In the 17th century, large-scale Han Chinese immigration to Western Taiwan commenced. The island of Taiwan was annexed in 1683 by the Qing dynasty. It was ceded to the Empire of Japan in 1895. The Republic of China (‘ROC’), which had overthrown the Qing Dynasty in 1911, took control of Taiwan following the surrender of Japan in 1945 at the end of World War II.
At this point, the Civil War – which had commenced in 1927 – between the forces of the Communist Party of China (‘CPC’) led by Mao Tsetung and the forces of the Kuomintang (‘KMT’) led by Chiang Kaishek, broke out for the third time. This resulted in 1949 in the victory for the CPC and the defeat of the KMT. The CPC created the People’s Republic of China (‘PRC’) on 1 October 1949. The remnant forces of the KMT fled to Taiwan and the effective jurisdiction of the ROC has since been limited to Taiwan and some smaller islands.
Notwithstanding the ROC’s massive loss of power and influence – restricted as it was to just Taiwan – the US and other Western powers manipulated the United Nations such that Chiang Kaishek’s Republic of China (‘ROC’) was accepted as the effective government of China with a seat on the Security Council even though its power was limited to Taiwan. The PRC, the actual government of the whole of China, was ignored and treated as if it did not exist. This position continued until February 1972 when the Shanghai Communique stated the respective positions of China and the USA during the breakthrough visit to China by President Nixon of the US.
“11. The two sides reviewed the long-standing serious disputes between China and the United States. The Chinese side reaffirmed its position: the Taiwan question is the crucial question obstructing the normalization of relations between China and the United States; the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government of China; Taiwan is a province of China which has long been returned to the motherland; the liberation of Taiwan is China’s internal affair in which no other country has the right to interfere; and all US forces and military installations must be withdrawn from Taiwan. The Chinese Government firmly opposes any activities which aim at the creation of “one China, one Taiwan”, “one China, two governments”, “two China’s”, an “independent Taiwan” or advocate that “the status of Taiwan remains to be determined”.
12.The US side declared: The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves. With this prospect in mind, it affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all US forces and military installations from Taiwan. In the meantime, it will progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes…”
The key words used by the US side and approved by the Chinese side are “Taiwan is a part of China”. There is no reference to Taiwan having a right to secede or an entitlement to hold a plebiscite on the issue of possible independence. And there is no concession on the Chinese side that Taiwan has any entitlement at a date in the future to form itself into an independent entity. Taiwan, quite simply, is part of China.
China has always taken a long view about the reintegration of Taiwan into China. In 1949, exhausted by the Civil War against the KMT and the World War II Patriotic War against Japan, China resisted any suggestions that they should occupy Taiwan. The priority in 1949 was to convert the “Sick Man of Asia” – as China was designated by historians – into a modern economic power. The prime objective was to lift 1bn people out of poverty and improve the living standards of the people of China.
That said, the reunification of China with Taiwan as a fully fledged province was always on the agenda but tending to the welfare of the people was the primary goal of Beijing. Reunification will happen but when it will happen depends on political circumstances. Any attempts by the US to treat Taiwan as an independent state is met with stern opposition by Beijing and a heightening of military tensions. There is a mistaken assumption that China is chomping at the bit every ready to launch a full scale military invasion of Taiwan. This is far from the truth but the line is repeated because it is part of a bigger issue which dominates Western political attitudes – Japan and Australia included. And that is the issue of the rise of China.
The World is in a new place. Shortly, and for the first time in world history, a Communist Government will become the largest economic power. China will dislodge the US from top spot and the US is torn as to how they should handle their demotion. Some in the US, concerned at the growth of China, favour efforts to pull China down – sooner rather than later – and this provides the backdrop to the significant US build-up of military power (450 US military bases with nuclear warheads aimed at China). This also explains, for example, the US deal with Australia and the UK to build nuclear powered submarines. The accelerated build-up started with former President Obama’s much
publicised ‘Pivot to Asia’ and has continued unabated under Presidents Trump and Biden. It now provides the backdrop for discussion of all international political issues because within seven years China will displace the US as the largest economic power in the world. Significant consequences follow with which all Governments will have to wrestle. No international issue can be properly aired and discussed unless China – such is its size and progress – is invited to participate. China is new. It is different and it is independent. It is in this context that China’s attitude to Taiwan is to be viewed
“De-coupling from China” has been much touted in the media meaning that the rest of the world should ‘gang up’ together against China and cease to trade with or invest China. China should be isolated. This, it is said, will hurt China and force it to turn away from its commitment to build a Socialist State. However, it was the US Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, who recently admitted that de-coupling from China was just not possible. The volume of Chinese trade with the world is too big to now pursue a policy of de-coupling. Additionally, China’s contribution is so essential on issues such as climate control and the environment that seeking its input whilst at the same time severing all trade and investment links is just not possible.
A new approach has come into view. “What Japan intends to do, rather than decoupling from China, is to strategically identify areas where collaboration is possible and areas where risks should be avoided,” said Yoshimasa Hayashi, Japan’s Foreign Minister, in a written interview with the Financial Times. “The Japanese government will continue to encourage co-operation in the economic field in a manner that contributes to the national interest of Japan as a whole.” This so-called De-Risking Strategy is an approach first put forward by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in March, when she called for “new defensive tools” for sectors such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence.” Since then, UK and Japanese officials have started adopting that same phrase, while the US is emphasising that its China policy is focused on de-risking and not de-coupling.
Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Tokyo, has argued that a response to Beijing’s economic coercion needs to “be collective and must be led by the United States”, but Japan still prefers to use the World Trade Organization as a mechanism to resolve disputes. “The difficulty about economic security is that countries are both collaborators and rivals,” observes Kazuto Suzuki, professor at the University of Tokyo. “If US companies suffer, it’s an opportunity for Germany, France and Japan. That is why the thinking of the US, EU and Japan will be different and it will be difficult to reach a consensus on how aggressively they will use export controls against China.”. Prof Suzuki identifies the dilemma facing any united trade and commercial action against China – those countries that try to collaborate against China are also the same countries who vie with each other to gain a commercial advantage with China.
There is a third alternative to “de-coupling” and “de-risking” and that is military confrontation. The US thinking goes like this – “China is strong today and if it stays on course it will be even stronger in 20 years so better we take military action now to impede China’s progress.” With every day that passes the US falls further behind – this is the backdrop to all American thinking. “How can we take out China?” and top of the list is Taiwan. The US is the problem – not China.
This narrative explains why many people, including myself, regard the current international political situation as more of a threat to world peace than even the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This weekend the G7 raised the stakes with its strongest condemnation of China and what it perceives, wrongly, to be the rising military and economic security threats posed by China. Skirmishes can quickly become moments of real international crisis especially when a superpower – the US – sees its power and influence slipping from its grasp.