The large-scale military exercises held off Hainan Island and the live-fire drills planned for tomorrow by Beijing within 12 nautical miles (22.2km) off the Fujian coast are presented by the Chinese news media as a show of displeasure by Beijing at the independent policy lines pursued by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), and at the moves by the US to enhance its relations with Taiwan.
The Chinese saber-rattling was already evident in earlier military pressure against Taiwan, in particular the increased air and naval operations in the vicinity of the island — including escorted strategic bomber encirclement flights — and the deployment of its aircraft carrier on the Chinese side of the Taiwan Strait.
The fundamental problem is that the authorities in Beijing still see cross-strait relations through the outdated prism of the (unfinished) civil war between Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) Nationalists.
Somehow, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and his colleagues have been unable to think beyond the confines of the rigid dogma that the only possible resolution is for Taiwan to be “reunited” with China.
The problem with that approach is that Taiwan was never part of the People’s Republic of China in the first place, but was the unhappy landing place for the defeated nationalists of Chiang, whose regime then ruled the island under martial law for 38 years.
Thanks to the hard work and resilience of Taiwanese, the nation made its momentous transition to democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and is now a vibrant and even rambunctious democracy.
Having worked so hard to attain their democracy, the people on the island are not about to give up their hard-won freedoms and are thus not inclined whatsoever to agree to “unification” under any model, whether it is called “one country, two systems” or under the guise of the so-called “1992 consensus” with whatever many interpretations.
Opinion polls in Taiwan show that the people of the island overwhelmingly reject these concepts.
So, if there is to be lasting peace and stability in the region, Beijing needs to come to terms with the fact that there is a free and democratic Taiwan next door, and develop a more constructive policy based on mutual recognition and peaceful coexistence as friendly neighbors.
All too often Western analysts jump to the conclusion that tensions are rising and war is imminent. A recent article in the National Interest by Paul Smith of the US Naval War College is one example (“How the Taiwan Travel Act could start a US-China War,” March 29). Another example is a book published in 2007 by Michael O’Hanlon and Richard Bush, titled A War Like No Other, which elaborates on a dozen scenarios describing in detail how war could break out.
While one should not discount that Chinese threats could lead to a military confrontation, it is essential to counter those threats, and ensure that Beijing understands that any adventurism and attempt to subdue or annex Taiwan would be disastrous for itself.
In the meantime, it would help if Western observers would focus their creativity on developing scenarios of a peaceful resolution whereby Beijing — perhaps grudgingly — accepts Taiwan as a friendly neighbor. Too often people take the present — very uncompromising — state of mind and non-conciliatory position of the Chinese leaders as a given.
Would it not contribute to a solution if US — and European — leaders tried to foster a new thinking in the minds of the present, or next, generation of Chinese leaders and not keep repeating “one China” mantras dating back to the 1970s?
Normalization of relations between the US, Western Europe and the rest of the world and Taiwan should give China an opportunity to move away from the old contradictions and animosity dating back to the Chinese Civil War. That would bring a much more lasting peace and stability to the region than the present nebulous, precarious and unsustainable “status quo.”
Gerrit van der Wees is a retired Dutch diplomat, who served as editor of the Taiwan Communique from 1980 through 2016. He teaches history of Taiwan at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
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