THE dispute between China and Taiwan is nothing new. Tensions between the two have been palpable since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. But a recent string of intensified efforts to isolate and weaken the island territory looks increasingly like China is done playing and wants to completely erase Taiwan’s international identity.
Taiwan is one of China’s most sensitive issues and a potential military flashpoint as Beijing claims Taiwan as its sacred territory and considers it a Chinese province, not a nation.
Since Taiwan’s formation in 1949, both regions have 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 shaky status quo has remained since, with the signing of the 1992 consensus aimed at further easing tensions and allaying any fear of a Taiwan breakaway.
While the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the historically pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has increased China’s frustrations with Taiwan, Tsai has repeatedly underscored a wish to maintain the status quo under the one-China policy.
Despite this, in recent months China has ratcheted up diplomatic, economic, and military pressure tactics to express its displeasure.
Threats and strategy
On top of staging the largest display of naval forces in its history in the South China Sea in April, and conducting live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing has resorted to a raft of other more crafty tactics.
Earlier this month, Beijing blocked Taiwan’s representatives – even its journalists – from participating in the World Health Organisation’s annual assembly in Geneva.
On April 25, the Civil Aviation Administration of China sent letters to 44 airlines saying they had violated the one-China policy and would face “severe consequences” if they did not remove references on their websites and in other material that suggested Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau were independent territories. It was a move the White House dubbed “Orwellian nonsense” in its efforts to impose political views on private companies.
According to a report by Associated Press, Air Canada, British Airways and Lufthansa are among the carriers that have complied with Beijing’s order. Other big names, such as Qantas, have asked for more time due to “technical difficulties.”
Other industries have also caved to the economic pressure of the world’s biggest consumer market. The Gap recently apologised for printing a t-shirt depicting China without Taiwan after pictures did the rounds on Chinese social media.
China has also ramped up its efforts to wrest back the dwindling number of allies that recognise Taiwan as an independent country – most recently on Thursday, Burkina Faso and earlier in the month, the Dominican Republic. Taiwan are now left with only one ally in Africa – Swaziland.
The Pacific Islands, where six of Taiwan’s 18 diplomatic allies lie, also look likely to descend into a diplomatic tug-of-war in which Chinese financial aid will be a major bargaining chip.
Why the renewed efforts?
There are a number of theories as to why Beijing has decided to rachet up pressure on Taiwan that goes beyond the usual decades-long back-and-forth.
As Steven Lee Myers points out in The New York Times, it’s possible the increase is not the result of a single, coordinated campaign, but rather a variety of government branches working independently to try and please President Xi Jinping following his rousing nationalist speech delivered at the People’s Congress in March.
“All manoeuvres and tricks to split the motherland are sure to fail,” Xi said at the time. “Not one inch of the territory of the great motherland can be carved off from China.”
The apparent improving relations between the administration of US President Donald Trump and Taiwan pose another point of frustration for Beijing. In December, Trump signed into law the 2018 National Defence Authorisation Act, which allows the Pentagon to send warships to Taiwan.
Trump also signed the Taiwan Travel Act, allowing high-level officials to meet their Taiwanese counterparts and vice versa, further angering Beijing.
Wasting no time to make their position clear, Washington sent US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Alex Wong, to Taipei just days later.
DAS Alex Wong reaffirmed the strength of U.S.-#Taiwan relations and our shared and enduring values at Taipei AmCham’s New Year’s celebration: “The United States has been, is, and always will be Taiwan’s closest friend and partner.” pic.twitter.com/ZgSKGKUu5n
— EAP Bureau (@USAsiaPacific) March 23, 2018
At the time, Chinese state-owned newspaper The Global Times published an op-ed saying Beijing must “prepare itself for a direct military clash in the Taiwan Straits.”
Chief Editor of Taiwan Sentinel, J Michael Cole, penned an editorial on Friday suggesting Beijing is busy bullying Taiwan as a way of distracting its own people from the lack of benefits they are receiving from growth and development.
What impact is this having?
Beijing’s initial goal was the reunification of Taiwan and the mainland, and their plan for achieving this was “to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people,” according to Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu.
But their aggressive approach and bullying of its island neighbour has only led to growing disdain for Beijing and a diminishing interest in reuniting with the mainland.
As cultural and political divides between the two grow deeper and the appeal of unification wanes, the pro-independence movement is picking up steam.
Two former presidents have joined forces in a grassroots effort to push for a referendum on Taiwanese independence. Taiwan’s first democratically elected president, Lee Teng-hui, and Chen Shui-bian of the DPP are calling for a vote by April 6, 2019.
Unapologetically pro-independence politicians are also gaining in popularity. Tsai’s appointment of William Lai, a staunch advocate of independence, ruffled some feathers.
Lai has repeatedly made his feelings clear, stating in parliament that he was a “Taiwan independence worker” and that his position was that Taiwan was a sovereign, independent country. His remarks prompted Chinese tabloid The Global Times to call for him to be prosecuted under China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law.
With Lai’s popularity growing and the cry for independence resonating more with the people of Taiwan, it seems Beijing’s extended efforts to retain its so-called “rogue territory” has only served to push it further away.