While China claims that Taiwan is a region of China (‘One China’), Taiwan rightly says it is a separate independent country, with its own Constitution, democratically elected leaders, and about 300,000 active troops.
In September 2020, Washington sent the highest-level State Department official in decades to visit Taiwan. Beijing warned the US not to send any wrong signals to “Taiwan independence” elements to avoid severe damage to China-US relations. The three US Senators who visited Taiwan in June 2021, carrying a token gift of vaccines, are members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, two crucial sectors. The message is clear. US-China relations are so bad that Washington is now always happy to poke China in the eye, whether it is the Quad, or the virus, or G7, or EU, or Nato, or Russia, Xinjiang, Tibet, or Taiwan. In March 2021, two top lawmakers introduced a bill in the House of Representatives calling for the US to resume formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan and end the outdated and counter-productive “one- China” policy.
While China claims that Taiwan is a region of China (“One China”), Taiwan rightly says it is a separate independent country, with its own Constitution, democratically elected leaders, and about 300,000 active troops. The Taiwan question is not a domestic affair between China and Taiwan—it is a much wider issue of international law and custom, not that China cares two hoots about international norms. If any country formally recognizes Taiwan, it is China that breaks relations with that country, not the other way around.
In 1971, when some nations wanted Communist China inside the UN, the US argued that the United Nations should take cognizance of the existence of both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, and both should be represented. In October 1971, the UN recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as “the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations” and booted out the Republic of China but the One-China demand is not a UN resolution nor a UN policy. Over a dozen nations have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. For too long has the world meekly acquiesced to Chinese bullying, isolating a nation whose only fault is that it prefers democracy to Communism.
Remember North and South Vietnam, East and West Germany, North and South Korea, Indonesia and East Timor, North and South Sudan? We had, and have, relations with both!
If US-China relations continue to deteriorate, I would not be surprised if those loonies in Beijing ask countries that seek Chinese largesse to sever ties with Washington!
The US is intensifying its outreach to Taiwan, supplying weapons, and reassuring Taipei of its continued support. In early November 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo caused quite an uproar, when in an interview he stated that “Taiwan has not been a part of China”. He was referring to the fact that since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has never had any sovereignty over Taiwan. Although Xi may not have sent out a save-the-date card for his invasion of Taiwan, America is unlikely to hand Taiwan over to a state that is increasingly aggressive towards its neighbours and Orwellian towards its own.
The relationship between China and Taiwan has been complex due to the dispute on the political status of Taiwan after its administration was transferred from Japan in 1945 at the end of World War II and the subsequent split of China into two in 1949 as a result of the civil war.
In May 2020, a retired influential Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force Major General Qiao Liang (who co-authored the 1999 book, Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America) warned that China’s top priority was the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation (China constantly plays the victim card), not the incorporation of Taiwan. “The Taiwan problem cannot be solved with rashness and radicalism” and he specifically cautioned against aggression. According to Qiao, an invasion could prompt America and its allies to take retaliatory measures that could seriously damage China’s interests: through sanctions, embargoes, and one of the most powerful weapons, the US dollar, the predominant global reserve currency, thus wiping out the gains of decades of economic development.
Why does China covet Taiwan? Is it just national pride or is it lebensraum (living space) for its teeming populace? Or, as is most likely, is it to avoid the claustrophobia that comes from its geography. It has territorial disputes with 19 neighbours.
Look at China’s eastern seaboard, the only one it has. If push comes to shove, Taiwan and Japan and South Korea can block China’s access to the Sea of Japan and hence to the North Pacific Ocean, while there are many choke points in its entry to the Indian Ocean, and the frozen Arctic is too far away. So just as China colonized Pakistan to get overland access to the Arabian Sea, it wants to digest Taiwan to reduce its maritime insecurity.
It put forward a formula, known as “one country, two systems”, under which Taiwan would be given significant autonomy if it accepted Chinese reunification. This system was established in Hong Kong to entice the Taiwanese people back to the mainland. Taiwan rejected the offer, but relaxed rules on visits to and investment in China. In 2019-2020, China stupidly crushed Hong Kong’s autonomy and introduced a national security law, and many Taiwanese said: See, you cannot trust Beijing. A March 2021 opinion poll commissioned by the Taiwanese government shows that currently the majority of Taiwanese support the approach of “safeguarding national sovereignty” and feel Taiwanese, rather than Chinese, whether or not independence is ever officially declared. The world too increasingly accepts that Taiwan is not Communist China. There might be One Communist China, but it does not include Taiwan.
In the early years, military conflicts between the two Chinas continued, while diplomatically they competed to be the “legitimate government of China”. The question regarding the political and legal status of Taiwan is now choice between political unification with mainland China or de jure Taiwanese independence.
