Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 26 August 2019

Despite Xi Jinping's bluster, China is unlikely to move on Taiwan

Western nations have seen the Chinese president's words as an attack on freedom and democracy, but they are simply symbolic of a more assertive stance on his nation's core interests

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviewing the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy fleet in the South China Sea. Li Gang / Xinhua / AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping reviewing the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy fleet in the South China Sea. Li Gang / Xinhua / AP

President Xi Jinping’s speech last week, during which he said that Taiwan “must and will” be reunited with China, and didn’t rule out using force to do so, unsurprisingly made the headlines around the world. The language was strident and unequivocal, and to the Western countries that see Taiwan as a successful capitalist democracy, the threat appeared to be levelled against the precise freedoms and way of life they cherish.

Within days tensions appeared to have escalated, as Mr Xi subsequently told China's Central Military Commission that they needed to "strengthen their sense of urgency, crisis and battle" and prepare for armed conflict, while Taiwan's President Tsai Ing Wen called for the international community's support and said that Beijing must "renounce the use of force against us."But Mr Xi’s comments were almost certainly less suggestive of any imminent move, and his insistence on unification is far more justified than imagined by those who view Taiwan as a plucky island nation standing up to a bullying Communist state.

Firstly, any who believe that Taiwan and China are, or ought to be, two separate sovereign countries are in the minority, at least in diplomatic, scholarly and governmental circles. Historically, Taiwan has been part of China since 1683 when it was taken over by the ruling Qing dynasty. Its division from the mainland dates from 1949, when the nationalist Kuomintang party, under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, retreated there as it became clear that it was losing the civil war against the Communists led by Mao Zedong. The Kuomintang insisted it continued to be the government of the Republic of China (ROC), which remains Taiwan’s official name to this day. The fiction was maintained that the ROC still had sovereignty over the whole of China, including Taiwan, while the Communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) makes the same claim.

Although many may not realise this, the idea of “One China” actually has overwhelming international support. The US position is a little ambiguous – it does not recognise the PRC’s right to rule Taiwan – but it pays at least lip service to “One China”, as do the UK, Japan, Canada and others (even if they use words such as “take note of” or “acknowledge” rather than “support” the position). Diplomatically, Taiwan is isolated. Owing to China’s insistence, it is not even a member of the United Nations. So the idea that the island should gain formal independence, while supported officially by the Taiwan’s current Democratic Progressive Party government, is very much an outlier internationally. And even within what is often referred to as “Chinese Taipei” (a terminology that avoids recognising Taiwan as a separate country), the opposition Kuomintang – which last held the presidency from 2008 to 2016 – still supports the idea of “One China”.

There is an argument that when the ROC was established in 1912, with the overthrow of the empire, Taiwan was under Japanese rule, having been ceded after the Sino-Japanese War in 1895. So, technically it was never part of the republic. But this was a distinction that clearly meant little to Chiang Kai-shek when he moved his nationalist forces to the island. And I would certainly argue that none of the “unequal treaties” forced upon China during the “century of humiliation” were legitimate or deserved honouring. Taiwan is part of China – as nearly all informed and legal opinion agrees.

The second reason not to take too bellicose an interpretation of Mr Xi’s comments is that his project of “national rejuvenation” has long been more overtly and openly nationalistic. He is less inclined to hide his country’s power and success under a bushel, and a more assertive stance on China’s key “core interests” is now routine. His speech marked the 40th anniversary of improving ties with Taiwan. He could not possibly be expected to give an inch on such an occasion, and just as with Russia (although less so), the nationalist rhetoric is likely to be ramped up as the economy slows.

At the same time, China has for decades shown huge strategic patience over Taiwan, as it has over other issues such as its border disputes with India. Few believe that the People’s Liberation Army is poised to cross the Taiwan Strait in an act of aggression. In that unlikely event, how would the US – which sells billions of dollars of arms to Taiwan’s armed forces – react? President George W Bush explicitly said that America would have an obligation to defend the Taiwanese against an attack by China, and the Pentagon would surely echo that view today.

But with the isolation-inclined and transactional Donald Trump in the White House, who knows if he could not be persuaded that this was essentially an internal Chinese affair – especially if a few plum trade concessions accompanied a call from President Xi?

The truth is that it would be reckless for Taiwan to press for independence. That would be, as Mr Xi put it, “an adverse current from history and a dead end”. Only a handful of countries still recognise the country diplomatically, and as it is China has been peeling those off, with Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador breaking ties with Taipei last year alone. Time is not on Taiwan’s side.

It is understandable that Westerners value its democracy and autonomy and fear that both would be at risk if it entered into a “one country, two systems” arrangement with China. Few, however, try to stand in Beijing’s shoes. Why should it tolerate the independence of a renegade province over which it has an undeniable historic claim, when Spain, for instance, is so fearful of independence efforts that it sends its secessionist politicians to jail? There is a double standard applied to China by critics who don’t like its form of government. But that is for the people of China to decide – and no one can doubt that one day those people will include the 23-million strong population of Taiwan, too.

Updated: January 7, 2019 10:14 PM