It was the seventh day of the freediving world championship, which was being streamed live online from Cyprus. Women in the constant weight category used bifins or monofins to dive to a specific depth and then back to the surface in a single breath. Each diver’s nationality and flag were displayed onscreen next to her name.
The red, white, and blue Taiwanese flag, which had appeared earlier in the livestream, had vanished as Mia Hou of Taiwan took her turn. The flag was removed without warning by organizers after authorities in China, which claims the self-governing island of Taiwan as its territory, halted the livestream on mainland platforms.
The Taiwanese diving association protested the decision, but was told that the flag could not be restored due to International Olympic Committee rules. Athletes from ten countries, including the United States, requested that their flags be removed as well, arguing that sports should be politically neutral.
The International Association for the Development of Apnea, which hosted the event last month, later apologized to Taiwan, saying that “the interruption of the stream by the Chinese authorities caught us off guard, and the team was not prepared to deal with it on such short notice.”
The freediving incident is part of China’s escalating international pressure campaign against Taiwan, and it demonstrates Beijing’s growing confidence in its claims to the island off its eastern coast. It comes as tensions between China and Taiwan rise, with Beijing dispatching a swarm of warplanes to the island and Taiwanese officials attempting to rally international support. While experts believe that an outright war is still unlikely for the time being, it is clear that the conflict between the two sides extends beyond military posturing and is making itself felt far beyond the Taiwan Strait, attracting countries and organizations from all over the world.
The conflict dates back to 1949, when Mao Zedong’s Communist Party triumphed in China’s civil war and established the People’s Republic of China. The defeated Nationalists fled to Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, where they claimed to be the sole legitimate Chinese government.
Most countries today, including the United States, maintain full diplomatic relations with China rather than Taiwan and do not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state. However, the island, now a democracy, is vehemently opposed to the “reunification” with China that its leader, Xi Jinping, insists will be achieved, peacefully or otherwise. And, while China exerts pressure on Taiwan in a variety of ways, the military advances it has made in recent years have placed it in a stronger position than ever.
China has long sent warplanes near Taiwan, which has a population of 23.5 million people and is located about 100 miles from the Chinese mainland, to exhaust the island’s air force, test its defenses, or otherwise express its displeasure with events in Taiwan or elsewhere. However, the number of military sorties began to increase last year, with planes buzzing Taiwan’s self-proclaimed buffer zone almost daily without actually entering its airspace.
Chinese military activity increased over a four-day period in early October, coinciding with the country’s National Day, with 149 Chinese warplanes flying over Taiwan, compared to 380 in all of 2020. The United States condemned China’s actions as “destabilizing,” while China claimed that Taiwan was an internal matter and that its incursions were necessary to protect national sovereignty.
Taiwan Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told lawmakers this month that military tensions with China were at an all-time high, and that China would be able to launch a full-scale invasion by 2025. According to experts, China’s recent military maneuvers may be aimed at the international community as a whole, rather than at Taiwan specifically.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has described the island as being on the front lines of a global ideological battle, writing this month in Foreign Affairs that “if Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system.” She has pushed to increase defense spending and modernize the Taiwanese military at the urging of Washington, the results of which were on display this month at a military parade for Taiwan’s National Day, which included homegrown missiles.