Why Taiwan matters to China (and the rest of the world)

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has led many to cast their eyes over to China and its claims over Taiwan, but why does China attach such importance to the island nation?

Taiwan, China and taiwan

As Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, amid statements from Vladimir Putin referencing Russia’s historical claims over the country, it became difficult not to draw comparisons with the similarly contentious relationship between China and Taiwan. Indeed, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defence reported that Chinese incursions of its air defence zone across the Taiwan straits reached a 40-year high in 2021. However, perhaps a more direct characterisation of Chinese sentiment towards Taiwan came at a press conference during the 13th National People’s Congress on 7 March 2021, when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was reported to have said: “Taiwan will eventually return to the embrace of the motherland.”

As in the case of Russia and Ukraine, the geopolitical power dynamic between China and Taiwan is more complex than economic metrics alone can explain. Unknown quantities such as China’s reunification aspirations and Taiwan’s internal politics threaten the uncomfortable equilibrium of interdependency between the two countries.

Both Ukraine and Taiwan share the historical trope of a smaller democratic nation state seeking independent sovereignty from an oppressive one-party superpower through alignment with Western free-market values. It is Taiwan’s development, since the 1980s, into a quasi-Western outpost (drawing parallels with Hong Kong) that has drawn in foreign investment to the tune of $7.6bn (T$215.65bn) at its peak in 2018. 

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