The Taiwan enigma
Those, like some highly placed people in the US government and Congress, who say it is inevitable that Taiwan with its population of 23 million will one day return as part of mainland China rather as Hong King did, have really missed a beat.
There is simply no likelihood that an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese will ever agree to that. The leader of the independence-minded Democratic Progressive party, Ms Tsai Ing-wen, may have gone down to defeat in Saturday’s election but she did gave the victor, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang party, who is pro reunification — although at some distant date — a close run.
In the Chinese government’s eyes it has two rebellious provinces on its plate — Tibet and Taiwan. In Tibet protestors have clashed with police and soldiers. In Taiwan there is no occupation but over 1000 Chinese missiles are pointed at its heart.
The Tibetans, by and large, no longer try and argue for independence, but even the notion of autonomy is not acceptable to Beijing. In marked contrast, while confronting Taiwan and its significant independence movement, the Chinese offer autonomy as long as Taiwan will accept sovereign rule from Beijing. At the moment, however, there are a minority of takers — certainly not in the opposition party, which likes to talk about independence and membership of the UN nor, for the most part, in the governing party, descended from the Nationalists of China, settled by a retreating General Chiang Kai-shek, which for historical reasons has a soft spot for “One China”.
During the last 12 years Taiwan’s China debate has matured at a fast rate. Ms Tsai’s predecessor, President Chen Shui-bian, may not have won many converts to his independence line (which is supported by about 30 per cent of the voters) but he undoubtedly shifted the terms of the debate. He persuaded the electorate that they must never kow tow to China. At the same time they have been convinced by the present governing party that Taiwan should not provoke China and that Taipei must increase its economic links, its direct air flights and an influx of significant numbers of Chinese tourists (all of which under the first Ma administration it began to do).
In broad terms it might seem that this is just the policy of the status quo- neither independence nor union. In many aspects this is so. But it is not the same status quo as 12 years ago. It is both more independent minded and more conciliatory.
One of Taiwan’s troubles is that it too easily exaggerates its vulnerability. It is a great moral and political wrong that Taiwan is excluded from the UN, from where it was summarily ejected when President Richard Nixon made his historic peace with Mao Zedong. But Taiwan has also carved out a great deal of economic and even political space for itself. It has become, despite a population less than half the size of Britain’s, an industrial and technological giant with over $150 billion of foreign exports each year. Its investments of capital, machinery and personnel in China largely made possible China’s own technological revolution. It has a fine national health service, only second in the world to Sweden’s, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
The Beijing dragon can and does growl, although much less than it used to. But it wouldn’t dare bite, despite China’s arms build up and its missiles pointing at Taiwan. China surely knows it could never swallow mighty, if small, Taiwan. And it knows that the US with its offshore submarines and F-15s based in nearby Okinawa would never let it try. The last two presidents of China have been far less polemical and demanding about Taiwan than their predecessors.
Besides, if China does move towards democracy it could be that the Taiwanese will be less fearful about a closer relationship although I doubt if they would ever give up their independence. They might accept a European Union-type relationship.
The Chinese, for their part, should think hard about their historical claim to Taiwan. It is a tenuous one and would not pass muster in the International Court of Justice.
Taiwan does exceedingly well on its own. Its democracy has just flourished again (even if there were some serious irregularities). It is a self-confident country. It is striding towards freedom.
Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator
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