Rising tensions between Taiwan and China are too risky to neglect
With American eyes riveted on North Korea’s enmity, rising tensions between China and Taiwan are slipping through the cracks and could cause much bigger problems for the region.
Although China and Taiwan have always been cautious, new tensions and military preparations can make mistakes easier, especially if the North Korean crisis worsens. Neglecting Taiwan may become President Donald Trump’s biggest diplomatic mistake in the Far East.
In recent weeks, Taiwan has repeatedly complained of new aggressive tactics by China in its neighborhood but got little notice from a White House engrossed in blocking North Korea’s attempts to reach the US with nuclear-tipped missiles.
Tensions across the Taiwan Strait heightened in January, when Chinese airliners suddenly started flying on route M503 dangerously close to Taiwan’s air space. Relations soured further when Beijing brushed off objections by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.
Direct flights between Taiwan and China started only in 2009 and there is talk in Taiwan now of revoking the licenses of Chinese airlines. That would create a mess since Taiwanese businesses have very large investments in China and about 50,000 passengers could be stranded by cancelled flights during the Lunar New Year rush starting February 16.
The M503 route is adjacent to the Taipei Flight Information Region, which provides services for nearly 1.5 million civilian flights annually carrying about sixty million passengers including over half-a-million Americans.
In a show of muscle, Chinese warplanes have circumnavigated Taiwan with unprecedented regularity in 2016-2017, causing alarm in Taipei. To deter incursions, Taiwan’s armed forces are beefing up their missile defense systems and are improving submarine capabilities.
The latest defense white paper says the Taiwanese military will reinforce its sea and air interception capabilities. It is reportedly developing a missile shield and nimble assault ships capable of firing missiles against invading Chinese warships. Taiwan cannot win a war with China but could slow down an invasion for long enough to win time for mediation and other help.
Getting diplomatic attention as a nation is hard for Taiwan despite being a high-tech democracy of 24 million people with 99 per cent literacy. The United Nations still treats it like a non-country and has consistently refused to accept it as a member because of pressure from China. Other international bodies like the International Olympics Committee (IOC) allow Taiwan to participate only as Chinese Taipei.
Trump angered China in June last year by announcing a $1.42 billion arms sale to Taiwan and Beijing has responded, among other things, by ratcheting up economic and military pressure on Taiwan.
It is using every means short of open hostilities to remind Washington and the Taiwanese people that Beijing sees the island as a renegade province, which must merge with China eventually, through war if necessary. For Beijing, Taiwan can never seek to exist as an independent country.
However, Taiwan has been an independent country de facto since 1950 and a robust democracy since presidential elections in 1996. Its per capita GDP is almost three times that of China.
Like most other countries the US acquiesces to Beijing’s view that there is only one China, which is the mainland. But incongruously, Washington is also a military guarantor and ally of Taiwan, pledged to protect it against invasion by Beijing.
This confusing one China concept has been in place for decades but is being shaken because younger Taiwanese reportedly see themselves as different from people in mainland China.
A 2016-17 survey by the Taiwan Brain Trust found that nearly 90 per cent of younger Taiwanese would prefer to obtain worldwide recognition of Taiwan as an independent nation. Only 11 per cent backed unification with China and 75 per cent said Taiwan and China are separate nations. This is anathema to Beijing.
Undoubtedly North Korea is the region’s chief crisis, but Beijing regularly calls Taiwan the most sensitive issue in relations with the US. It sounded new alarm bells when Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act for the 2018 fiscal year, which approves mutual visits by navy vessels between Taiwan and the United States.
In December, media reports quoted a senior Chinese diplomat as saying, “The day that a U.S. Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung (Taiwan’s main port) is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unifies Taiwan with military force.”
At China’s 19th Party Congress in October last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping forcefully insisted, “We have firm will, full confidence and sufficient capability to defeat any form of Taiwan independence secession plot.”
Beijing says Taiwan accepted the one China policy in a 1992 Consensus and wants a new full-throated endorsement from Tsai. To protect Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty, Tsai, who took office in 2016, recognizes the Consensus as “historical fact” but has not endorsed its wording.
Partly to disarm Chinese apprehensions, she has focused on stabilizing relations across the Taiwan Strait and has been cautious and pragmatic to avoid provoking Beijing. She has called for a new model of cross-Strait relations that “benefit the stability and prosperity of both sides and the region as a whole”.
To broaden Taiwan’s contacts, her New Southbound Policy pays more attention to 18 countries across Southeast and South Asia, and prioritizes India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. This is also an attempt to play a more constructive role in the Indo-Pacific region, which is a priority for Trump.
But Beijing alleges she is trying to eliminate Chinese influence over Taiwan, partly because Tsai’s party is seen to be sympathetic to Taiwanese independence.
To shut more doors, Beijing has reinforced a powerful campaign to prevent Taiwan from attending UN meetings even as observers. It has successfully persuaded Panama, Gambia and other small countries to withdraw recognition of Taiwan as a state, further isolating Tsai’s government diplomatically.
Graphic: By Joowwww [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons