Thunderclouds gather over Taiwan


Thunderclouds gather over Taiwan

China has long claimed Taiwan as its own. Although the US recognises Beijing's position that there is only one China, it seems the Biden administration is intensifying its efforts to undermine that principle, writes GERT GROBLER.

  • 12 January 2024
  • Free Speech
  • 9 min to read
  • article 10 of 23
  • Gert Grobler

THE Taiwan question is one of China's trickiest political issues because it forms the core of relations between China and the US and counts as “a first red line" that the US dare not cross. 

China has long claimed Taiwan as its own, but after decades of reasonable US policy on this thorny issue a reversal has recently occurred due to, among other things, far-reaching global geopolitical shifts that have the potential to degenerate into a military conflict.

A Chinese invasion of the island would have enormous economic and geopolitical consequences for the US and the world. Global economic losses would probably amount to trillions of dollars, and if the US were to become involved in the conflict an invasion could also trigger the first superpower war in a century.

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Taiwan’s presidential election

Ties with China are one of the key issues of the current presidential campaign in Taiwan.

Indeed, Taiwan's presidential election on January 13 will represent a pivotal moment in the island's contemporary history. The outcome, which will closely be watched by the international community, will either solidify Taiwan's uncertain “sovereignty", plunge it into conflict with China or put it on a path towards incorporation into the larger neighbouring country.

The frontrunner in the race is Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), with Hou Yu of the main opposition party, Kuomintang (KMT), close on his heels.

Outgoing president Tsai Ing-wen (DPP) has consistently said Taipei and Beijing should pursue “peaceful long-term coexistence" but emphasised that future relations with the mainland should be determined by Taiwan's “democratic procedures".

The KMT has a more pragmatic stance. It also promises to protect Taiwan but places a greater emphasis on negotiation, consensus and compromise with China.

There is little high-level communication between China and the DPP, which is considered a “proponent of separatism", while discussions between China and the KMT take place from time to time.

Significantly, several opinion polls show that neither unification nor independence is supported by most Taiwanese — despite election campaign rhetoric. All parties are in favour of maintaining peace, stability and the status quo.

President Xi Jinping reiterated China's position in his recent new year speech on TV, as well as in discussions in December with US President Joe Biden, declaring that “the motherland will certainly be reunited" but adding that a timeframe had not yet been decided. Furthermore, he said resolution of the Taiwan issue was an internal Chinese matter. He had earlier repeatedly stressed that China is pursuing a peaceful solution but is prepared to take Taiwan back by force if necessary.

Who does Taiwan really belong to?

As early as the 17th century, large-scale Han Chinese immigration under Dutch colonial rule took off and continued under the Tungning Kingdom, the first predominantly Han Chinese state in Taiwanese history. The island was annexed by the Chinese Qing dynasty in 1683. So China has a long historical connection with Taiwan, a fact that is often forgotten.

During Japan's increasing aggression against Asia, including China, it forced the Qing dynasty to sign the unilateral Treaty of Shimonoseki and occupied Taiwan by force in April 1895. In July 1937, Japan launched a full-scale war against China but ultimately lost World War 2, in which the Chinese participated with the Allies.

In December 1941, the Chinese government declared war on Japan and announced that all treaties, agreements and contracts regarding relations between China and Japan, including the Treaty of Shimonoseki, were abrogated and that China would take back Taiwan.

In December 1943, the Cairo Declaration issued by the Chinese, US and British governments stipulated that Japan must return to China all the territories it had stolen from the Chinese, including northeast China, Taiwan and the Penghu Archipelago. The Potsdam Proclamation signed by China, the US and Britain in 1945 (and later accepted by the Soviet Union) further stipulated that “the provisions of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out". In August of that year, Japan surrendered and promised that the obligations set out in the Potsdam Proclamation would be faithfully observed. On October 25, 1945, the Chinese government regained Taiwan and the Penghu Archipelago and resumed the exercise of sovereignty over Taiwan.

These important documents on international law thus form the legal cornerstone of the post-war international order and played an important role in consolidating the victory in the world's “anti-fascist" war and in preserving world peace.

China's current view regarding Taiwan — that there is only one China and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China's territory — is based on these comprehensive international legal decisions and documents.

The origins of Taiwan's predicament therefore lie primarily in the end of World War 2. As indicated, Taiwan had been a Japanese colony since 1895 but the victorious Allies agreed that with Japan's surrender it should be returned to China, where Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the ruling nationalist KMT, was about to become embroiled in a civil war with the Chinese Communist Party. Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists lost the civil war, which spanned two decades, and defected to Taiwan, after which the People's Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949 under the Communist Party of China.

