Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Rare Opportunity for a ‘Thaw’ in Relations Between China and Taiwan

Most eyes are still firmly fixed on the depressingly drawn-out conflict in Ukraine.

It is a war taking place on the very doorstep of Europe and the European Union which finds itself, almost by the day, being drawn into its messy, tangled embrace.

Roughly five thousand miles away from the bloody battlefields of Ukraine, another equally depressingly long “sovereignty” dispute simply refuses to go away.

Tensions between China and Taiwan are heightened by a planned visit, starting this week, by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to the United States and Central America.

Tsai Ing-wen will depart Taiwan on March 29th for a 10-day trip, stopping in New York and Los Angeles then onto Central America. While in California she is expected to meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the most sensitive leg of the trip.

The Chinese foreign ministry has reiterated Beijing’s opposition to Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with U.S. officials.

Cross-strait relations have been a regular source of military tensions since the defeated Republic of China government fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a bloody civil war with the communists, who established the People’s Republic of China.

Through military and diplomatic pressure, Beijing hopes to achieve what it calls “reunification,” but it has not ruled out using military force.

This message was very recently rammed home in a speech delivered by China’s “new man” in Brussels.

Ambassador Fu Cong, as the new head of Mission of the Chinese Mission to the European Union, is arguably Beijing’s most powerful figure in Europe.

His speech, ostensibly about future EU-China trade relations, delivered to a group of Brussels-based businessmen and women, was delivered within a stone’s throw of the European Commission, the EU’s headquarters, and was decidedly undiplomatic.

Fu Cong, who took up his post just a few months ago, repeated the mantra that his country refuses to rule out military action if deemed necessary.

He used language not always associated with the relatively tranquil world of global diplomacy. A recent opinion poll reportedly shows only 7 percent of Taiwanese favour reunification with the mainland and, questioned about how China could “legitimately” use force in the event of an escalation, he insisted that the future of the island “must be made by the entire population of China.”

This, he said, was “because Taiwan is part of China” and he could “guarantee” that “99.9 percent” of mainland Chinese were in favour of reunification.

He is equally belligerent on likely Western sanctions in the event of Chinese military action against its near neighbour: “If that happens – sanctions – then we will gladly pay that price, but nothing will deter us from maintaining the unity of China.”

In a particularly open and frank address, Ambassador Cong also criticised the United States, accusing it of “provocation” against China on the Taiwan issue, adding, “if there was no provocation there would be no escalation.”

The ambassador warned, “People need to be careful. You cannot keep pushing the envelope because, if you do, the envelope might explode.”

By way of riposte, I sought a Taiwanese reaction, and Remus Li-Kuo Chen, Taiwan’s ambassador to the EU, said armed conflict “is not an option.”

“Taiwan has never, for even a single day, been ruled by the People’s Republic of China. Both sides of the Strait must accept the objective truth that neither side is subordinate to the other.”

He says Taiwan is committed to preserving the status quo and upholding the fact that only the Taiwanese can determine the future of Taiwan. Armed confrontation is “absolutely not” an option and it’s “only by respecting the commitment of the Taiwanese people to our sovereignty, democracy, and freedom, can there be a foundation for resuming constructive interaction across the Taiwan Strait.”

He added that provided there is “rationality, equality, and mutual respect” Taiwan is willing to work with the Beijing authorities to find a “mutually agreeable arrangement” for upholding peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. “This is our shared responsibility.”

Whether or not it is linked to the fact that Xi Jinping was recently re-elected to an unprecedented third term, what is obvious is that tensions between both two sides are at the highest they have been in years.

In a possible attempt to defuse such tension, Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s former president, will visit China this month in the first visit by a current or former leader since the defeated Nationalist Chinese government fled to the island at the end of 1949.

The high-profile visit is presented by Ma and his party, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), as a chance to boost friendly cross-strait exchanges. But observers fear the visit by Ma, who served as president from 2008 to 2016, is also likely to trigger political division within Taiwan itself between the KMT and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) over relations with China. The visit will occur around the same time that Tsai Ing-wen will be in the United States.

The DPP, led by President Tsai Ing-wen in her second and final term, favours independence and has been labeled a “separatist” by Beijing but Taiwan’s people and Ma’s former Kuomintang party reject the prospect of Chinese rule.

Taiwan suffered something of a real diplomatic knockback recently when Honduras said it would seek to establish relations with China. Taiwan cautioned Honduras against falling into China’s “trap” and urged the Central American country not to “quench your thirst with poison and fall into China’s debt trap.”

In an effort to isolate the island democracy from the international community, China prohibits its partners from maintaining ties with the island. Taiwan has lost eight diplomatic allies since 2016, and should Honduras switch sides to China, Taiwan would be recognised by just 13 governments.

Recent events have triggered fresh fears that the U.S. and China could go to war over Taiwan and Nancy Pelosi’s trip last year to Taiwan fuelled tensions between the two countries with China’s military surrounding the island with days of live-fire military exercises.

In January, a U.S. warship sailed through the sensitive and narrow Taiwan Strait as part of what the U.S. military called a routine activity, but which riled Beijing. Last month, a Chinese military plane came within 10 feet of a U.S. Air Force aircraft in the contested South China Sea and forced it to take evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision. The close encounter followed what the U.S. and others call a recent trend of increasingly dangerous behaviour by Chinese military aircraft.

In recent years, U.S. warships, and on occasion, British and Canadian, have sailed through the Taiwan Strait, drawing the ire of China.

The U.S. has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan but is bound by law to provide the island with the means to defend itself.

Back in Europe, the EU Parliament has weighed in, calling for ever-closer trade relations with Taiwan and issuing warnings over continued tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

A European Parliament report hails Taiwan as a key EU partner and democratic ally in the Indo-Pacific, one that “contributes to maintaining a rules-based order in the midst of an intensifying rivalry between the major geopolitical actors in the region.”

Urging closer economic ties with Taiwan, it also voices “deep concerns over Chinese military pressure against Taiwan.”

It expresses “grave concern” over China’s “continued military belligerence, pressure, assault exercises, airspace violations, and disinformation campaigns against Taiwan” and wants the EU to do more to address such tensions, “to protect Taiwan’s democracy and the island’s status as an important EU partner.”

President Tsai Ing-wen’s trip to the United States and Central America is sure to ratchet up tensions still further. Remember that China carried out those large-scale, live-fire war games around the island last August after Pelosi’s visit and Taiwan’s defence ministry says that during the president’s visit, Taipei has contingency plans “for all moves” by China.

Hsi-ju Tien, the Brussels correspondent for Taiwan’s Central News Agency, told me, “The situation is like walking on thin ice.”

“And the water under the ice is turbulent. You may say the Taiwanese have been walking on it for decades, but the ice is getting thinner under Xi Jinping. How to cool down and make the ice thicker? Deterrence from all aspects to make Xi believe the price for him will be too high to break the ice layer.”

Beijing continues to pledge to eventually “unify” Taiwan with the mainland and Ma Ying-jeou’s historic trip to China this month takes place against a febrile geopolitical backdrop.

Most, though, will hope the visit might help lead to a much-needed thaw in relations in this particular long-running “frozen conflict.”