Taiwan: a formula for peace

US president Harry Truman’s decision on June 25, 1950, to deploy the Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait in order to prevent the Chinese Communists from landing on the island was without doubt a blatant intervention in China’s internal affairs.  America’s intervention notwithstanding, the issue of Taiwan, to the extent in which it pits against each other two Chinese actors, namely the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, is still a Chinese domestic issue. However, both the passing of time and geopolitical factors have contributed to giving the problem an international dimension. Thus ultimately Taiwan can be defined as an internal Chinese issue with international repercussions; these, in turn, have the potential of  escalating into an open confrontation between the United States and China. That the outcome of such a confrontation would be catastrophic is a given, hence the impetus to try to work out an arrangement that would be an improvement on the current situation, an arrangement that cannot ignore a number of other givens. The two Chinas First, the relationship between the two Chinas in terms of land size, population, economic clout and military potential is totally asymmetrical and will remain so.  Second, Taipei, under whatever guise, is not a threat to Beijing, either politically or economically. Third, promoting Taiwan does not “contain” China were it only for the fact that Taiwan is the largest outside investor in China. Thus Taiwan’s prosperity is actually a contributing factor to China’s economy.  Fourth, the sine qua non of Taiwan’s existence under its present guise is its American umbrella. Fifth, the presence on Chinese soil of two governing powers is something Beijing can live with. What is not acceptable, however, is that a part of China, sponsored by a foreign power, secedes from the Chinese state. Thus, for Beijing, a foreign-sponsored secession is a red line that cannot be crossed, and the reason this is so pertains to far more than politics. National integrity For a nation that has been invaded, colonized and at one point reduced to a shadow of its former self, the issue of Taiwan is the last chapter of a long tale of foreign interference and humiliations. Thus for Beijing “reunification” is far more than a political exercise. It relates to the realm of the emotional and to the restoration of the full dignity of a nation that was deprived of exercising its authority on part of its territory by a foreign intervention. Thus when all is said and done, the one non-negotiable requirement for Beijing is the formal preservation of the integrity of the nation’s borders.  This, in turn, leads to another question: What are the chances that in a foreseeable future Beijing will backtrack regarding this demand? While in politics nothing is static, all the indicators are that this is a position on which Beijing will not shift. Balancing act On paper the current confrontation involves three parties: the People’s Republic of China, the authority ruling Taiwan, and the United States. In terms of power relations, however, the conflict is between Washington and Beijing.  When Washington deployed the Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait in 1950 it had in the region a degree of military superiority that was unchecked. Today, that superiority is still real but challenged. Twenty years from now, if China proceeds on its current trajectory, America’s military superiority might well have morphed, at best, into a balancing act. Thus time is not on the side of the United States. Were Beijing to choose, at that time, to move decisively against Taiwan, be it by a blockade, an embargo or, less likely, a military intervention, the United States might find itself in a position in which the cost of keeping Taiwan in its sphere of influence will outweigh its benefits. As for Beijing, a decisive move against Taiwan is liable to  trigger a massive reaction that would not play in its favor.  The end result is that a negotiated solution is in the interest of the two main contenders, namely the United States and China. The initiation of such a process would, however, require the one ingredient that is as of now absent from the confrontation, namely the political will to find a realistic alternative to the current impasse.  Fostering that political will should now be a priority both for Washington and for the other main actors in the region such as Japan and South Korea. But those who can give substance to that will can only be the two Chinese actors, namely Beijing and Taipei. Integration vs independence Over the decades, the semblance of a dialogue developed between Beijing and the Kuomintang (KMT) on Taiwan. With time this took the form of  “cross-Strait” talks that led to a number of technical agreements between the two parties regarding, among others, air links and the like. These talks took a step back in 2016 with the

Taiwan: a formula for peace

US president Harry Truman’s decision on June 25, 1950, to deploy the Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait in order to prevent the Chinese Communists from landing on the island was without doubt a blatant intervention in China’s internal affairs. 

America’s intervention notwithstanding, the issue of Taiwan, to the extent in which it pits against each other two Chinese actors, namely the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, is still a Chinese domestic issue.

However, both the passing of time and geopolitical factors have contributed to giving the problem an international dimension. Thus ultimately Taiwan can be defined as an internal Chinese issue with international repercussions; these, in turn, have the potential of  escalating into an open confrontation between the United States and China.

That the outcome of such a confrontation would be catastrophic is a given, hence the impetus to try to work out an arrangement that would be an improvement on the current situation, an arrangement that cannot ignore a number of other givens.

The two Chinas

First, the relationship between the two Chinas in terms of land size, population, economic clout and military potential is totally asymmetrical and will remain so. 

Second, Taipei, under whatever guise, is not a threat to Beijing, either politically or economically.

Third, promoting Taiwan does not “contain” China were it only for the fact that Taiwan is the largest outside investor in China. Thus Taiwan’s prosperity is actually a contributing factor to China’s economy.

 Fourth, the sine qua non of Taiwan’s existence under its present guise is its American umbrella.

