Taiwan’s fate was influenced by events in Korea once before: When North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung attacked South Korea in June 1950, then-US president Harry Truman sent the US Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait, thereby preventing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from attacking Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) troops, which had just retreated to Taiwan. The PRC subsequently sent its troops across the Yalu River to assist Kim, who had been losing ground quickly, thus prolonging the conflict that only technically ended in 1953. This cemented an ambiguous status quo, but did not resolve the situation in Korea nor the debate on Taiwan’s future.
In the subsequent decades, there were other parallels: Both Taiwan and South Korea suffered under strict regimes; in 1979, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) cracked down on protesters in the Kaohsiung Incident, while in 1980 South Korea went through the trauma of the Gwangju Uprising. In the late 1980s, the paths of the two countries ran parallel again and both made a transition to democracy, which eventually led to the election of former political prisoners as presidents: Kim Dae-jung in South Korea and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in Taiwan.
In the recent past, the two countries displayed another parallel through accommodation with an old adversary: South Korea’s “Sunshine Policy” with the North; and President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) engagement with China.
South Korea’s “peace” with the North has now come to a rude ending with the sinking of its corvette Cheonan by the North and an increase in tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
What are the lessons and implications for the Taiwan-China relationship?
To analyze this, we need to look at some fundamental questions: Has the nature of the opposing regime changed in any fundamental way? Many observers argue that China is changing significantly. They say that it is now a more open society, which is more engaged with the rest of the world. This may be true, but the fundamental objectives of the Chinese Communist Party has remained the same — retain power at all cost and force others to play by Beijing’s rules.
Chinese leaders seem unwilling to grant Taiwan any international space or room for maneuver, while they continue to appear intent on forcing their will on Taiwan through military means. The present “rapprochement” has not led to any slowdown of the People’s Liberation Army military buildup or reduction of the ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan, now estimated at 1,400.
Other “early warning” signs are China’s response to the crises in Tibet and East Turkestan (Xinjiang) over the past years: Harsh repression is the only answer Beijing knows how to use in response to the widespread discontent with Chinese rule, while heavy-handedness is also the only way it deals with its own dissidents, such as Falun Gong and underground churches.
Other telltale signs are China’s unwillingness to be helpful in sanctions against Iran or action against North Korea and — the six-party talks have gone on for years with very little obvious result. If it wanted to, China could have helped resolve the issue in a matter of weeks. After all, it is North Korea’s major supplier of aid, food and oil.
North Korea is not the only Chinese protege. Beijing has held a protective hand over several other notoriously dictatorial regimes around the world — the regime in Myanmar, holding the democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi hostage; Sudan and Zimbabwe, just to name a few. This is not the signature of a “responsible stakeholder” with which Taiwan should want to associate itself too closely.