19.10.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Tensions Continue to Swirl around the “Taiwan Problem”


An overarching “Taiwan problem” continues to gravitate toward the center of the entire system of relations between the two leading world powers, and it is becoming the focus of a regional political vortex that is sucking in other players that hold varying degrees of significance. As is always the case with this kind of event, the developments that go along with it are characterized by rapid, significant changes that require constant monitoring.

The last time that this author addressed this problem was due to how the process was developing for Taiwan to acquire the status of a “normal” subject-object of international relations, without any “Chinese” attributes in how it is designated. Until recently, this trend manifested itself in the form of seemingly random “incidents”, such as the absence of the word “China” in the design for its new passport’s outer cover, and on the logo of one of the Taiwanese embassies.

However, at the end of September, this tendency became much more pronounced, when the faction of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party came out in parliament with an initiative that proposed amendments to the current constitution, as well as one that is intended to “encourage the use of the word ‘Taiwan’ in the conduct of international affairs”.

It should be noted that the process of gradually getting rid of the signs of “Chinese-ness” in how Taiwan positions itself in the international arena by no means boils down to the sphere of “pure political technology”, since it is based on a very real sense of self-worth that is felt by most Taiwanese. For many years now, various sociological studies (as usual, given all the conditionality inherent in the methods used) have demonstrated approximately the same thing – that the majority of Taiwanese do not want to view themselves as part of a huge nationality that lives on the other side of the Taiwan Strait. This is confirmed by the results from the most recent polls that were taken concerning the debate over the constitutional amendments mentioned above. Figures appeared yet again that have been coming to light following (the many) actions like this taken over the past few years: 62.6% of the respondents identified themselves as “Taiwanese”, with only 2% as “Chinese” and 32.6% as “Taiwanese-Chinese”.

As far as self-determination for the island goes, during various international events only one-third of the respondents supported preserving their current state (as “the Republic of China”), while more than half the respondents spoke out in favor of the amendment above (for “Taiwan”).

The oldest Chinese party, the Kuomintang, which until recently espoused just “political Sinicism”, has not been able to evade the influence from these kinds of sentiments on the part of the “electorate”. Which it has tried to disseminate among all Taiwanese, considering them (in accordance with the bedrock views held by Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek) to be an integral component of a “unified Chinese people.”

Incidentally, the same views are fundamental to the Communist leadership of the PRC. Therefore, it was on the Kuomintang (its once bitter enemy) that Beijing, up until recently, had pinned its hopes for a peaceful solution to the “Taiwan problem”.

However, it is precisely this “Chinese-ness” on the part of the Kuomintang, and its desire to maintain productive relations with the “mainland” (primarily in the economic sphere), while taking an unclear position on the increasingly pressing issue of Taiwan’s “statehood”, that were the main reasons for the severe defeats handed to it by the last two general electoral cycles (2016 and 2020).

Apparently, that is why the Kuomintang decided to try to dramatically improve its image in the eyes of the Taiwanese, proposing two resolutions in early October which were unanimously adopted by the parliament and urge Taiwan’s leadership to “restore” diplomatic relations with the United States (severed at the initiative of Washington in 1979), as well as bolster American-Taiwanese ties in the field of defense “in the face of the Communist threat” (and it is clear from whom that originates). Needless to say, this horrified Beijing, both in terms of the content of the resolutions that were adopted and who initiated them.

Not only was Beijing extremely surprised, but, showing unprecedented zeal, the Kuomintang drove far into the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s “political turf”. Commenting on the aforementioned appeals made by a political rival, an official representative of the President of Taiwan stated that relations with the United States are built “on the basis of pragmatism”, and are developing on all fronts on a step-by-step basis.

President Tsai Ing-wen herself gave a speech on October 10, on the occasion of a national holiday (that the PRC and Taiwan both share), that “the mainland” assessed as “significantly softer and less defiant” than before. It is believed that the reason for this was not only the official reason given for another scheduled speech by the Taiwanese president, but also the tough position that Beijing has recently taken towards “Taiwanese separatists”.

The latter, however, have continued their efforts to involve both current and former foreign government officials in the agenda that affects Taiwan as much as possible. The latest Yushan Forum, held on October 8 by the country’s top leadership (via video conference), stood out in particular. The most significant foreign participants this time were former prime ministers  Malcolm Turnbull and Carl Bildt (from Australia and Sweden, respectively).

During their speeches, both showed the miracles of performing a verbal balancing act. On one hand, they showed respect for the “One-China Principle,” which Taiwan has rejected with increasing clarity. At the same time, they demonstrated various forms of support for the latter, and the entire long-standing set of claims the West puts forth against China, in particular, due to the situation in Hong Kong.

It is worth reiterating that it was Malcolm Turnbull who, in 2016, led the visit made by an Australian government delegation to the PRC, which yielded extremely beneficial results for it. So what then – now that same Malcolm Turnbull supports the masochistic, anti-Chinese policy espoused by his successor, Scott Morrison? How else can his statement be evaluated about Taiwan possibly acceding to the Trans-Pacific Partnership regional organization?

Bildt did not lag far behind in terms of similar rhetoric, using the image of a “wolf warrior” from a popular Chinese action movie to refer to the PRC’s policy.

It is surprising that representatives from European countries that are definitely not the most major players have recently ramped up their activities on the other side of the globe, and vis-a-vis one of the most dangerous problems of our time. Carl Bildt must be bored whiling away his time having a well-deserved rest: you can continue to “give guidance to” the descendants of Mazepa, who are no strangers to Sweden, and who live very close by.

The main beneficiary of this process of “state formation” for Taiwan did also not forget to make its presence known. Speaking at the University of Nevada on October 7, US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien raised the issue about the prospects of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army conducting an amphibious landing operation on the island. Apparently, the immediate reason for the statements made on this topic was the Global Times newspaper describing the recent military exercises conducted by the PLA in the Taiwan Strait as a “rehearsal” for seizing control of the island, “and not a warning” about whether these events are likely to develop.

In this respect, Robert O’Brien reiterated the long-standing official position taken by the United States about the possibility of military intervention in a (hypothetical) conflict in the vicinity of Taiwan, which is commonly referred to as “strategic ambiguity”. In keeping with this, the United States is not linked to Taiwan through some kind of binding alliance, but reserves the right to launch that kind of intervention. According to Washington, the uncertainty inherent in this issue, something which is extremely important for Beijing, turns out to be an important deterrent against its occurrence.

In addition, Robert O’Brien expressed the readiness of the United States to assist Taiwan in gaining the potential to become a “military porcupine”. In his opinion, “lions do not like to eat porcupines”.

However, in that same Global Times, that last statement by the high-ranking American official was seen as representing the unwillingness of the United States to get involved in a possible military conflict (in an area 12,000 kilometers from American shores), with consequences that are tough to predict.

Be that as it may, the above account indicates that various dangerous games are taking shape (including those involving flexing military muscle) around the “Taiwan problem” as a whole.

Vladimir Terekhov, an expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.