Relations between China and Taiwan started improving in the 1980s. In 1991, Taipei also proclaimed the war with the People’s Republic of China was over. While political progress has been slow, links between the two peoples and economies have grown sharply. Taiwanese companies have invested about $60bn in China, and up to one million Taiwanese people now live there, many running Taiwanese factories. Some Taiwanese people worry their economy is now dependent on China. Others believe that closer business ties make Chinese military action less likely, because of the cost to China’s own economy. A controversial trade agreement sparked the “Sunflower Movement” in 2014, where students and activists occupied Taiwan’s Parliament protesting against China’s growing influence over Taiwan.
Whether it is a bluff or a genuine threat of invasion, the increase in Chinese military activity in Taiwan over the last few months has caused global concern. In August-September 2020, the Chinese Foreign Minister got egg all over his face in Berlin when he threatened the Czech Republic for its Senate President’s visit to Taiwan (“you’ve crossed a red line”). His German counterpart warned him against “threats” toward European allies, saying that EU offers our international partners respect, and expects the exact same from them.
The Chinese military is not omnipotent. If it were, it would have taken Taiwan and parts of Vietnam long ago. Remember it got hammered by India in Galwan a year ago.
After Donald Trump won the 2016 US election, the President of Taiwan spoke to him on the phone—a break with US policy set in 1979, when formal relations were cut.
China has used its economic leverage to weaken Taipei’s position in international organizations and to ensure that countries, corporations, universities, and individuals—everyone, everywhere—adhered to its understanding of the “one China” policy, threatening those that refused to comply.
Perhaps Xi’s military advisers are telling him he has been gifted a once-in-a-generation opportunity to annex Taiwan, while the world’s hands are tied by the Covid-19 pandemic. History is littered with examples of rash military adventurism. In 1999, Nawaz Sharif’s army chief, Pervez Musharraf, flattered him that he would be called Fateh e Kashmir and be equal to Mohammad Ali Jinnah. So Kargil happened. Both those worthies are in exile.
The 23 million people of Taiwan have lived under the Chinese threat for over 70 years. They understand the strange paradox of Taiwan’s existence: even as China’s military might grows, invasion does not necessarily come any closer. In late March, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense said incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ had become so frequent that it would no longer scramble to meet the aircraft each time and would instead track them with missiles. The decision was made on the assessment that the flights were consuming resources and increasing the risk of a miscalculation or accident. China would be very stupid to invade Taiwan, using the virus coronavirus as a “tactical window”. Who said Communist China is logical? According to a former Taiwan Defence Minister, if China launches a sea assault on Taiwan, its forces will have to cross the 180km Taiwan Strait with hundreds of thousands of soldiers and supplies, facing aerial and naval bombardment and, if they managed to land, strong local resistance. Such a manoeuvre would be “more difficult than a D-Day Landing” due to Taiwan’s geography, rough waters, and unreliable weather patterns. Its coastline also offers few suitable beaches, he said, for landing armoured personnel carriers, tanks, artillery. If China swallows Taiwan, it could become a PLA naval base that would threaten not only Japan but also US security interests.
Instead of invasion, China is trying soft power action, including cyber warfare, psychological warfare, media warfare by penetrating Taiwan to influence, mislead and divide the population.
President Joe Biden’s administration has said its commitment to Taiwan is “rock solid”. In the first few days of Joe Biden’s presidency, Taiwan reported a “large incursion” by Chinese warplanes over two days. Then on 12 April, the Taiwanese government said China flew the largest number of military jets into its air defence zone for a year. In response, US Admiral John Aquilino, head of the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific command, warned that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan “is much closer to us than most think”.
From the 17th century, significant numbers of migrants started arriving from China, often fleeing turmoil or hardship. Most were Hoklo Chinese from Fujian (Fukien) province or Hakka Chinese, largely from Guangdong. The descendants of these two migrations are the largest demographic groups on the island.
Taiwan’s per capita GDP is three times China’s, and it is democratic.
Despite the end of hostilities in the two Taiwan Straits crises of the 1950s, the two sides have never signed any agreement or treaty to officially end the war, even though there have been fairly high-level contacts between the two sides.
The KMT ruled Taiwan as a single-party state for forty years, until democratic reforms in the 1980s, which led to the first-ever direct presidential election in 1996. During the post-war period, Taiwan experienced rapid industrialization and economic growth known as the “Taiwan Miracle”, and was one of the “Four Asian Tigers”.
In November 2012, the UN General Assembly upgraded Palestine to “non-member observer state” status, de facto recognition of the sovereign state of Palestine. A precedent exists.
In June 2021, Communist China is more isolated that ever. As recent geopolitics show, US, G7, NATO, EU, Quad, Russia, ASEAN all distrust PingPong. It is the right time for Taiwan to come in from the cold.