TENSIONS between China and Taiwan have been brought to the fore again, with leadership changes and questions of decades-old policy threatening to drastically alter the status quo.
A stark reminder of that came today when Taiwan scrambled jets and navy ships as a group of Chinese warships led by China’s sole aircraft carrier sailed north through the Taiwan Strait.
According to Reuters, the Soviet-built Liaoning aircraft carrier, returning from exercises in the South China Sea, was not trespassing in Taiwan’s territorial waters but entered its air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the southwest, Taiwan’s defence ministry said.
This provoked comments from Taiwan’s China policy-making body, the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), expressing its concern that they expect 2017 to be a challenging year for Sino-Taiwan relations and that any threats from China “would not benefit cross-strait ties.”
Today’s exercises are a part of an ongoing escalation in tensions between the two sides since the election victory of Tsai Ing-wen back in January last year.
Following the election win, China cut all high level communications with Taiwan and imposed economic sanctions, including measures to reduce Chinese tourism and cut certain agricultural imports from Taiwan.
To understand China’s strong disapproval of the staunchly pro-independence new President, a look at the history of the delicate relationship between the two self-governing entities is needed.
China has considered Taiwan a renegade state ever since Chian Kai-shek, leader of the nationalist Chinese, lost the civil war to the Communists and fled with thousands of supporters to the island in 1949. Here he set up an authoritarian state that he claimed was the rightful government of all of China.
Both nations continued to claim legitimacy as the ruling government of China with Beijing claiming the name People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan taking the Republic of China (ROC), a name that still officially stands today.
With both claiming legitimacy, the one China policy was drawn up in the 1970s to clarify formal diplomatic relations. The agreement sets out that countries can maintain formal diplomatic relations with China or Taiwan, but not both.
A key diplomatic formula was set up to ease tensions when, in 1992, Beijing and Taipei agreed there was only “one China” encompassing the mainland and Taiwan. Despite both continuing to disagree as to which was the legitimate governing body, the agreement did signify that Taiwan would not declare independence. A stipulation that stands to be threatened by the growing Taiwan independence movement.
China continues to regard Taiwan as a breakaway province, however, Taiwan’s leaders say it is clearly much more, arguing that it is a sovereign state.
These drastically disparate views has led to an uncomfortable status quo, with China still vowing to retake the small island, by force if necessary, and Taipei stating its desire for independence.
Despite the ambiguity of Taiwan’s legal status, many other nations appear seemingly happy to accept the status quo and the one China policy for the sake of stability in the region.
But this may be on the cusp of changing.
The status quo has not only been threatened by Tsai’s election victory but also a leadership change on the other side of the Pacific.
Trump’s indiscretion when handling China and his disregard for the status quo between the three entities has thrown the delicate relations into question.
The acceptance of Tsai’s phone call upon his election victory was the match that set the blaze. It is believed that Taipei did not intend the phone call to become the major international incident that it did with Vincent Chao, a spokesman for the Taiwanese National Security Council, saying that the expectation was that news of the call would be kept low key.
It is standard policy for Taiwan that when a new U.S. president is elected, representatives reach out. Also, Tsai, who has stressed that she will maintain the status quo in relations with China, did not bring up the one China policy during the call.
It appears to be the movements of the Trump team and the ensuing tweets, press releases and the president-elect’s interviews questioning the one China policy that has led to Beijing posturing for power.
Immediately after the call in December China flexed its military muscles by conducting its first exercises with the Liaoning aircraft carrier battle group with live ammunition in the Bohai Sea.
Trump’s actions have certainly seen the issue return to centre stage and have provoked some not-so-subtle and uncharacteristic threats from Beijing, with President Xi Jinping using his New Year’s address to reaffirm Beijing’s claims over Taiwan.
“Chinese people will not agree to whoever wants to make trouble” on China’s sovereignty rights and maritime interests, Xi said, making clear that Beijing will never bend on the One China policy.
Following Trump’s unmasked desire to start a trade war with Beijing and open discussions on other issues, many experts feel that he is using Taiwan as a bargaining chip for upcoming negotiations.
Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 4, 2016
their country (the U.S. doesn't tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don't think so!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 4, 2016
While this may well be true, Taipei cannot be painted as the innocent bystander.
Since China’s show of might, Tsai herself has been seen visiting military bases, assigning billions of dollars to naval upgrades and announcing plans to construct Taiwan’s own submarines.
Last week’s decision to stop in the U.S. and meet with serving senators was undoubtedly a move that she knew would antagonise Beijing.
Given the recent developments, it would reasonable to expect increased tensions in both Sino-Taiwan and U.S.-China relations in the coming months.
But it is in the best interests of all parties to find a diplomatic solution. A peaceful cross-strait relationship is central to the stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region and is, therefore, of vital importance to the United States.
All parties involved must take responsibility for avoiding the impending crisis. The tit-for-tat approach developing between Taiwan and China needs to be stymied now before it escalates further and turns the delicate triangle of ties between the United States, China, and Taiwan into a tinderbox that could easily be set ablaze by a match called Trump.