Taiwan and China: What Way Forward?Looking at Taiwan in its own light and its own right

By Gerrit van der Wees

Image Credit: Rutger van der Maar Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Tensions surrounding Taiwan have risen significantly. How will the situation develop in 2022? China has upped the ante by sending almost 1,000 aircraft into Taiwan’s ADIZ zone in the past year and by objecting to any moves by Taiwan to enhance its international relations. Furthermore, just the past weekend, China sent 39 aircraft into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in one day, Sunday, January 23rd, followed by 13 aircraft on Monday.

Meanwhile, Taiwan is firming up its defence capabilities. It is broadening its international support by strengthening ties with like-minded democratic nations, emphasising the importance of peace and security in the Taiwan Strait. What is the best way forward?

In their respective New Year’s speeches, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and Chinese President Xi Jinping could not have been more different. Xi argued for “complete reunification with the motherland” and threatened “drastic measures” if Taiwan doesn’t comply.

On the other hand, President Tsai stated: “We will hold fast to our sovereignty, uphold the values of freedom and democracy, defend territorial sovereignty and national security, and maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.” Furthermore, she warned China against “military adventurism.”

It is essential to go back to the problem’s origins to find a way forward. In news reports, it is often stated that Beijing regards the island as a “renegade province,” and emphasises that it should be “reunited” by military force if necessary. Also, the phrase that Taiwan “split off in the late 1940s” often pops up, implying that it is understandable that China strives for “reunification.”

A closer look at history and the origins of “our One China policy” presents a very different picture. First: since its inception in 1949, the PRC never ruled Taiwan, even for one day. “Reunification” is thus a bit of a misnomer at best.

Second: our “One China” policy did not mean that we somehow considered Taiwan to be part of China: the US and other Western nations broke relations with the government of Chiang Kai-shek – who had occupied Taiwan after World War II – because he was perpetuating the claim to represent China. It was a question of which government to recognise as “the government of China. “Taiwan’s status was a different issue.

From a repressive regime to vibrant democracy

Since de-recognition, however, Taiwan has made a momentous transition to democracy. Indeed, as of the early 1990s, the claim to represent China has been discarded. Instead, it evolved into a vibrant democracy, with a freely elected government representing all people of Taiwan, including those who were there long before Chiang Kai-shek arrived and who were disenfranchised during the KMT’s 38 years of martial law (1949-1987).

Therefore, this new situation is fundamentally different from that of the 1970s. But we are still stuck with an outdated “one-China policy,” which leaves Taiwan hanging in political limbo. We have failed to consider the new reality that Taiwan is now a free democracy and no longer claims sovereignty over China.

The Taiwanese people and the current government of Taiwan like to see themselves as full members of the international community. Therefore, they find it incomprehensible that the status of Taiwan is still held hostage by a Chinese civil war of more than 70 years ago, in which they had no part.

The geopolitical picture – more “hotspots”

However, the situation between Taiwan and China should not only be seen in binary terms. If we look at the broader geopolitical picture, we see quite a number of “hotspots” that require the attention of world leaders. Each situation has its own history, dynamics, and timeline, and an increase in tension between Taiwan and China may coincide with rising tensions elsewhere.

Particularly worrying in this respect is the situation in Central and Eastern Europe, where Russia is threatening to invade Ukraine because the former Soviet state has become a pro-Western democracy and is drifting towards the West, applying to be an EU member, and considering NATO membership.

Some analysts see parallels between the Russia-Ukraine and the China-Taiwan situations and wonder how the handling by the Biden administration of a crisis about Ukraine will be perceived by the leadership in Beijing.

Strategically, the situations are very different: Ukraine is an almost landlocked country with a lengthy common land border of some 2,000 km with Russia. On the other hand, Taiwan is separated from China by some 180 km of Taiwan Strait, which most of the year is rather rough water. Of course, aircraft and missile attacks by the PRC can do much damage to infrastructure, but overall, Taiwan is highly defensible. In addition, its strategic location allows the US’ and other navies – Japan, Australia – much leeway in its manoeuvres around Taiwan.

Still, in both cases, Ukraine and Taiwan, the outcome will depend on how deft and successful President Biden will be in rallying support from allies in the region. In Europe, this means getting all major EU states and the NATO organisation as a whole to support the right mix of diplomatic, economic, and military deterrent measures designed to convince Mr Putin in Moscow that any attempt to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty will be very costly for Russia.

By the same token, in Asia, this involves convincing allies and partners in the region such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia that their economic well-being depends very much on peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. In addition, other major regional powers such as Japan, India, and Australia are already very much on board. They are gearing up their capabilities to respond to a potential Taiwan Strait scenario.

Thus, in both cases, Ukraine and Taiwan, a revisionist and belligerent big neighbour, is attempting to change the status quo and turn back the clock. In both cases, autocratic, repressive regimes try to prevent their smaller democratic neighbours from going their own way and choosing freedom and democracy.

Towards a peaceful coexistence as friendly neighbours

Against this background, what would be the best way forward in the coming years? First, it needs to be made abundantly clear to Beijing that the perpetuation of the current zero-sum strategy of military, economic and political pressure is not conducive to cross-Strait relations and that peace and stability across the Strait can only be achieved if China moves toward acceptance of Taiwan as a friendly neighbour.

Second, the international community must re-imagine its Taiwan relations. Taking into account that democratic Taiwan of 2022 is not the same as the repressive Republic of China (ROC) of 1971, the US, Western Europe, India, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand in particular need to look at Taiwan in its own light and its own right.

We need to bring Taiwan in from the cold of political isolation and start working toward a normalisation of relations. Furthermore, under the principle of universality as enshrined in the UN Charter, we also need to start supporting Taiwan as a full and equal member of the international family of nations.

Third, in due time and at its own pace, Taiwan needs to reinvent itself and remove some of the remaining vestiges of the old and repressive KMT rule. This process has already been underway since the transition to democracy in the early 1990s, but it can be expected to accelerate under the current government of President Tsai Ing-wen.

These three interrelated processes need to take place concurrently if there is to be peaceful coexistence, and Taiwan is to have a bright future as a free and democratic nation that is accepted as a full and equal member of the international community.

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016, he served as chief-editor of “Taiwan Communiqué.” He currently teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University and current issues in East Asia at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs.

This article was published as part of a special issue titled ‘Taiwan 2022: Reflections, Predictions and Trends.’

One comment

  1. Wishful thinking does not lead “towards a peaceful coexistence as friendly neighbours”.

    First, over time it has been “made abundantly clear to Beijing that” it can get its way, originally by lying low internationally under Deng and successors (gaining membership of the WTO, …), and now by being assertive under Xi (militarising the South China Sea, …). Don’t fool yourself, thinking that anyone’s lecturing still can influence China’s actions. Making “abundantly clear to Beijing that the perpetuation of the current zero-sum strategy of military, economic and political pressure is not conducive to cross-Strait relations and that peace and stability across the Strait can only be achieved if China moves toward acceptance of Taiwan as a friendly neighbour” is just pointless lecturing.

    “Second, the international community” has no incentive to substantially “re-imagine its Taiwan relations”. Relations to China are paramount while relations to Taiwan are of minor relevance. Why antagonise China over one’s relations to Taiwan?

    “Third, in due time and at its own pace, Taiwan needs to reinvent itself and remove some of the remaining vestiges of the old and repressive KMT rule”. That’s quite vague and camouflages the obvious stumbling block, that is, the old China constitution has to be replaced by a new Taiwan constitution, fast. Further tinkering with the old constitution will convince no one.

    Liked by 1 person

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