The US, under Trump, reconfirms the One China policy, but China could minimize disruptions with recognition for Taiwan.
By Humphrey Hawksley*
With a phone call and a Tweet in December, Donald Trump shook the bedrock of relations with China and Taiwan by questioning the longstanding One China policy. Three weeks into Trump’s presidency, an unusually cordial telephone conversation followed. China’s President Xi Jinping asked specifically if the United States will honor the One China policy. Trump withdrew the implied threat.
But a seed was planted, and the issue could emerge again. By questioning the validity of the longstanding One China policy, Trump, in effect, had declared the policy a bargaining chip. This presented the pragmatic, forward-looking and successful Taiwan a dilemma on how to respond if, sometime in the future, the United States did take steps toward Taiwan’s formal recognition.
And with Trump’s phone chat with President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan may have returned to top of the pecking order for China’s various territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific.
Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, DPP, currently in power, has campaigned for distinct Taiwanese identity since its inception in 1986, drawing back from demand for full recognition. Anything moving toward independence represents a flaming red line on national sovereignty that Beijing vows to never accept.
Should tensions flare, China’s maritime disputes elsewhere – mostly involving uninhabited or garrisoned rocks and reefs – would look like a spat in a playground. Taiwan is a modern industrialized society of 23 million well-educated, free-thinking people.
Scenarios range from the US becoming embroiled in a conflict with China or, if occupied, Taiwan launching a ferocious, disciplined insurgency that could inflame unrest an spread dissent to the mainland.
Taiwan was split from the mainland in 1949, when communist armies swept into Beijing and defeated nationalists, led by the pro-American Chiang Kai-shek, fled. China’s declaration that it will one day win Taiwan back is drummed into citizens from primary school and embedded in the national psyche.
For the United States, the One China policy came into effect in 1979, seven years after President Richard Nixon’s historic visit. No government, nor the United Nations and many international institutions, recognize both Beijing and Taipei. The policy has kept peace, but the threat of conflict has never vanished.
Since the 1996 standoff, Beijing and Taipei have largely ignored differences and forged a dynamic trading relationship, particularly in high-tech industries. As China’s raced to modernize, disparities between the two in many areas became close to negligible. The crisscrossing of flights, ferries and shipping dilute a hard truth that the Taiwan Strait is a heavily defended frontier that separates, for want of a better comparison, the free world from the authoritarian one.
Had Trump’s move come during the rule of the now opposition Kuomintang, KMT, Taiwan’s conundrum would not be so complex. KMT’s policy is to befriend China with an eventual goal of reunification. But it lost power a year ago precisely because voters wanted to ease away from what they saw as a too cozy relationship with Beijing.
The DPP position on full independence has softened, and it has abandoned a once-held position to offer people a referendum which, depending on political winds of the day, might well yield a separatist vote. Even so, Beijing’s natural suspicion of the DPP has cooled relations. The DPP’s conundrum is what to do should the unpredictable Trump resurrect his threat.
Under any other presidency, such a scenario could reasonably be shelved as farfetched. Taipei believes it would be irresponsible not to plan for it with Trump.
Lin Cheng-yi, deputy minister at the Mainland Affairs Council, admits the risk. “We would have to make all kinds of preparations. But if there were some kind of offer like that, the government here would not reject this proposal.”
The prospect of having to choose so starkly between apparent American benevolence and Chinese wrath raises questions, too, about how Taiwan should position itself for the long term – an alliance with the distant United States or ongoing efforts to strengthen ties with China – and for how long will it be possible to do both?
As tensions over South and East China Sea disputes continue, many smaller countries of East Asia face the same choice.
Edgy moods in Beijing and Washington are not reflected on the bustling streets of Taipei nor along the windswept coastline of Kinmen, an outlying Taiwanese island that is barely a mile from the Chinese coastal city of Xiamen.
For 30 years until the start of the One China policy, Kinmen was the target of artillery attacks from the mainland. It remains Taiwan’s vulnerable first line of defense but is also part war museum and part duty-free shopping destination for mainland Chinese.
Ferries packed with tourists, sports teams and schoolchildren make the 30-minute crossing to the slow- paced island with 4,000 visitors a day at peak times. Confidence is so high that Kinmen people invest heavily in Xiamen real estate, where they have set up numerous businesses and Taiwan runs a hospital to treat Kinmen patients.
The main economy for the island’s 60,000 people is the export of Kaoliang, a luxury sorghum wine, mostly to China. And a Taiwanese shopping magnate has invested $2.5 billion in Kinmen to build Asia’s biggest duty-free mall with a five-star hotel including a small conference room where mainland and Taiwanese officials can gather for informal, impromptu.
This island presents a snapshot of the Taiwanese predicament. Living standards, economies and mindsets are an age apart from the impoverished and battle-weary adversaries that faced each other on either side of the strait in 1949. Yet, the bottom-line political position has barely shifted.
The US Taiwan Relations Act is deliberately vague as to when and how the United States would protect Taiwan against China, and the tapestry of the Beijing-Washington relationship is now far more intricate than when the law passed in 1979.
For the United States to activate Taiwan as mechanism in wider foreign policy goals would be risky, to say the least. But, ironically, the brief upset that occurred with Trump also offers an opportunity for Beijing and Taipei to take Taiwan off the table before any hostilities erupt between the two larger powers.
It would be tricky. President Tsai Ing-wen initiated the December phone call to Trump, and the lackluster economy has put her own popularity under pressure. For his part, Xi must show he has control over the Taiwan situation in preparing for this year’s 19th Party Congress.
The most advantageous change would come by Beijing speeding up its own international recognition of Taiwan. Over the years, China gradually agreed to Taiwan’s membership of institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation and the Olympics.
China could offer more, while Taiwan, with its reputation of painstaking patience, works out how best to pursue both peace and a seat in the United Nations.
Continually under threat and internationally isolated, Taiwan has moved from dictatorship to energetic democracy without spilling blood. It has deep experience in navigating the hostile waters that might lie ahead. It might also have wise counsel for other small nations confronting a rising China and America’s new unpredictability.
*Humphrey Hawksley is a former BBC Beijing bureau chief. His next book, Asian Waters: America, China and the Global Paradox, is out in October