By Steve Hoadley
It is hoped that moderation in Beijing, Washington, and Taipei will prevent the Taiwan flashpoint from igniting says Steve Hoadley.
Taiwan is more than an offshore island of China. It is also an armed flashpoint at the edge of a geopolitical frontier between two superpowers. Its security is vital to the maintenance of the current world order.
The island of Taiwan is indisputably Chinese, having been populated by waves of migrants from Southeast China, particularly Fujian and Guangdong provinces, since the Han Dynasty era. Many Taiwanese still speak the provincial dialects although the majority have adopted Mandarin, China’s official national language. And Taiwan historically has been administered by a succession of Chinese dynasties with the exception of brief periods of Portuguese, Dutch, and Japanese occupation.
After the defeat of Japan in 1945 the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government of China, established in 1911, was attacked by the Communist forces led by Mao Tse-tung. Eventually defeated, the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan where The Republic of China (ROC) rules to this day. On the other side of the Formosa Strait the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949 and claimed sovereignty over Taiwan.
So the Chinese people now have two governments. If one counts Hong Kong and Macao, the Chinese have four governments, but the latter two are firmly under Beijing’s control, and they are acknowledged by all foreign governments as parts of China. Taiwan is the exception, remaining outside Beijing’s control.
While Beijing proclaims the doctrine of ‘one country two systems’ to suggest that Taiwan’s government could retain a degree of autonomy if it acceded to China, its harsh security laws and crackdowns in Hong Kong are warnings that China would inexorably impose political, administrative and legal controls on Taiwan as it has done in Hong Kong. So successive elected governments in Taipei, led alternately by the Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), have rejected Beijing’s tendentious doctrine. They have, however, recognised the value of economic cooperation with the mainland, and cross-strait trade, investment, and tourism have flourished, to the benefit of both countries. Political consultations also take place, albeit through ‘unofficial’ commissions since neither government recognises the legitimacy of the other.
Taiwan’s international position is less normalised. The majority of governments, including those of the US and New Zealand, recognise the PRC in Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China. Only 14 governments now recognise the sovereignty of the Republic of China on Taiwan. Four of them are our Pacific island neighbours Tuvalu, Nauru, Palau and Marshall Islands. Tonga and Solomon Islands recently switched relations from Taipei to Beijing. Nor is Taiwan allowed a seat in the United Nations, the World Health Organization, or any other international body because the PRC has vetoed its membership. Taiwan is a member of the WTO and APEC only because it is labelled as ‘Chinese Taipei’ or a ‘Separate Customs Territory’ which connote an economic entity, one which Beijing can characterise as a province of China, not a sovereign government.
However, Taiwan is not without resources. First, its 24 million inhabitants have proved to be economically resilient, industrious, and innovative. They enjoy a standard of living comparable to that of the Japanese, South Koreans, Singaporeans, and New Zealanders. Second, most countries are happy to conduct trade, investment, and tourism relations with Taiwanese counterparts, whose economy is 22nd highest in the world by GDP. This includes China, too. Third, the Republic of China has established outposts in most capitals around the world which function as quasi-diplomatic agencies. These are tolerated by Beijing if labelled not as embassies (implying sovereignty) but, for example, Taipei Economic and Cultural Offices (as in New Zealand). By the way, Taiwan has one of the lowest coronavirus rates in the world, often compared with New Zealand and South Korea as a success story, despite being barred by China from the World Health Organization.
Finally, Taiwan has a powerful friend, the United States. The Taiwan Relations Act, passed by Congress in 1979, obliges the US president to come to Taiwan’s aid if attacked. It also legitimises arms sales and other forms of security cooperation with Taiwan short of a formal alliance. This allows the Taiwanese to maintain a modern military to defend their island.
Given that the above elements have remained more or less stable for four decades, why does Taiwan in recent weeks appear to be the epicentre of an emerging crisis? The answers are several.
- China’s President Xi Jinping has embarked on a nationalistic and assertive foreign policy, exemplified by the Belt and Road Initiative, the garrisoning of sandbanks in the South China Sea, and a military modernisation campaign. He has reasserted that Taiwan belongs to China and will be incorporated by force if necessary.
- America’s president Donald Trump embarked on a confrontation of China’s predatory economic policies and in that spirit showed preference to Taipei over Beijing. He personally phoned ROC President Tsai at the beginning of his presidency, sold sophisticated arms enthusiastically in the middle of his term, and at the end dispatched a Cabinet secretary to visit President Tsai. And he reiterated his support, implying military support, for Taiwan, and backed it up by sending a carrier battle group to transit the nearby South China Sea.
- Radical elements of Taiwan’s DPP continue to call for a declaration of Taiwan’s independence from China. This is a ‘red line’ for Beijing, the crossing of which would trigger military action across the Formosa Strait, possibly a full-scale invasion. In recent days People’s Liberation Army (PLA) warplanes have provocatively penetrated into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (its airspace) and conducted live fire exercises in nearby waters, both actions reinforcing the political ultimatums from Beijing.
In consequence, an ambitious China appears to be on a collision course with a well-armed and defiant Taiwan backed by the might and commitment of the United States.
But is war imminent? Not quite yet. President Tsai has reiterated that no declaration of Taiwan’s independence is necessary because the Republic of China has been independent and sovereign since 1911. President Xi is thus denied a trigger for military action beyond occasional harassment to satisfy his nationalistic ‘base’. He is in any case preoccupied with post-COVID economic recovery, which a major military campaign would retard. President Biden, a conciliator, has replaced President Trump, a blusterer, and has pledged to reduce US-China tensions.
In summary, Taiwan remains a democratic, open-economy, international-law compliant, and Western-leaning outpost on the periphery of authoritarian, mercantilist, nationalistic, and hostile China – and its associates Russia, North Korea, Cambodia and Burma. Taiwan’s geopolitical interests and wariness towards rising China converge with those of its likeminded neighbours Japan, South Korea, the democratic states of Southeast Asia, and India…and the United States and New Zealand. The forced absorption of Taiwan by China would not only weaken the other democracies and further undermine US mentorship of a peaceful rules-based international order but also precipitate war between the two superpowers.
It is hoped that moderation in Beijing, Washington, and Taipei will prevent the Taiwan flashpoint from igniting. The awkward status quo, often characterised as ‘strategic ambiguity’, is less risky than allegedly more tidy alternatives.
Stephen Hoadley is a recently retired Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.