Having been in Taiwan for approximately one month, I have watched the constant commentary regarding the Taiwan-China crisis. To state that it is an everyday event is not an exaggeration and to state that it gets little mention in my home country (Australia), beyond how the US and Japan are coping with the situation, is also worth mentioning to highlight that distance separates concern.
The commentaries have drawn my attention to the immense pressure Taiwan, its people and its government are under and the future that it faces. To further state that the pressure will certainly not let up and that the friction will worsen is also not an exaggeration.
While recent articles in the Taipei Times — in particular, the op-ed “Taiwan confronts its darkest hour” (Feb. 11, page 8) — reflect current concerns, the problem at hand goes much deeper than current times, as frightening as they are.
What appears to be missing in the understanding of why China is constantly pressing for the return of Taiwan and of it being a “renegade state” — a term that was coined during the administration of former US president Bill Clinton — is why the People’s Republic of China government persists with its mantra.
What historical basis does China have for this beyond the Qing Dynasty ownership? The answer, and one that does not get much press, is gaining territory through threat-of-force and, when this has not worked, direct force. This is what China has learned from the West.
The forthrightness alluded to began in 1648 when the West essentially became united. The Treaty of Westphalia is essentially where it all begins for the West. It was in 1648 that a final agreement was reached by the elites of Western Europe (modern day northwest Germany), that a treaty would be agreed upon and what is known as sovereign statehood would be born.
It is a germane yet necessary point to make that the notion of sovereignty was a construct of the West and essentially one that would benefit the West.
Nevertheless, sovereign statehood was supposed to be a geographic delineation of territory for each state to understand where its boundaries were located, and therefore, ease tensions. This would work for those that were “educated” and had definite understandings of distance and ownership.
This said, the mandates within the treaty were summarily over time thrust upon tribal peoples, feudal societies, clans and other groups that would have borderlines cut through their territory, sovereign statehood would be brutally enforced — especially in Africa — and, as a result, it is the method of operation and understanding that all countries rely on today.
Being able to distinguish a “space and place” extramural to one’s own territory immediately allowed for geographical locales to be gained and claimed by powerful nation-states beyond their own perimeters.
England would run rampant over the “known world” and through its “successes” occupy, or at the very least, control an enormous amount of territory — about 70 percent of the known world. England’s “territory” would stretch from Northern Ireland to terra nullius (Australia); France would occupy vast swathes of territory from North America through Oceania; Italy, Portugal and Britain would claim Africa; and the Dutch would control Indonesia.
This is only some of the actions of powerful nation-states as they colonized, brutalized and used threat-of-force to gain what they thought of as “theirs.” Powerful Western and Western-orientated nation-states would sweep all before them. To be sure, Asian countries would also seek their own regional dominance as the idea of sovereignty took hold.
As science and technology improved and powerful nation-states became more adept at travel and conquering, they sought as much as they possibly could. This applied to Eastern as well as Western powers: Japan would conquer Manchuria (twice) and occupy Formosa (Taiwan), and eventually occupy territory as far east as the Marshall Islands.
Some small nations would be rent asunder by the requirements of powerful nation-states. The native peoples of Diego Garcia would be forced off their land by the US in agreement with the British; the American Indians would be slaughtered and those who remained would be forced on to reservations; the US mainland would steal Hawaii from a Hawaiian princess; the Spanish would allow the US to occupy Guam without any consultation with the indigenous people; many of the indigenous population of Australia would be murdered and their children stolen from them; and the Dutch would rule Indonesia with an “iron fist,” earning the slang term “red devils” for their deeds. The list goes on.
China, after the impositions of the treaty would languish in relative poverty and isolation for centuries. However, after its own trials and tribulations, it would emerge from the doldrums of its own induced pain and suffering, and the pain and suffering forced upon it and, like a phoenix, rise from the ashes of its past. In the process, which can be traced to the mid-1990s, it would begin to assert its “needs and wants” in more definitive and aggressive ways.
Taiwan would feel the increased rancor of claim immediately, Japan would be chastised for its lack of atonement for its misdeeds and crimes — after all, Germany had apologized for its past military actions — and China would begin to build interconnected military bases in its region with an eye to the rest of the world. China would begin to do as Britain, France and the US had done before.
Because of the improvements in science and technology, China would lay claim to sea rights and (now) atolls. The US has thrown up its arms in protest at China doing what it has effectively been taught to do by the West. Taiwan has become the epicenter of the tug-of-war between the West and the East, as is Pakistan for central Asia.
Taiwan is yet to confront its “darkest hour,” as China has not invaded. However, the gloom before the darkness is the abysmal and pathetic example the West has set, in particular in the 20th century — when it was supposed to be “civilized” — in the policing of, and the commensurate offering of good and auspicious governance.
Should China actually commit to bringing Taiwan to war, it will be because it has learned the despicable and utterly reprehensible examples “civilized,” liberal-democratic and powerful nation-states of the world have sent it.
One can only hope the reason that the UN was born — diplomacy over war — wins out in the tussle for Asia-Pacific peace and that China does not take the example of the West’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as how to solve predicaments.
Strobe Driver holds a doctorate in war studies and is a recipient of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ fellowship for 2018. The views expressed here are his own.
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