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Taiwan: East Asia's great dilemma | The World Weekly

Separated by 180 kilometres of ocean, Taiwan and China are still linked by a decades-long fight for national identity. After World War Two, mainland China was consumed by the flames of civil war. By 1949 the Communists, led by the infamous Mao Zedong, had triumphed, driving the nationalist government of ‘The Republic of China’ to the island of Taiwan. On the mainland, the communist party established ‘The People’s Republic of China’ (PRC). Both claim to be the true and legitimate government of China.

The international community has, by and large, sided with the latter. In 1971, the UN voted to recognise the PRC as “the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations,” expelling representatives from Taiwan.

Since then, China’s growing global influence has proved instrumental in blocking Taiwan’s applications to join the UN and other major international bodies. In September 2017, this obstruction reached the point when Taiwan had “run out” of further requests for UN membership, according to a Taiwanese foreign ministry spokesperson.

To date only 19 countries, along with the Holy See, recognise Taiwan’s sovereignty. In the last two years, Panama and the African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe switched to recognising China over Taiwan.

The Taiwanese government has denounced China for playing a “diplomatic money game” to pull nations away from Taiwan. Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed 19 deals in November 2017, including a feasibility study for a free trade agreement between the two countries. Mr. Varela denied to Chinese state media that the nations were partaking in “chequebook diplomacy".

The diplomatic suffocation of Taiwan seems set to continue. In the past week, the government of Papua New Guinea – which already does not recognise Taiwan’s sovereignty – told Taiwan’s representative office in the country to rename itself ‘Taipei Economic and Cultural Office', effectively removing its claim to represent the ‘Republic of China'.

China’s economic leverage allegedly hung over the decision. “Papua New Guinea is heavily reliant on Chinese foreign aid… and many of the new infrastructure projects seem to have Chinese backing,” a former Papua New Guinea treasury adviser told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

'Main strategic direction'

Reclaiming Taiwan dominates Chinese government policy. “Annexing or ‘reunifying’ Taiwan into the PRC is something Chinese strategists refer to as their ‘main strategic direction’,” Ian Easton, author of 'The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defence and American Strategy in Asia', told The World Weekly. “In other words, it is the Chinese Communist Party's number one external policy priority.”

National unity was a dominant theme of the 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2017. Building “One China” was declared as vital in securing China’s “national rejuvenation” by 2049; official declarations of independence by Taiwan were unthinkable. “All activities of splitting the motherland will be resolutely opposed by all the Chinese people,” President Xi declared to rapturous applause from the conference delegates.

Analysts noted that the conference abandoned previous references to the Taiwanese people being “a force for unification.” A June 2017 poll of around 1,000 people on Taiwan found that 54% wanted formal independence from China. Just 14% believed that China and Taiwan are one nation.

Relations with China are intrinsic to Taiwanese politics. President Ma Ying-jeou’s tenure between 2008 and 2016 brought closer ties with China. However, his party, Kuomintang, was defeated in 2016 by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party led by Tsai Ing-wen.

President Tsai Ing-wen’s tenure has been predicated on seeking peaceful relations with China, in return for preserving the integrity of Taiwan’s way of life. Her message for Chinese New Year this week was friendly. “I want to use this opportunity to send New Year’s greetings to friends on the other side (of the Taiwan Strait),” said Ms. Tsai. Nevertheless, distrust dominates relations. Beijing shut down official communication with Taipei in June 2016 after Ms. Tsai’s government refused to acknowledge the 1992 consensus.

The 1992 consensus is an agreement between China and Taiwan that they are part of one nation. Opponents note it provided no plans for how they would be unified.

Slow economic growth in Taiwan has deepened Ms. Tsai’s woes. Her approval rating dropped in January to her second lowest figure of 31.7%, with broad disapproval for her handling of the economy and cross-strait relations. Higher pay and subsidised living offered in China to Taiwanese workers has drained talent to the mainland. Currently, 400,000 Taiwanese work in China.

The American question

China has backed up this ‘soft’ confrontation with ‘hard’ military displays near Taiwan. In December 2017, Taiwan’s annual defence review outlined that China had conducted 25 military drills in Taiwan’s airspace and waters between mid-2016 and late 2017. This has included Chinese naval battle-groups patrolling along the Taiwan Strait and bombers conducting “island encirclement” exercises.

Military build-up is a potent tool in China’s ‘reunification’ agenda. “China argues that the credible threat of force is essential to maintain the conditions for political progress and to prevent Taiwan from making moves toward de jure independence,” summarised a 2016 US Department of Defence report.

This expansive military policy is a relatively recent development. “The real turning point in cross-strait relations was the 18th party congress in 2012, when Xi Jinping rose to power,” contends Mr. Easton. “General Secretary Xi is far more hawkish and ambitious than his predecessor, Hu Jintao.”

Behind these displays is a fundamental shift in the balance of military power between Taiwan and China. The rapid modernisation of China’s military in recent decades has eclipsed the technological advantages previously enjoyed by the Taiwanese armed forces. In 2016, according to the Department of Defence report, China’s armed forces outnumbered Taiwan 800,000 to 130,000. Its military budget, $144 billion, was 14 times larger than Taiwan’s budget.

Against these stark odds, Taiwan announced plans in December 2017 for “innovative asymmetric” warfare strategies to cripple and ideally deter an invasion.

It is also increasingly reliant upon the support of the United States. Whilst Washington does not recognise Taiwanese sovereignty, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act commits it to help Taiwan defend itself against any nation who tries to determine their future not by “peaceful means.”

Close cooperation remains a priority in Washington. US arms sales continue to flow into Taiwan, with 250 FIM-92 ‘Stinger’ surface-to-air missiles set to arrive later this year. The 2018 National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) reaffirmed US commitments to Taiwan, suggesting further cooperative measures like the Taiwanese military joining American military exercises.

Nevertheless, matching Chinese military power in 2018 is a formidable prospect. The 2018 US National Defence Strategy was clinical in its assessment of threats from “revisionist powers” to the American-led world order: “Our competitive advantage has eroded in every domain of warfare.” A stronger China, wrote David Lai of the US Army War College, could feasibly start “setting rules for the US to follow,” risking confrontations over American policy connected to Taiwan.

Chinese diplomats were vocal in their opposition to early drafts of the NDAA which called for the US navy to regularly visit Taiwanese ports. The final act just recommends inquiries to consider the “advisability and feasibility” of such a venture.

Resolving this geopolitical minefield is no easy task. “Third-party political mediation seems to be the only effective way to advance the impasse and reach a peaceful resolution,” the Secretariat of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation told TWW.

For now, China continues to dominate how Taiwan is discussed on the international stage. In January, Chinese authorities shut down the online presence of the hotel group Marriott International Inc. after it circulated an online guest survey that listed Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Tibet - all claimed by China - as separate countries. Marriott quickly issued a lengthy apology: “We don’t support separatist groups that subvert the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China.”

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