Fifth, the presence on Chinese soil of two governing powers is something Beijing can live with. What is not acceptable, however, is that a part of China, sponsored by a foreign power, secedes from the Chinese state. Thus, for Beijing, a foreign-sponsored secession is a red line that cannot be crossed, and the reason this is so pertains to far more than politics.

National integrity

For a nation that has been invaded, colonized and at one point reduced to a shadow of its former self, the issue of Taiwan is the last chapter of a long tale of foreign interference and humiliations.

Thus for Beijing “reunification” is far more than a political exercise. It relates to the realm of the emotional and to the restoration of the full dignity of a nation that was deprived of exercising its authority on part of its territory by a foreign intervention.

Thus when all is said and done, the one non-negotiable requirement for Beijing is the formal preservation of the integrity of the nation’s borders. 

This, in turn, leads to another question: What are the chances that in a foreseeable future Beijing will backtrack regarding this demand? While in politics nothing is static, all the indicators are that this is a position on which Beijing will not shift.

Balancing act

On paper the current confrontation involves three parties: the People’s Republic of China, the authority ruling Taiwan, and the United States. In terms of power relations, however, the conflict is between Washington and Beijing. 

When Washington deployed the Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait in 1950 it had in the region a degree of military superiority that was unchecked. Today, that superiority is still real but challenged.

Twenty years from now, if China proceeds on its current trajectory, America’s military superiority might well have morphed, at best, into a balancing act. Thus time is not on the side of the United States.

Were Beijing to choose, at that time, to move decisively against Taiwan, be it by a blockade, an embargo or, less likely, a military intervention, the United States might find itself in a position in which the cost of keeping Taiwan in its sphere of influence will outweigh its benefits.

As for Beijing, a decisive move against Taiwan is liable to  trigger a massive reaction that would not play in its favor. 

The end result is that a negotiated solution is in the interest of the two main contenders, namely the United States and China.

The initiation of such a process would, however, require the one ingredient that is as of now absent from the confrontation, namely the political will to find a realistic alternative to the current impasse. 

Fostering that political will should now be a priority both for Washington and for the other main actors in the region such as Japan and South Korea. But those who can give substance to that will can only be the two Chinese actors, namely Beijing and Taipei.

Integration vs independence

Over the decades, the semblance of a dialogue developed between Beijing and the Kuomintang (KMT) on Taiwan. With time this took the form of  “cross-Strait” talks that led to a number of technical agreements between the two parties regarding, among others, air links and the like.

These talks took a step back in 2016 with the electoral defeat of the KMT and the coming to power of the Democratic People’s Party. While the KMT was in essence pan-Chinese, the DPP featured “independence” in its program, and the result was a corresponding contraction of “cross-Strait” dialogue to a minimum. 

With Beijing now convinced that the DPP actually aims for secession, and that Washington is underhandedly encouraging such an outcome, China has for all practical purposes given up on presenting a political option to the current impasse. In parallel, a small faction in the central government would actually welcome Taiwan declaring its independence, as this would remove all restrictions in dealing with the breakaway province.

This approach is echoed by a minority in Taiwan and among the Taiwanese diaspora in the United States, which actually encourages “independence” on the assumption that it would lead to a more active role by Washington in support of Taiwan.

The end result of this situation is that there are grounds to believe that the current status quo will not endure indefinitely, and that it is actually slowly unraveling.

The alternative is a dialogue between the two Chinas on the assumption that what is at stake is not incompatible with two basic requirements of the concerned parties, namely for Taiwan to continue to exercise its self-rule and for Beijing to ensure that this is exercised within the framework of a “Greater China.”

Within this perspective, Beijing over the decades has articulated a number of archetypes; and while all were rejected by the KMT and might have been overtaken by time, today they might represent a general framework for negotiation.

Toward a workable formula

These would include first that Taiwan become part of a greater China with its capital and central government in Beijing, albeit with the stature of an autonomous entity. This in turn would require some the modification both of the Chinese constitution and of the constitution of Taiwan.

Second, Taiwan would retain all its governing institutions and political system, including an independent military force. The central government would not detach personnel to Taiwan, which would retain its own civil service. Foreign relations would be the preview of the central government, but not foreign trade and investment.

Third, economic relations within China would be the subject of cross-Strait agreements that would also cover population movements, residence permits and the like.

How the dialogue should be patterned is a moot point, but the model of the “cross-Strait” formula is one option that proved workable in the past.

There is no guarantee that a suitable solution would emerge from a dialogue between the Chinese parties. Conversely, it is a given that in the current climate, tensions can only increase, with the potential of escalating into an open confrontation with dire consequences at best.

Thus for Washington, encouraging the two Chinese parties to engage in a meaningful dialogue should be priority. And so would  an unequivocal message to Taiwan that while the United States and its allies support the island in principle, this does not mean that they  automatically endorse the out-of-hand rejection of a reasonable package presented by Beijing.

Last but not least, the people of Taiwan should have their say. Currently neither secession nor integration into the system in force on the mainland appear to have any appeal for the majority of the population of the island. Which leaves room for an alternative solution to the present impasse from which all would stand to profit.