Since the Republic of China national flag was deleted from Taiwan-related pages on certain US government Web sites, members of the opposition pan-blue camp have been jeering the government and accusing it of failing to uphold the nation’s dignity.
However, this incident can be seen in the wider context, including the US’ 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which recommends resuming port-of-call visits between the US and Taiwanese navies, and the Taiwan Travel Act, which proposes lifting restrictions on interactions between the US and Taiwan.
Taken in this broader context, it could be seen as a signal that the US, prompted by China’s increasingly forceful military threats to Taiwan, is seeking to clarify its “one China” policy. It is worth considering what signals the move, at this particular time, is meant to send to Taiwan and China.
There has in the past few months been more discussion, both in Taiwan and abroad, about possible Chinese aggression against Taiwan. The direct reasons for this are, of course, various things that have been happening since the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress in October last year. These include circumnavigations of Taiwan by the Chinese aircraft carrier the Liaoning, harassment of Taiwan by Chinese fighter jets and China’s unilateral activation of northbound air traffic on the M503 flight route.
There is nothing new about China’s refusal to renounce using military force against Taiwan. It is just that this policy tends to be obscured by the smoke screen of China’s peaceful “united front” policies and because peace is an important foundation of China-US relations.
However, in 2005, China enacted its “Anti-Secession” Law, which provides a basis in Chinese domestic law for taking military action against Taiwan. Taiwan must treat the possibility of armed aggression or invasion as a constant in cross-strait relations and take that into account when deciding on its national security policies, and our armed forces must be prepared for all eventualities, no matter how peaceful the situation might seem. It is perfectly reasonable for Taiwan to think along these lines.
If China were to attack Taiwan, it would not be a Chinese internal affair, as China claims. On the contrary, it would most definitely be an international affair. One reason to say so is that the country with the most influence over Taiwan’s sovereignty, namely the US, does not recognize Taiwan as belonging to the People’s Republic of China, and because the Taiwan Relations Act, which the US Congress drew up at the same time as the US established diplomatic relations with China, lays down in black and white the US’ commitment to assist in defending Taiwan’s security.
The US has been implementing the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act for 40 years without China being able to do anything about it. When China threatened Taiwan over its first direct presidential election in 1996, then-US president Bill Clinton ordered two aircraft carrier battle groups to sail close to Taiwan and remain there on standby, thereby demonstrating the US’ strength of will regarding Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Taiwan-friendly figures have been appointed to Taiwan-related departments in US President Donald Trump’s administration, while Taiwan’s strategic role has been defined as part of Trump’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” plan, thus reaffirming the US’ will to support Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Of course, when it comes to national security, each country must help itself before it can expect help from others. Only if Taiwan keeps its house in order with regard to military budgets and maintaining the numerical strength of its armed forces will outside forces have sufficient time and space to intervene in case of sudden developments.
As long as Taiwan maintains robust international security connections, it will significantly deter China from acting rashly, because for China’s leaders, managing such a big country is a difficult and complicated job, so they would have to make rational calculations about a move as extremely risky as a military assault on Taiwan.
Any such move by China would take place on the chessboard of great-power rivalry, where the consequential gains and losses would be hard to predict. Factors that China would have to take into account include the international industrial supply chain. The dynamic changes would not be entirely in accordance with China’s will, so as long as Taiwan maintains its basic strengths and uses them in the right way, responding cautiously to any eventuality, it should have nothing to fear.
The relationship between war and peace is a dialectical one in which there is no place for unilateral and reckless actions. As far as cross-strait relations are concerned, China’s military intimidation of Taiwan mainly takes the form of verbal threats. However, infiltration by Chinese spies and “united front” tactics designed to sow division, along with actions designed to impoverish Taiwan and buy it up, are all part of China’s “smokeless war” against Taiwan.
Former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) often boasted that he had achieved the most peaceful situation in the Taiwan Strait in 60 years. However, in reality, the appearance of peace, and indeed the peace dividend, still depended on submitting to the idea that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to “one China,” and adhering to a diplomatic truce and a slowdown in national defense that left Taiwan open to attack.
These were rewards that China could previously only have won through war, but with Ma in charge it won them without firing a shot. Frankly, it was a case of surrendering without a fight.
President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) remarks that she would maintain the cross-strait “status quo” while rejecting the so-called “1992 consensus” have led to China breaking off cross-strait consultations. The Chinese government has even openly said this is because the political basis of a consensus that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to “one China” has been broken.
Pro-unification groups in Taiwan echo China’s position by accusing Tsai of steering cross-strait policies off course, thus making it more likely that China would use military force against Taiwan.
These unification supporters in Taiwan say that peace is only possible if we recognize that both sides belong to “one China,” but they have not figured out that the experiences of Tibet and Hong Kong prove that this would be a phony peace, and if we accept that we belong to “one China,” without resisting in any way, it would be the same as waving the white flag of surrender.
Where is the battlefield of this weaponless war? It is on the banquet tables when unification supporters make toasts to communist cadres and it is in administrative agreements that give unspoken recognition to “one China.”
The current peaceful state of affairs in the Taiwan Strait is overseen not only by Taiwan and China, but also by the US, Japan and other international players. War and peace on the Korean Peninsula is a concrete expression of the complex nature of international management, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, where the whole international community wants to maintain the existing state of peace and stability.
The good thing for Taiwan is that even though China has not renounced the use of military force against Taiwan, it has no choice but to restrain itself. This depends on Taiwan’s dynamic handling of cross-strait relations and geopolitics in such a way as to make China rationally calculate that it would reap greater benefits from maintaining cross-strait peace, as can be seen from its unprecedentedly rapid economic growth over the last 30 years, instead of being a loser.
In other words, Taiwan should avoid zero-sum fights in which one side wins all and the other loses everything, and instead work to create win-win situations. If both sides of the Taiwan Strait could become stakeholders, so that peace means that both sides win, while war means that both sides lose, it might be possible to remove stumbling blocks one by one.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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