By Jonathan Power*
Those, like some highly placed people in the U.S. 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 Kong did, have really missed a beat. There is simply no likelihood that an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese will ever agree to that.
The leader of the traditionally independence-minded Democratic Progressive party, President Tsai Ing-wen, now plays down independence and argues for the status quo. President Xi Jinping’s recent speech reiterated China’s long held view that it would use force if necessary to prevent Taiwan’s formal independence. He is shooting down a bird that will never fly.
This toing and froing over the same words has been going on for many years. What has changed that pushes Xi to start being aggressive again? It is two things: the deteriorating relationship with the U.S. and Ms Tsai’s clear repudiation of the so-called “1992 Consensus” that positioned Taiwan and China as being part of the same country with each side allowed its own interpretation of what China is.
Ms Tsai says that China these days is defining consensus as “one country, two systems” – its formula for Hong Kong. Even the opposition party, the Kuomitang, traditionally more pro China, says that a Hong Kong style arrangement would not be supported by most Taiwanese.
In the Chinese government’s eyes it has two rebellious provinces on its plate – Tibet and Taiwan. In Tibet Chinese occupation keeps expectations in check. In Taiwan there is no occupation but over 1000 Chinese missiles are pointed at its heart.
The Tibetans, by and large, no longer try and argue for independence, but even the notion of autonomy is not acceptable to Beijing.
During the last 20 years Taiwan’s China debate has matured at a fast rate. Ms Tsai’s predecessor, 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 the electorate has been convinced by the present government that Taiwan should not provoke China and that Taiwan must continue increasing its economic links, its direct air flights and the encouragement of Chinese tourists.
In broad terms it might seem that this is the policy of keeping to the status quo – neither independence nor union. In many aspects this is so. But it is not the same status quo as 18 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 Zedong.
Nevertheless, Taiwan has 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 $150 billion of foreign exports each year. Its investments of capital, machinery and personnel in China largely made possible China’s own technological revolution.
Besides, Taiwan has a fine national health service, only second in the world to Sweden’s, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. However, its income distribution has worsened, as it has in nearly all the industrialised countries.
Politically Taiwan 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 does growl. But it wouldn’t dare bite, despite China’s arms build up and its missiles pointing at Taiwan. China surely knows it could never swallow mighty, if small, Taiwan. And it knows that the U.S. with its off shore submarines and F-15s based in nearby Okinawa would never let it try.
If one day China 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.
The Chinese, for their part, should think hard about their historical claim to Taiwan. It is a tenuous one and would not pass muster in the International Court of Justice (the World Court).
Taiwan does exceedingly well on its own. Its democracy flourishes. It is a self-confident country. It is striding towards freedom. No speech from President Xi can change this. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 January 2018]
* For 17 years Jonathan Power was a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune – and a member of the Independent Commission on Disarmament, chaired by the prime minister of Sweden, Olof Palme. He forwarded this and his previous Viewpoints for publication in IDN-INPS Copyright: Jonathan Power. Website www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com.