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Beijing’s Primary Foreign Policy Agenda: The Taiwan Strait Or The China Seas? – Analysis

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By Lucio Blanco Pitlo III

While tensions in the East and South China Seas had received much limelight in recent times, outgoing President Hu Jintao, in his just concluded report to the 18th Party Communist Party of China Congress, clearly identified where Beijing’s foreign policy priority still resides – notably in the peaceful reunification with Taiwan.

China’s persistent maritime row with its neighbours never figured in the lengthy report made by Hu. The only possible references, that may have any bearing to it, were his mention of the development of a deep sea submersible as one of the country’s major technological breakthroughs; and, the huge significance he attached with maritime security. Whilst these two may indeed have serious implications on the on-going sea disputes – as can be seen in the China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s efforts to drill deeper into the South China Sea (SCS) for oil and gas; as well as in the recent empowerment of Hainan provincial authorities to embark upon vessels believed to be illegally encroaching on Chinese territorial waters – cross-Strait relations still received more weight, meriting a separate section in the report. Thus, although there remains some debate as to whether the SCS had already become a core interest of China, there is no contention that Taiwan had long been, and still remains, a core interest for the Beijing leadership.

People's Republic of China
People’s Republic of China

Technically, both de facto independent countries Beijing and Taipei, traditionally competed with one another for the sovereign right of legitimately representing the Chinese people. Chiang Kai Shek initially vowed to retake the mainland from his island bastion of Taiwan but present realities may have rendered this objective already obsolete on account of its impossibility. But, while many in Taiwan had begun to drop the idea of ever uniting China under its banner (despite Constitutional constraints in doing so), Beijing continued to regard Taiwan as a renegade province that has to be reunited with the mainland by all means, if necessary. However, in recent years, China had toned down its rhetoric and began to take a more pragmatic and long-term approach in dealing with Taiwan.

Eventual reunification is a shared goal for both Beijing and Taipei, although some groups in Taiwan have begun to give up this desire and instead, work for full independence. Beijing expressed its firm determination to prevent such a scenario saying that “[w]e resolutely oppose any separatist attempt for Taiwan independence. The Chinese people will never allow anyone or any force to separate Taiwan from the motherland by any means. Any separatist attempt for Taiwan independence, which undermines the common interests of the compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, is doomed to fail (emphasis supplied).” This message is obviously directed not only to political groups in Taiwan aspiring for independence, but also to other countries who may support such a move, including the US, which had long extended external military support to Taiwan; including controversial arms sales to beef up the island’s defences and sending its naval fleet on several occasions to ward off perceived intimidation or sabre rattling on the part of Beijing.

Beijing attaches great importance to cross-strait relations, calling for peaceful reunification under the “one country, two systems” set up. Hu, in his report, reiterated China’s readiness “to conduct exchanges, dialogue and cooperation with any political party in Taiwan as long as it does not seek Taiwan independence and recognizes the one-China principle.” There are various prognostics on a post-reunification Taiwan. One is that Beijing may offer a Special Administrative Region (SAR) status with a great degree of autonomy from the central government, a similar privilege presently being enjoyed by Hong Kong and Macao since they were handed over to China by their earlier European colonial administrators. If the same principle were applied to Taiwan, it would mean that its own people will govern it, suggesting strong internal self-governance for the island. Whether this would mean the continuation of multiparty democracy and popular elections in Taiwan is subject to debate. But, so long as “China’s sovereignty, security and development interests” are served and the “long-term prosperity and stability” of Taiwan are assured, Beijing may be willing to compromise with the governance setup for the island.

When Hong Kong was about to revert to mainland China, many naysayers predicted the former British crown colony’s economic downfall as a vibrant financial and economic hub, saying it may become just like the rest of China – a tight socialist country with a command economy. But history has proven them wrong. Again, the same commitment to uphold the “one country, two systems” policy has also been effectively adhered to in the case of Macao. The continued economic success of both Hong Kong and Macao reinforce Beijing’s commitment to uphold autonomy and bolster mutually beneficial economic ties and cooperation in different fields between the mainland and the two SARs. Beijing reaffirmed that “[t]he central government will act in strict accordance with the basic laws of [SARs].” These developments were not lost to Taipei.

Recent years have witnessed a warming of cross-straits relations, especially after the assumption of President Ma Ying-jeou to replace his pro-independence predecessor, former President Chen Shui-bian, under whose administration tensions across the Strait resurfaced. Amongst the notable strides made since then, was the establishment of “direct and two-way links of mail service, transport and trade”, as well as the implementation of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, with terms largely favorable to Taiwan. Beijing seems bent on winning the hearts and minds of the people of Taiwan through economic incentives; and enhanced cultural contacts and people-to-people exchanges. Hu’s report also made mention of “consultation on an equal footing” and the “establishment of a “cross-Straits confidence-building mechanism for military security.” All these are aimed at creating better conditions conducive for peaceful reunification.

Through the years, Beijing may have realized that economic forces may win what military power may not (although to this day, hundreds of mainland missiles are still directed towards the island). To this end, the mainland had stepped up its efforts to reach out to Taiwan to show its sincerity and commitment. But while more has to be done, the milestones reached in cross-straits ties deserve to be appreciated. The goal of unification may not yet be in sight, but China is in it for the long haul with much enthusiasm. As President Hu Jintao said, “[t]o resolve the Taiwan question and achieve the complete reunification of China is an irresistible historical process (emphasis supplied).”

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III
Graduate Student, University of the Philippines
E-mail:[email protected]



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IPCS

IPCS

IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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