a complete ban on all sorts of political dissent, the CCP has enshrined an age-old concept in a new way, that you are either with the party or against it.
Besides, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping has enshrined himself in the constitution, essentially making him president for life. This is something former US president Donald Trump greatly admired.
“Maybe we'll have to give that a shot someday," he said.
Now, a question arises, are the Chinese actually content with their political system and a totalitarian government? Finding the right answer is a difficult task.
The government closely monitors opinion polling in China, and foreign polling organizations are forbidden from conducting surveys directly.
According to a poll conducted by the University of California in May 2020, 88 percent of China's citizens favor their country's political system.
The Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation jointly published a research, according to which Chinese citizens' approval of the central government increased from 86 per cent in 2003 to 93 per cent in 2016.
There are questions on the validity of the survey but overall, it is accepted that the Chinese view their government and political system in a much more favorable way compared to western democracies.
As such, western democracies do not pose a threat to the totalitarian regime of China as East Asian democracy does, specifically Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China (ROC). Taiwan poses a threat like none-other, an ideological threat that can shatter the very core of the system of governance in China.
In addition, Taiwan is a unique success story. After the defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT)-led government of the ROC at the hand of the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War, the KMT party retreated to the island of Taiwan.
Rising from the ashes of war, Taiwan is now a thriving democracy governed by the rule of law that holds free and fair elections, protects the political and human rights of its citizens, has an unfettered and competitive media landscape, endorses religious plurality, and is a responsible international actor.
Its economy outperforms China in all justifiably comparative metrics, has a higher gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, lower rate of inflation, unemployment and inequality.
Besides, no citizen of Taiwan has yet had to flee the country in fear of political persecution. On the other hand, 613,000 Chinese nationals have applied for asylum in other countries since Xi Jinping came to power at the end of 2012. Taiwan is the exact opposite of China, while both claim to be the one true China.
The nation of a meager 24 million population with a GDP of $611 billion and an area of 12,456 square miles, is a threat because Taiwan is China, both the PRC and the ROC claim sole sovereignty over all of China.
This is why the PRC has been purposefully consistent about the One-China policy. It does not want its people to look at Taiwan and see an economically prosperous nation with individual and collective rights, and dream of a future different from what the party wants them to dream.
To ensure the One-China policy the PRC has strategically pushed Taiwan out of the international system and reduced its diplomatic allies, prevented the country from participating in bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
With the end goal being the reunification of the two Chinas, preferably by peaceful means, China has never promised to abstain from resorting to arms.
China has several options to make Taiwan suffer from strong military actions to extreme economic pressures. The PRC could invade Taiwan’s periphery, take control of its airspace or go for a full invasion.
It will be interesting to observe what the US does in these scenarios. The US must assess the importance of Taiwan in maintaining its key strategic interests in the Pacific Ocean and countering China in the South-China Sea into consideration before taking any actions in this forthcoming crisis. i.e., providing defensive military weapons and training.
The US policy in Taiwan is built on the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which provides the legal foundation for the unofficial relation between the US and Taiwan.
Taiwanese independence is not a priority for the US but it is committed to assisting Taiwan in maintaining their defensive capabilities. The US government is not obligated by treaty to assist in the defense of Taiwan from attack but it is required by the Taiwan Relations Act to help the country defend itself.
Additionally, if the US does not substantively respond to PRC military intervention against Taiwan with force and permits Taiwan to be conquered by China, will US treaty allies Japan and South Korea, not to mention the Baltic states, who are already wary because of Trump's presidency, conclude that Washington cannot be relied upon to defend them?
With all of these variables in mind, it is not possible to say with certainty whether the US would use military measures to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion before the crisis, or even if it should.
The US strategic objective concerning Taiwan should be to maintain its political and economic independence, its dynamism as a liberal society, and US-allied deterrence, without triggering or inciting a Chinese invasion.
Rising tensions across the Taiwan strait poses a grave threat to regional peace and security. The apparent ideological differences between the two China’s may destabilise East Asia to the brink of conflict, and conflict breeds catastrophe.
So, maintenance of the status-quo and peaceful diplomatic measures should be a top priority for all parties involved.
Mahmudur Rahman, Research Assistant, Centre for Governance Studies.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.