China and Taiwan’s dangerous face-off

The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, is disrupting the rules that have preserved an uneasy peace for 30 years. 

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In his opening speech of 2019, and his first ever on the subject of Taiwan, the Chinese president Xi Jinping was characteristically uncompromising. Forty years after Beijing agreed to stop its daily shelling of the Taiwanese islands of Quemoy and Matsu, and launched a policy of commercial seduction, relations have coarsened. Addressing an audience of military and party officials and his country’s wider public on 2 January, China’s nationalist president-for-life signalled his impatience with the status quo, refused to rule out the use of military force and warned “foreign powers” against intervening in what Beijing regards as a domestic matter. For any Taiwanese viewer, it was a chilling moment.

The two jurisdictions have been antagonists since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, when the defeated Nationalist Party (KMT) took refuge in Taiwan, 110 miles offshore, leaving Mao’s Communist Party in charge of the mainland. Taiwan, with US support, continued to hold China’s seat on the UN Security Council. Both sides in the conflict took the view that there was only one China – they simply disagreed over which party should rule it.

Both were dictatorships, but in the late 1970s, their political characters diverged. A democratic movement in Taiwan broke the stranglehold of the KMT, allowing other political forces to emerge. These included the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which won a landslide election victory in 2016 and upholds Taiwan’s right to self-determination.

US-China relations, meanwhile, also evolved: Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 was followed by formal recognition of the People’s Republic, beginning the progressive of marginalisation of Taiwan. At the close of 2018, only 16 small states and the Holy See, which is having second thoughts, maintained formal diplomatic relations with the country.

The US has repeatedly affirmed the “one China” policy, but maintains informal relations with its former ally, supplying Taiwan with arms and offering it security guarantees. Xi Jinping’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, focused on persuading Taiwanese voters of the benefits of economic ties: Taiwanese companies invested in the mainland, Chinese tourists visited Taiwan, and Taiwan prospered as China’s economy grew. By the end of last year, China accounted for around 40 per cent of Taiwan’s exports and more than 100,000 Taiwanese businesses were operating on the mainland.

Today, all three major players – Taiwan, the US and China – are led by nationalist politicians and the complex dynamics between them threaten to trigger a long-postponed crisis. It began in 2016, when then president-elect Donald Trump accepted a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s current president, the DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen. When he threw Taiwan as a bargaining chip into his trade quarrel with China during an appearance on Fox News, remarking that he did not see why the US should maintain its “one China” policy unless a trade deal could be struck, he infuriated China and put Taiwan’s future in jeopardy.

Since then, China has steadily ramped up the pressure: last year saw live-fire naval exercises in the Taiwan Strait, a protest in September over $330m of US arms sales to Taiwan, and new demands for commercial entities such as airlines and hotels to refer to Taiwan as part of China. It has also restricted tourism and agricultural imports from Taiwan, and Taiwanese officials accuse Beijing of meddling in last year’s local elections, in which the DPP was heavily defeated. Xi Jinping, no doubt, is hoping for a KMT victory in the next national election in 2020.

Finally, on 31 December 2018, the US Congress passed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which calls for more official exchanges between the US and Taiwan and continued arms sales. China denounced an act that a foreign ministry spokesman described as having “seriously violated the one-China principle” and “bluntly interfered in China’s domestic affairs”.

The protest is standard. Xi Jinping’s speech was less routine. While China reserved the right to use force, he said, it was time that Taiwan accepted “peaceful unification” under the “one country, two systems” approach. Tsai Ing-wen, to nobody’s surprise, declined.

In theory, “one country, two systems” would allow a formal unification while permitting democratic Taiwan to preserve its political, legal and economic system. In practice, it would demand a degree of trust that China has forfeited on two previous occasions: the 17 Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, signed in 1951 as a treaty between the Dalai Lama’s government and Beijing, “guaranteed” Tibet’s government and respect for its culture and way of life. It lasted just eight years. And as President Tsai observed, China’s promise of “one country, two systems” to Hong Kong under the Joint Declaration signed with the UK in 1984, has allowed China to restrict political and media freedoms in the former British colony. Taiwan’s young people sympathised with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014 and have not forgotten that its leaders are now in prison.

Tsai Ing-wen, meanwhile, is cultivating other markets, including India, mindful of the danger of dependency on China, and recently appealed for international support for her democracy. China will endeavour to ensure that the DPP loses to the KMT in 2020, but though Beijing finds the KMT more congenial, polling suggests that Taiwan’s 23m people overwhelmingly oppose a unification that not even the KMT is backing.

The terms of engagement that have preserved an uneasy peace across the strait for 30 years have changed. The use of military force would be catastrophic for both sides, and for the region. But how far does Xi Jinping intend to push? And what might prompt him to judge that the risks of insistence on unification were worth the gains in domestic applause?  That these questions must now be considered is a mark of our new era of uncertainty and disorder.

Isabel Hilton is the editor of chinadialogue.net 

This article appears in the 11 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit Showdown