By Jonathan Power
“And then, there is Taiwan, the issue administration officials and national security experts agree is most likely to tip the scales from power struggle to military conflict. At the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, officials are trying to figure out if the long-time American policy of “strategic ambiguity”—providing political and military support to Taiwan, while not explicitly promising to defend it from a Chinese attack—has run its course. Pentagon officials say the matter could come to a head within six years,” wrote New York Times recently.
Those, like some highly placed people in the US government and Congress, who say it is inevitable that Taiwan with its population of 24 million will one day return as part of mainland China rather as Hong King did, have really missed a beat. There is simply no likelihood that an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese will ever agree to that. The president and leader of the Democratic Progressive party, Ms Tsai Ing-wen, will not bend towards China although at the same time she works to keep in check the lobby of a minority who seek independence.
A poll in July 2009, showed that 82.8 % of respondents consider that China and Taiwan are two separate countries. There can be no “one China” as Beijing wants. Most voters appear to want to keep the status quo, neither part of China, nor formally independent from it. However, China which used to tolerate this compromise now appears to be pushing for unity with renewed purpose.
In the Chinese government’s eyes it has two rebellious provinces on its plate—Tibet and Taiwan, although one could add Hong Kong and the rebellious Uighurs who inhabit a region, Xinjiang, in the far north, abutting the border with Russia. In Tibet protestors have clashed with police and soldiers. In Taiwan there is no occupation but over 1200 Chinese non-nuclear missiles are pointed at its heart. (Taiwan has around 400 aimed at the mainland.)
The Tibetans, by and large, no longer try and argue for independence, but even the notion of autonomy is not acceptable to Beijing. In marked contrast, while confronting Taiwan and its significant independence movement, the Chinese offer autonomy as long as Taiwan will accept sovereign rule During the last 20 years Taiwan’s China debate has matured at a fast rate.
Ms Tsai’s predecessor, President Chen Shui-bian, may not have won many converts to his independence line (which is supported by about 30% of the voters) but he undoubtedly shifted the terms of the debate. He persuaded the electorate that they must never kowtow to China. At the same time they have been convinced by the present government that Taiwan should not provoke China and that Taiwan must increase its economic links, its direct air flights and an influx of significant numbers of Chinese tourists. Now Beijing is cutting back on some of this.
In broad terms it might seem that this is just the policy of the status quo—neither independence nor union. In many aspects this is so. But it is not the same status quo as 20 years ago—it is both more independent (not independence) minded and more conciliatory.
It is a great moral and political wrong that Taiwan is excluded from the UN from where it was summarily ejected when President Richard Nixon made his historic peace with Mao Tse-tung. But Taiwan has also carved out a great deal of economic and even political space for itself. It has become, despite a population less than half the size of Britain’s, an industrial and technological giant with over $345 billion of foreign exports each year. Its investments of capital, machinery and personnel in China largely made possible China’s own technological revolution. It has a fine national health service, only second in the world to Sweden’s, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Politically it becomes more mature by the year. Its democracy appears to have put down deeper roots than many much older ones. The human rights abuses prevalent under the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek and his son are history. The press is sophisticated and the NGO sector thrives. Justice is honest, if at times erratic.
The Beijing dragon can and does growl. China’s president Xi Jinping has been much more forceful than his predecessors. But would China dare bite? In the last few years China has built up its navy and increased the number of missiles pointing at Taiwan. Nevertheless, China surely must doubt whether it could never swallow mighty, if small, Taiwan. It knows that the US with its off-shore submarines and surface ships and F-15s based in nearby Okinawa would probably never let it try.
The Chinese should think hard about their historical claim to Taiwan. Descendants of the original Taiwanese tribes still exist—they are found in certain professions—the military, policemen, sportsmen and pop musicians. Scholars reckon that a majority of the population has aboriginal inheritance. They did not voluntarily submit to Chinese rule. To claim that China owns Taiwan because of historical settlement is questionable. It is a tenuous one. It might not pass muster in the International Court of Justice (the World Court).
Taiwan was settled by Han Chinese in the early 18th century—the Hakka people. But their descendants are concentrated in the northwest and a few towns in the far south. Only 10 to 15 % of Taiwan’s population are considered to be “mainlanders”. In 1949 when the Nationalists were defeated in the civil war around 600,000 soldiers and a million civilians fled to Taiwan. They took over the politics of the island and supressed native languages in favour of Mandarin Chinese. The main opposition party today is descended from these followers of Chiang Kai-shek. These days it isn’t a very popular party. Moreover, even its leaders these days say they don’t want their island to be taken over by China—a big change for them.
If China thinks it has a good case why hasn’t it taken Taiwan to the World Court? One can see why.
If China one day does move towards democracy it could be that the Taiwanese will be less fearful about a closer relationship, although I doubt if they would ever give up their independence. They might then accept a European Union-type relationship.
Taiwan does exceedingly well on its own. Its democracy is flourishing. It is a self-confident country. It keeps striding towards freedom. China can never chew it up and swallow it.