In May 2018, US clothing retailer ‘Gap Inc.’ was forced to remove a T-shirt having the word ‘China’ with an accompanying red map displaying the mainland and not Taiwan, which China claims as its own. Also, last January, a Chinese regulator suspended Marriott International’s Chinese website and mobile app for a week for listing Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Tibet as separate countries. Delta Airlines also came under fire as it listed Taiwan and Tibet as separate countries on its website. This prompted other airlines like Qantas to revise their websites. Understandably, Taiwan, the tiny island of 36,000sq km, within 200 km of mainland China’s east, is at a centre of a dangerous feud – much more than ever before.

At the beginning of 2019, President Xi Jinping warned Taiwan that ‘unification’ must be the ultimate goal of any discussion between Beijing and Taipei, and any effort towards independence of the island could be dealt with by the use of armed force. Xi, however, tried to assure that “the private property, religious beliefs and legitimate rights and interests of Taiwanese compatriots will be fully assured” in any such ‘unification’. It put the South China Sea on the global scanner again. Incidentally, just the previous day Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, emphasised that the 23 million people of Taiwan want to preserve their self-rule.

Taiwan has been de facto independent with its own currency, political, military and judicial systems since the end of China’s civil war in 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek’s losing nationalist government fled to Taipei. Beijing treats Taiwan as a breakaway province that will eventually be reunited and maintains that Taiwan must obey the ‘1992 Consensus’ between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang party then ruling Taiwan, where an agreement on “One China” was laid despite differences in opinions on which entity is China’s legitimate governing body.

Taiwan democratised in the 1990s and entered the world bodies and events like the World Trade Organisation and Olympics as “Chinese Taipei”. However, the cry for independence in the world’s 22nd largest economy has been intensified in the recent past, mostly due to the symbolic importance of its democracy against increasingly authoritarian China under Xi.

Interestingly, however, in a local election in Taiwan in November, voters rejected a proposal for the island to compete in international sporting events as ‘Taiwan’ rather than ‘Chinese Taipei’, although, according to a survey conducted by the National Chengchi University in Taipei in 2017, more than 55 per cent of the island’s residents regarded themselves as exclusively Taiwanese. It is difficult to comment on whether the study was biased. Interestingly, during one of my previous visits to Taiwan, one professor of the National Chengchi University told me that his heart is for an independent Taiwan, but his brain says that China would take over Taiwan someday.

China consumes 30 per cent of Taiwan’s exports, and is the biggest trade partner of Taiwan. Many believe that this is increasingly isolating Taiwan from the global scenario which is destined to press them into accepting Chinese sovereignty over the island eventually. In fact, China’s continual and accelerated efforts are resulting in more and more countries cutting diplomatic relations with Taiwan, leaving only 17 nations maintaining ties at the moment.

Previous Chinese leaders like Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin did not put ‘unification’ with Taiwan on their primary agenda. However, President Xi, arguably the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, is for national rejuvenation to strengthen his legacy, and has been increasing pressure since Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive party became president in 2016, the first woman to be elected to this office. In 2017, at the Communist Party’s 19th National Congress, Xi emphasized that the time is coming when Taiwan will finally be brought under Beijing’s control – by force, if necessary.

Xi promised an arrangement similar to the “one country, two systems” of the Hong Kong model. Hong Kong was transferred from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, and is maintaining the city’s limited democracy, economic system and political freedoms, and its own legal system. However, there are widespread concerns that political and press freedoms have been declining in the city. There is no surprise that Taiwanese pro-independence leader Tsai, in response to Xi’s speech, rejected the possibility of such an arrangement.

In 1979, under President Jimmy Carter, the US established formal diplomatic relations with Beijing by acknowledging the Chinese position that there is one China and Taiwan is part of China. But soon the US Congress passed the ‘Taiwan Relations Act’ offering a qualified commitment to the island’s security and providing for the supply of necessary “defense articles and services”. US arms sales to Taiwan was more than $25 billion in 2007-18.

Much to the dismay of Beijing, Donald Trump is treating Taiwan specially from the very beginning. President- elect Trump made a telephone call to Tsai Ing-wen on 2 December 2016 – a first time event after 1979. Moreover, Trump thanked ‘the President of Taiwan’ after this telephone call. In March 2018, Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages official government exchanges between the US and Taiwan. And in June, the US upgraded its de facto embassy in Taipei to the tune of $255 million. In November 2018, the US Navy sailed two ships through the Taiwan Strait. Then, on the last day of 2018, the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act was signed to counter China’s growing military influence; the law reiterates American commitment “to counter efforts to change the status quo and to support peaceful resolution acceptable to both sides of the Taiwan Strait.” All these, amidst the continual and intensified trade war between Washington and Beijing is not helping to ease tensions.

Gap Inc. now knows the ‘gap’ between Chinese Taipei and Taiwan very well. However, all other parties like Taipei, Beijing and Washington need to act sensibly. Taiwan is the most dangerous trigger point for global conflict right now – it’s like a time bomb which is potentially more severe than even the North Korean crisis. The status quo is possibly the best and most peaceful solution at the moment. However, if that status quo is challenged by any party, the consequence would be explosive. A war between the US and China over Taiwan has the potential to change the course of history.

For the time being, everybody should mind the Gap.

(The writer is Professor, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.)