China-Taiwan Conflict: Waiting To Explode 

China’s reunification aspiration towards Taiwan has threatened geopolitical power struggles as well as Taiwan’s internal politics creating an uneasy balance of interdependence between the two countries

By M R Dua
  • PRC has emphatically asserted that under the ‘One-China’ policy Taiwan has to be ‘absorbed’ into Mainland China
  • Taiwan is consistent that only its people can decide their own future and that Beijing’s claims are void
  • In 1979, a new generation of PRC leaders determined to open China to the world for a objective: ‘peaceful unification’
  • Some feel China could invade the self-governed island as soon as this year, as it is ‘building capability to seize Taiwan

EVEN as China’s threat on the reunification issue grows more pointed, more ‘explosive’, Taiwan is working ‘creatively’ to bolster its alignment and alliances to withstand the pressure and maintain its identity. Meanwhile, few places in the world can claim to be as scrappy with statecraft as this tiny island is today. ‘We have to be more creative and, like, more adorable’ – the founder of the Taiwan Digital Diplomacy Association, a non-profit helping Taiwan get its message out. He adds, “We are trying to make friends, to make more friends”.

As the movement for Taiwan’s independent status gains global foothold support, a noted political thinker who favours and respects the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s views on some crucial global issues (his recent praise for Modi’s counsel to the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, on resolving the ten-month-old conflict). With a wry smile, he said to me: “Why does not India ‘recognize’ Taiwan as an ‘independent’ country, and have an embassy there? Then Taiwan will be able to get most African countries, as well as the whole South and North Americas, to do so.’’

Yet another inveterate advocate of Taiwan’s freedom, and its independent status, put it most cogently and pithily: ‘Taiwan has its own government – a President, its own currency, its own army, and holds free democratic elections.’

Meanwhile, US President Joe R Biden affirmed on October 5 last: ‘The US troops would defend Taiwan if China were to carry out an unprecedented attack on the island’. This was the fourth time Biden had repeated that comment; and a shift from a preference for ‘strategic ambiguity’ on Taiwan among US Presidents.

WHAT’S IN THE NAME?

However, it must be stated that the original official name of Taiwan was ‘Republic of China.’ And it was under this title, i.e., RoC’s nomenclature, the present-day’s People’s Republic of China (PRC–Beijing) became the founding member of the United Nations, and acquired its globally unique persona. (PRC is also called Red China, Communist China, Mainland China, etc.)

In fact, as history says, it was in 1949, after Mao Zedong’s Communist forces registered victory in the Chinese Civil over the Kuomintang–an army of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, (who fled to Taiwan). Later, as Mao Zedong proclaimed, on October 1, 1949, the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which is now acknowledged, albeit disputed, the ‘incontestability’ of the status of mainland China’s, (that is, the People’s Republic of China — PRC). And Taiwan was the Republic of China (RoC). It is also conceded that it’s a ‘strategic ambiguity’, with global support for the ‘political status quo’. But in Beijing’s view, Taiwan is only a ‘break-away province’; and only 15 countries ‘recognize’ it. However, referring to Taiwan’s historical background, Xi Jinping has said, “the historical wheels of the national reunification of the motherland must be achieved, and it will be achieved”.

While Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen government’s regime is persistent that Taiwan is a separate country, and that its political status is contentious.’ The People’s Republic of China, PRC, has emphatically asserted that under the (so-called) ‘One-China’ policy, Taiwan has to be ‘absorbed’ into Mainland China. So much so that even at the recent 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, President Xi Jinping had forcefully affirmed that Taiwan belonged to PRC and that it will have to return to the ‘Mainland’ China, namely, Beijing’s currently ruling Xi regime, because Beijing has for long considered Taiwan, the self-ruled island of more than 23 million people, a part of Chinese territory. But, No. Not Taiwan. For, Taiwan ‘sees itself as separate’ from the Mainland.

As the international news agency, Reuters, reported recently—‘China has always respected, cared for and benefited’ Taiwan’s people and was committed to promoting economic and cultural exchanges across the Taiwan Strait. Resolving the Taiwan issue is the Chinese people’s own business, and it’s up to the Chinese people to decide.’ Xi now “insists on striving for the prospect of peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and best efforts, but we will never promise to give up the use of force and reserve the option to take all necessary measures.’’ That option, he said, is aimed at ‘interference’ by external forces and a ‘very small number’ of Taiwan independence supporters rather than the vast majority of the Taiwanese people”.

EXTERNAL INTERFERENCE

As of now, the United States has opposed any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side; Washington doesn’t support Taiwan’s independence; it expects the cross-Straits differences to be resolved by peaceful means. US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Indian-American Illinois Democrat Representative Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi have also echoed President Biden during their recent visit to Taiwan.

Beijing does not recognize the RoC’s legitimacy; in its view, the Communists’ victory in 1949 extinguished the Republic, leaving the PRC as the only state representing the Chinese nation

“We can’t have a situation where the Chinese Communist Party militarily uses force against Taiwan, the same way Russia did in Ukraine. And, so we have to bind together with our partners and allies and friends in the region to prevent that from happening”, said Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, the Schaumburg (Illinois) Democrat. 

Not to be cowed down by President Xi’s rather alarmingly aggressive statement, Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen’s office, reminding Xi of Taiwan’s original and official name, Republic of China (RoC) — a sovereign and independent country, has since responded in equally strong and confident words: “Taiwan’s position is firm: no backing down on national sovereignty, no compromise on democracy and freedom, and meeting on the battlefield is absolutely not an option for the two sides of the Taiwan Strait”.

President Tsai’s office repeated: “This is the consensus of Taiwan’s people… national security team was keeping a close eye on developments, Xi Jinping announced at the Communist Party’s 20th Congress, a significant success in curtailment in ‘separatist activism’ in (Taiwan) island’s democracy, which Beijing claims as its own. He added that Beijing would renounce the use of force in ‘unifying’ Taiwan so as to deter outside (read US) interference and splittist elements: ‘The complete unification of the motherland must be realised, and it will be realised. Our strategy proceeds from the premise of the two strategic challenges– geopolitical competition and shared transnational threats”.

TERRITORY CLAIM

Meanwhile, intending to settle the dispute and disagreements peacefully and amicably, Taiwan has said ‘only its people can decide their own future.’ And it has at the same time reiterated that Beijing’s claims are void as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has offered the ‘one-country, two- systems’ model of autonomy, the same formula it used for Hong Kong, which all the mainstream Taiwanese political parties have rejected that solution.

Besides, as several opinion polls in Taiwan have revealed that it (the Hong Kong model) has almost no public support, Taiwan is consistent that ‘only its people can decide their own future and that Beijing’s claims are void as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has never governed any part of this Island.’

A professor of East Asian Politics at North Carolina University, Dr Shelly Rigger, in her book titled Why Taiwan Matters – Small Island, Global Powerhouse has traced how, why and when did Beijing raise the bogey of PRC’s so-called ‘ownership’ claimed on Taiwan, saying that: ‘The PRC maintains that Taiwan has been Chinese territory for centuries, so it is Chinese territory today. Beijing does not recognize the RoC’s legitimacy; in its view, the Communists’ victory in 1949 extinguished the Republic, leaving the PRC as the only state representing the Chinese nation. The fact that the Chinese government does not currently rule Taiwan is a historical anomaly that must be rectified. For decades, the PRC’s position was the inverse of the RoC’s: it swore to ‘liberate’ Taiwan, to annex it to the PRC by force. In 1979, a new generation of PRC leaders determined to open China to the world traded in that policy for a less bellicose objective: ‘peaceful unification.’

Besides, in response to the RoC’s claim on sovereign and independent Taiwan, Chinese former Premier Wen Jiabao, dismissing this claim, had asserted (in 2003) that ‘Chinese people will pay any price to safeguard the unity of the motherland… the price they are willing to pay includes WAR.’ Several other Chinese leaders have made myriad policy statements supporting ‘war as the only solution. Prompted by such orations, Beijing has already sounded the bugle that Taiwan will continue to be the most important Faultline in Xi’s global engagement.’ Therefore, ‘the rest of the world, including India, must assess the implications of this development with a degree of seriousness.’

Half a dozen academics and American political commentators strongly opine that since PRC-RoC armed conflict to settle the issue seems inevitable, the US has openly declared its unbridled support to Taiwan; taking for granted that Beijing is adamant on war

A former Indian diplomat Harsh V Pant similarly cautioned: ‘In a truly imperious manner, Xi Jinping has made it clear that he has no intention of going back on, let alone rethink key strands of his doctrine. From zero-covid policy and Taiwan to his anti-graft campaign and push to Sinicise religion, his verdict is clear: He intends to continue on the path he believes will take his nation to assume its manifest destiny… In fact, his project ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese’ will continue to be the focus for the next five years as he seeks to cement his legacy.’ It seems Xi is indeed enormously proud of the achievements of his two-term presidency plus another five years that he’s assured to fall on his plate.

Here are some facets of Xi’s achievements that he listed in his 2Oth Communist Party inaugural address: ‘China’s GDP has more than doubled to US $17.71 trillion; per capita income has galloped from Chinese Yuan 16,500 to Chinese Yuan 35,100 (2021 figures); decline in birth rates; unemployment rate around 5% in the 16–24 years age groups; defence spending too doubled, and now it’s $208 billion, jumped from $77 billion in 2012; life expectancy rose to record 78.2 years; 13 million urban jobs created; people covered under basic insurance 1.04 billion; housing units built 42 million.

WOLF WARRIOR DIPLOMACY 

That’s why China is being seen with suspicion by many current western and South Asian leaders for its ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ being yoked in grappling with border disputes with South Asian leaders-India included, and on covid-origin and spread, respectively. Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi termed it: ‘Bullies prey on fear; they prey on weakness; and fear of Chinese takeover.

When a high-level US congressional team, led by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan on August 1-2, 2022, US Navy’s warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait. This was the first such passage by the US ships since China also began large-scale military exercises; obviously, a Beijing warning in response to the United States team’s visit to Taiwan. Besides, the US said that the Navy visits were ‘a routine Taiwan Strait transit and that these will continue to operate around Taiwan, despite China’s claims to control the waterways.’ But China’s side put out rather a sly response to it : “Eastern theatre forces remain on high alert, ready to thwart any provocation, it said. Though that was the end of the transitory boil, but, as they say: Coming events cast their shadows in advance.

However, Beijing is not going to sit quietly and relax. And, therefore, America should not overlook what Xi Jinping told the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China about the ‘reunification of Taiwan with the motherland’ Xi said, “In response to separatist activities aimed at ‘Taiwan’s independence and gross provocations of external interference (read US) in Taiwan affairs, we have resolutely fought against separatism and countered interference in Taiwan affairs demonstrating our resolve and ability to safeguard China’s sovereignty, and territorial integrity and to oppose ‘Taiwan independence.’ We have strengthened our strategic initiative for China’s complete reunification and consolidated commitment to the One-China principle within the international community”.

When a high-level US congressional team, led by Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan US Navy’s warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait. This was the first such passage by the US ships since China also began large-scale military exercises

In no uncertain terms, therefore, Xi has stated: ‘We insist on striving never for the prospect of peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity, and maximum efforts… but we will never promise to give up the option to use force, and we reserve the option to take all necessary measures.’ 

President Xi had asked the People’s Liberation Army to be prepared to fight to ‘liberate’ Taiwan, and ‘consolidate’ it with the motherland. Obviously, China means business this time, to wrest Taiwan. An inveterate China watcher, and scholar of East Asian politics, the late Alan M Wachman, who authored two learned volumes on Taiwan, wrote in his 2007 book titled: ‘Why Taiwan? Geostrategic Rationales for China’s Territorial Integrity, sponsored by the East-West Center, Hawaii: ‘Why, at a juncture when the PRC is objectively more secure from foreign aggression than at any moment since early in the nineteenth century, is the PLA surging with such resolve to prepare for the possibility of combat to prevail in a contest about the status of Taiwan? Why is Taiwan worth fighting for? What does Beijing feel is at stake?’

