While delivering a speech on Jan. 2 to mark the 40th anniversary of the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan,” Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) said that a Taiwan independent from mainland China was not an option and no person or party could stop the trend toward “unification.”
At the same time, Xi also reportedly said that China would not rule out using force to unify Taiwan and China.
He also said: “Independence would only bring profound disaster for Taiwan” and promised the nation a bright future under a “one country, two systems” framework.
In an equally strong reply to Xi’s speech, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) argued that her government does not accept the so-called “1992 consensus,” and emphasized that a vast majority of Taiwanese are resolutely opposed to the “one country, two systems” framework.
She reiterated that the development of cross-strait relations must be based on “the four musts”: China must face the reality of the existence of the Republic of China (Taiwan), and not deny the democratic system that Taiwanese have established; China must respect the commitment of the 23 million Taiwanese to freedom and democracy, and not foster divisions or offer inducements to interfere with their choices; China must handle cross-strait differences peacefully, on the basis of equality, instead of using suppression and intimidation to force Taiwanese to submit; and it must be governments or government-authorized agencies that engage in negotiations — any political consultations that are not authorized and monitored by the public cannot be called “democratic consultations.”
Of course, the tension between Taiwan and China is not a new phenomenon. The genesis of the conflict goes back to 1949 when, after losing mainland China to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Zedong (毛澤東), Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) retreated to Taiwan, establishing Taipei as the capital of the Republic of China government.
Subsequently, Taiwan and China claimed to represent all of China. The ouster of Taiwan from the membership of the UN General Assembly and its Security Council, as well as the US’ decision to recognize China as a country and end diplomatic ties with the Republic of China in 1979, boosted China’s position against Taiwan.
At the same time, Chinese leadership focused on using the “1992 consensus” with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) as the strongest tool to claim Taiwan as a part of China.
However, since Tsai came to power in 2016, she made one thing very clear: Her government does not recognize the “1992 consensus.”
At the same time, Tsai’s New Southbound Policy to strengthen ties with Southeast Asian countries, as well as other developments, upset the Chinese leadership.
As if these developments were not enough for China to be up in arms about, US President Donald Trump’s special focus on elevating ties with Taiwan marked a new turn. This was evident from the fact that after being elected as president, Trump received a telephone call from Tsai and also initially questioned the “one China” policy.
Trump signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, which mentions strengthening defense ties between the US and Taiwan. The act also states that the US should invite Taiwan to participate in military exercises and consider “re-establishing port-of-call exchanges between the navies of the two sides.”
Trump signing the Taiwan Travel Act cleared the way for high-ranking US officials to visit Taiwan, and consequently, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Wong (黃之瀚) visited Taipei and met Tsai.
A new de facto US embassy was inaugurated in Taipei, among other things.
Last month, Trump signed into law the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which reiterates US commitment “to counter efforts to change the status quo and to support peaceful resolution acceptable to both sides of the Taiwan Strait.”
It also calls on the US president to send high-level officials to Taiwan and to regularly sell arms to it.
In turn, while China has been using its economic power to force several countries to no longer recognize Taiwan as an independent country, it also opened a new air route over the narrow Taiwan Strait separating China and Taiwan and carried out military details in the vicinity.
China put pressure on the International Civil Aviation Organization to not invite Taiwan as a guest to its assembly in September 2016.
Beijing also wrote letters asking dozens of international airlines to change the way they refer to Taiwan on their Web sites and threatened to disrupt their operations in China if they did not comply.
The losses of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the local elections on Nov. 24 last year encouraged Beijing, because Chinese leadership saw the DPP’s losses as the rejection of the Tsai government’s efforts to make Taiwan independant, although it is an independent country in all practical terms.
The gains of the KMT were a welcome development for Beijing given its pro-China stance.
Chinese state-run media depicted the election reversals as a vindication of Xi’s measures to isolate Taiwan and undercut its international standing.
However, the fact remains that the DPP’s losses must not be seen as an indication of a change in Taiwanese thinking as far as the nation’s independence and sovereignty are concerned.
In a poll, 75 percent of the Taiwanese respondents saw Taiwan and China as two different states. Viewing mainland China as a perverted form of Chinese culture, Taiwanese also consider their culture and tradition as pure Chinese and feel proud of their democratic institutions, press freedom and other liberal values, and they do not want to give them up.
To argue that the DPP’s losses in the elections resulted from the Tsai government’s assertive policy toward China would be misplaced. A number of domestic issues, including her government’s labor and pension policies, Tsai’s poor leadership, lack of strong strategy, her government’s performance regarding marriage and economic policy, were responsible for the DPP’s losses.
The KMT also planned an effective election strategy to defeat the DPP.
While saying that the use of military power cannot be ruled out to bring Taiwan under China’s control, Xi forgot that Taiwan enjoys strong ties, although unofficial, with a number of countries, including all the other major world powers. Countries across the globe have recognized Taiwan as a champion of democracy.
At the same time, it is also a core interest of the US to see Taiwan flourishing as a democratic and independent country.
Given that Taiwanese are aware of China’s dubious stand on “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong and Tibet, Xi cannot win over Taiwanese with these tactics. Any provocative statement is likely to make Taiwanese more resilient against China.
It is also the global community’s responsibility to see that Taiwan remains a strong democratic country. Thus, it is only through the peace talks that the two sides can end the conflict between them, leading to improved peace, security and development in the Taiwan-Strait and in the region.
Sumit Kumar is a former Ministry of Foreign Affairs visiting fellow at National Chengchi University and a research fellow at Maulana Azad Institute of Asian Studies in Kolkata, India.
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