On October 25, 1971, the 26th session of the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 2758 by an overwhelming majority, in terms of which it was decided “to restore all the rights of the PRC and to recognise the delegates of its government as the sole legal representatives”. Also, that the Taiwanese government should immediately vacate its UN seats. The one-China principle is therefore a fundamental principle affirmed in resolution 2758.

This is the premise on which the PRC has established diplomatic relations with 182 countries. It is still an established international consensus and a widely recognised basic norm in international relations. The vast majority of the 182 states with diplomatic relations with Beijing have no problem steadfastly maintaining their commitment to the one-China principle.

Only 13 states maintain official diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Last March,  Honduras became the latest country to cut ties with Taipei and establish relations with Beijing.

On August 3, 2023, UN secretary-general António Guterres confirmed that the world body remains committed to resolution 2758 on Taiwan.

US-China dispute

Since the establishment of diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1978 and repeatedly thereafter, the US has indicated that it recognises the Beijing government as the sole legitimate government of China. “The United States government recognises the Chinese position that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China."

For example, the US reaffirmed its policy in an official statement in 1982, adding that the US “has no intention of violating Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity or interfering in China's internal affairs" and further that “Washington, DC, does not support Taiwanese independence”.

During recent meetings between Biden and Xi, including in Bali and San Francisco, where progress was made in restoring communication channels between the two countries, Biden said he was “trying to assure President Xi that the decades-long US policy on Taiwan has not changed". Furthermore, that the US has no need for “a new Cold War and that he does not think China is planning one".

Although the US has maintained a predictable and moderate policy towards Taiwan for decades, the Biden administration now appears determined to water down that stance with the ostensible aim of destabilising China as the world's second largest economy threatens to overtake the US.

The Chinese are deeply troubled by the fact that despite repeated assurances about the one-China policy, the US has recently been pursuing an increasingly robust and challenging “unofficial relationship" with Taiwan through high-level mutual visits, rising sales of sophisticated defence equipment to the island and so on. In fact, the Chinese accuse the Americans of not matching their “morning and evening talk".

Through an approach of “strategic ambiguity", the US has fortunately succeeded for decades in maintaining a delicate balance between supporting Taiwan and maintaining good relations with China. But it appears the Biden administration is intensifying its efforts to undermine the one-China principle and move ever further away from the “strategic ambiguity" approach.

In fact, Biden recently said the US would come to Taiwan's defence if China invaded. Similar remarks have been avoided in the past and rarely if ever uttered by former presidents. China views this as severe interference in its domestic affairs and claims it will further embolden the “separatist and independence factions" in Taiwan.

The Americans retort that if the respective agreements on Taiwan are scrutinised, it would appear that even though the US recognises the Chinese position on one China, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 nevertheless creates space for the US to sell arms to Taiwan, thereby reaffirming the island's right to collective self-defence.

In terms of the relevant law, the US considers any attempt to determine the future of Taiwan by non-peaceful means a threat. Furthermore, reference is made to China's increasing diplomatic, economic and military pressure on Taiwan, as well as Xi's aggressive territorial claims in the region.

As a result, the Chinese accuse the US of historically regressing by renouncing its original Taiwan position, agreed obligations and bilateral consensus and openly ignoring the legal power of the Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Proclamation. Such moves, China says, aim to hinder China's peaceful reunification, undermine peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, turn the island into an “unsinkable aircraft carrier" and in the process damage China's international image.

The way forward 

A military invasion by China still seems unlikely. But with the rather strained relations between the US and China, one can only hope both will adjust their policies so they can get along at a bilateral level under rapidly changing geopolitical circumstances by actively pursuing the principle of diplomacy and dialogue based on mutual respect, trust and peaceful coexistence.

Hopefully, in its extended diplomatic dialogue, which has been the main focus of the recent Biden/Xi meetings, the US will try to clarify key aspects of its one-China policy more consistently and with greater credibility to both Taiwan and Beijing: among other things, that the goal is not an independent Taiwan but peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

In order to make progress, the Biden administration will have to negotiate and act on Taiwan with greater discipline and consistency and refrain from making politically opportunistic but strategically harmful statements about Taiwan.

Gert Grobler is a former ambassador and a senior research fellow at the Institute for African Studies at Zhejiang Normal University in China.

♦ VWB ♦

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