The late author relates that PRC’s two attempts since 1949, when Beijing ‘unwaveringly expressed its views that Taiwan is part of China and China must be unified. That has been the bedrock of its policy… and twice since 1949 its long-term strategy for dealing with the division it seeks to repair has shifted significantly –once at about the time that the PRC and the US normalise diplomatic relations in 1979 and a second time in the early 1990s.’’ Adding, he avers, ‘use of force was PRC’s dominant paradigm… a military campaign to take control of Taiwan planned for the summer of 1950 was derailed for lack of expert planning’. Similar bad war strategizing from 1979 to 1993 did not help, despite the fact that the PRC offered a ‘high degree of autonomy’ within the framework of one country, two systems. Perhaps Taiwan did not trust PRC’s premise. (Incidentally, India, which trusted PRC in settling border disputes, was deceived and is still suffering.) 

Since, PRC ‘operates from the premise that China’s sovereignty is indivisible, and that it resides in the PRC government, headed by Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’—derided by RoC as ‘communist bandits’ (gongfei – in Chinese).

WHAT NEXT

All kinds of proposals, ideas, suggestions and predictions are being offered to unlock the Taiwan imbroglio without war: these can broadly be divided into three categories: peaceful reunification with PRC; a combination of China’s use of force, followed by a peaceful negotiation with Taiwan; and the forceful takeover of Taiwan. 

Besides, others who advocate: 

1. ‘Virtues of ambiguity’ to continue with an amicable solution emerging over a period of time, say 20-30 years; 

2. ‘When Beijing might aspire to absorb the island militarily, but Taiwan aspired to transform the mainland by the inevitability of its example.’

Some feel China could invade the self-governed island as soon as this year, as China is ‘building the capability to seize Taiwan by 2023. Half a dozen academics and American political commentators strongly opine that since PRC-RoC armed conflict to settle the issue seems inevitable, the US has openly declared its unbridled support to Taiwan; taking for granted that Beijing is adamant on war. 

The stark reality of the time is that ‘Taiwan matters for America, America matters for Taiwan, part of Asia matters for America too’

Though the US has a security pact with Taiwan to supply it with sufficient hardware to defend itself. It’s being said that Washington is considering many plans to produce weapons jointly with Taiwan. There’s a Sino-American Defence Treaty (SAMDT), formally a Mutual Defence Treaty between US and PRC signed between the US and RoC-Taiwan Effective 1955-1980; currently, however, there exists a defence treaty between US and Taiwan.

Also, twice in recent months, President Biden has publicly affirmed a US commitment to defend Taiwan should China attack. A retired US Navy admiral, and also the former supreme allied commander of NATO James Stavridis has affirmed that ‘a US-China war over Taiwan isn’t happening anytime soon. He adds Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen is a steely leader…Taiwanese will fight and fight hard. The geography of the island –mountain and forest –is a nightmare for an invader, especially one that mounts the assault by sea. Howsoever hard the situation is in conflict, Xi will not want to fight with the US leaders for some years. ‘The US still has time to construct a coherent strategy – militarily, diplomatically, economically and technologically – that could deter such a conflict. The clock is ticking, but the hour of maximum danger almost certainly lies some years ahead.’ 

The stark reality of the time is that ‘Taiwan matters for America, America matters for Taiwan, part of Asia matters for America too.’ The solution seems to be paused safely in the womb of Time; we may have to wait till the right moment arrives. Until then, we may have to sit with our fingers crossed.

M R DUA

The author was a professor and head of print journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, for nearly two decades. He also taught journalism at different universities in California, Calicut, and Chandigarh. He was editor of publications, Union Labour Ministry. He was also director of JIMS, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, and Institute of Media, Gurugram. He has authored five books on media issues. His writings have appeared in national newspapers, magazines, and media research journals in India and USA.

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