China’s Taiwan conundrum

April 08, 2021 06:00
Photo: Reuters

In 2005, China’s National People’s Congress enacted an Anti-Secession Law. The law’s first article said its intent was to oppose “Taiwan’s secession from China” and to bring about “peaceful national reunification.”

The word “peaceful” occurs 9 times and “non-peaceful” three times in the law.

Thus, article 8 says that “in the event … that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

That is to say, if Taiwan doesn’t agree to be absorbed peacefully, it will be forced to do so.

Beijing now feels that there is little likelihood of peaceful unification. Until 2019, the premier’s annual report to the NPC had a paragraph on “China’s peaceful reunification.” In 2020, the word “peaceful” was dropped. Last month, at the 2021 session, the word was again missing.

The signal has been picked up. On March 9, Admiral Philip Davidson, head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific command, warned that China might try to take over Taiwan “within the next six years.” Two weeks later, the man nominated to be his successor, Admiral John Aquilino, told U.S. lawmakers that the threat was more imminent “than most think” and called for urgent steps to strengthen defenses in the region.

Global Times, a nationalistic paper published by the official People’s Daily, has reported ongoing discussions on a new law that may provide a timeline to unification and measures to be taken to bring this about, including what life in Taiwan would be like in the future.

In 2005, before the anti-secession law appeared, there were reports that Chinese leaders would decide on either an anti-secession law or a national unification law. The former emphasizes the appearance of unity, while the latter focuses on ending separation.

Ever since Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party became Taiwan’s president in May 2016, succeeding Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang, Beijing has cut off its dialogue with Taiwan on the ground that she, unlike Ma, refused to accept the so-called “1992 consensus” under which both the Kuomintang and the Communist party agreed that there was only one China but the two sides could have different interpretations of what this meant.

Since then, the mainland has stepped up economic, diplomatic and military pressure on Taiwan, most recently by banning the island’s pineapples.

While Beijing observed a diplomatic truce during the eight years of the Ma presidency, to the extent of rejecting overtures from several countries that wanted to break ties with Taipei, as soon as Tsai became president, the truce was over, with Panama enticed to switch in June 2017 from Taipei to Beijing, followed by the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati. Now, only 14 countries still recognize Taiwan or, to give the island government its proper name, the Republic of China.

On the military front, so great is the pressure that Chinese military activities in Taiwan’s vicinity occur virtually on a daily basis, with 20 military aircraft entering Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on March 26 alone.

Within Taiwan, there is almost no appetite for unification with the mainland, with its authoritarian communist-led government.

Even Ma of the KMT is disillusioned with Beijing, saying more than a year ago that Beijing only focused on “one China” and omitted “different interpretations.” Last month, after Beijing drastically overhauled Hong Kong’s election structure, Ma said that “one country, two systems,” which the Communist party had said would be used to govern Taiwan after unification, had “officially passed into history.”
Beijing insists that Taiwan is unfinished business from the Chinese civil war of 1946-1949, which saw the Communists triumph over Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang government. With the establishment of the People’s Republic on the mainland in 1949, Chiang withdrew his government to Taiwan.

Chiang asserted that his was the legal government of all China and that Taiwan and the mainland were both part of China. But he died in 1975 and Taiwan has moved on. Today, the majority of the island’s people identify as Taiwanese, not Chinese.

In China’s long history, there have been extended periods when the country was divided – about as long as when it was united.

The 14th century historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” one of the great classical novels of Chinese literature, carries this opening observation on the cyclical nature of Chinese history: “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.”

Chinese leader Xi Jinping seems to have decided that the time for unity is nigh. But he, too, knows the cyclical nature of Chinese history, with unity and division following each other like night follows day.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.