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Borders Political Parties War and Conflict

China and Taiwan in 2030: Conflict not Inevitable

Originally published: 12 October 2009

Prediction is an inherently hazardous business but by virtue of the fact that history is so often key to understanding China and its actions, prediction is also perhaps a lot easier in the case of matters related to China.

The China-Taiwan issue at its very basic, is still a matter between two sets of Chinese, an ‘internal’ affair. This is all the more true with the return of the Guomindang (KMT) to power in Taiwan in 2008. However, the eight-year rule of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) before that did reflect the reality that certain new aspirations had emerged among the people of Taiwan. Indeed, the KMT has itself been transformed by such aspirations and can no longer talk glibly about ‘reunification.’ That said however, the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese also do not want to engage in a military conflict with China over the issue. This too, the KMT understands, and it is the acknowledgement of these twin realities that brought the KMT back to power – Taiwan is different from China but Taiwan is also closely linked to and dependant on China. There is evidence that the DPP, too, is beginning to understand the need to acknowledge the latter fact. As the island’s two major political formations veer around to occupying the same centre on relations with China, the possibility of conflict – with causes originating in Taiwan – is reduced and the matter becomes essentially a political one. Meanwhile, given its rise in the international system and the consequent expectations of it in the world order, China too, is unlikely to engage in armed action, even if it is unwilling to discount the possibility in official statements.

As a political issue, the Sino-Taiwanese question takes on a different pace. Both Beijing and Taipei, have the opportunity to discuss each issue at length, to look for breakthroughs where possible, and to postpone resolution or prolong discussions on contentious issues. Both sides can avoid resorting to armed conflict and each side can believe that the situation might turn to its advantage over time.

This waiting game is, however, premised differently for each of the parties involved. For China, the belief is that it is too big and too crucial to Taiwan’s fortunes, for the latter to ignore it. Taiwan must eventually come around to rejoining the ‘motherland,’ given the size of its economy, armed forces and population and the steady loss of its diplomatic allies. From Taiwan’s perspective, it is not as if these realities were not evident before, but the waiting game has suited the island just as much and can only further improve the terms of ‘reunification’ – if that is indeed, the future. As far as the Taiwanese are concerned, communist China has certainly ‘progressed’ from its original avatar in 1949, to the extent that today the economic systems of the two entities are increasingly in sync with each other. It only remains for China to move into greater political sync with Taiwan, and of this too, there is increasing evidence, as communist China tries to separate the functions of the Party from those of the state and to increase accountability and transparency within the political system by resort to the rule of law, rather than to rule by diktat.

The military/security complications that arise from the China-Taiwan question may have international repercussions, but this aspect while at the forefront of Western understandings of the dispute, is by no means considered central by the affected parties themselves. In other words and to put it bluntly, the possibility of war or armed conflict of any kind between China and Taiwan in the future can be ruled out because that is not what either party desires. Even if American arms sales to Taiwan were to carry on and Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan were to increase in number, these are essentially tactics to improve the respective bargaining positions at the negotiating table.

This does not however, rule out the possibility of conflict arising out of a mistake or because one side overplays its hand. An accidental conflict is always possible simply because of the huge numbers of weaponry involved or lack of proper oversight but this is true of countries anywhere in the world that are in a state of cold peace. If anything, the fact that the two sides are talking to each other, only reduces the chances of such accidental conflict.

There is also the possibility of one side overplaying its hand because of a political miscalculation or overt external influence. In the case of Taiwan, it is unlikely that it could overplay its hand, knowing full well that it does not have the capacity to outlast China in a military conflict. One possibility is that Taipei is egged on by the United States or possibly even Japan, and that it believes it can rely on sustained support from these external actors. However, this is an extremely unlikely scenario.

From the Chinese point of view, meanwhile, its growing military prowess and a rising nationalist tone in its politics could move it in the direction of precipitate action vis-à-vis Taiwan. This action could conceivably originate at the level of the political leadership but is more likely to originate from the Chinese military itself. The evolution of the nature and influence of the PLA in the Chinese political system, therefore, bears close watching for the future.

Meanwhile, ‘reunification’ or some similar future reality is very likely, even if it might not come to fruition by 2030. However, ‘reunification’ in the future, might not necessarily mean the same thing as it does today. Certainly, it will not hold as much fear for the Taiwanese as it once did, if China continues down its present path of greater economic liberalization and if the signs are to be believed that political reforms and opening up of some sort on the mainland too, are slowly but surely underway. In this understated Taiwanese confidence, also lies the way forward for the rest of the world to deal with China-Taiwan relations.

Original Article: “China and Taiwan in 2030: Conflict not Inevitable,” IDSA Opinion, Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (New Delhi) 12 October 2009.

Categories
Borders Comparative Politics Political Parties War and Conflict

Referendums in Taiwan

Originally published: 2009

Extract: Competing for significance with the Taiwanese presidential elections held on 22 March 2008, were two referendums on Taiwan’s entry to the UN, one each sponsored by the rival Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT). In the election for president, the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou emerged victorious by a huge margin winning 58.45 per cent of the total vote compared to the DPP candidate, Frank Hsieh’s 35.82 per cent. However, both the referendums failed to win enough votes – falling short of the 50 per cent turnout required – for their results to be considered valid. The DPP referendum had sought to win support for entering the UN under the name, “Taiwan” while the KMT sought to achieve the same goal using the country’s official title, “Republic of China” (ROC), or any other title that would assure Taiwan’s “dignity.”

Focusing on the UN referendums, this essay looks at the meaning and significance of referendums generally, in the Taiwanese context, despite their repeated failures. Earlier in the year, too, during the Legislative Yuan elections in January, the Taiwanese public had failed to turn up in sufficient numbers for the results of two rival referendums on anti-corruption to be treated as valid. The previous instance of a referendum being held during the presidential elections was in 2004 when the DPP-sponsored ‘defensive referendums’ on how Taiwan should pursue its relations with China in the face of the Chinese missiles aimed against the island, also failed due to insufficient voter turnout.

Referendums in the East Asian/Chinese context have a particular relevance, not so much because they are happening in Taiwan but because they involve China and this, at multiple levels. First, of course, the threat posed by Chinese actions to Taiwanese ‘sovereignty’ form the primary causes for the referendums held during the presidential elections in 2004 and 2008; second, as a rising global power, China’s responses are a matter of interest to the rest of the world; and finally – and this is related to the second – China is a large civilizational state that is finding its way once more to the forefront of innovation in a host of fields. To explain the last point a little further, China is presently engaged in a gigantic task not just of economic development and military modernization – these and their corollaries such as the energy resources-related mercantilism that China is engaged in are the most obviously visible characteristics of a rising China. But also, China is a country that is engaged in a massive rethink, a reformulation of not just Marxist thought but also traditional Chinese thinking as well as Western political philosophy. ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is of course now well-known, but there are several ideas that China is giving Chinese characteristics to and democracy is one of them. It is in this context that Taiwan’s democratic experience is important. Without doubt, China has learned and is learning from Taiwan as it is from other parts of the world.

Original Article: “The Politics of Referendums in Taiwan,” in Ger Yeong-kuang, Vinod Joseph and Surendra Kumar (eds.), Taiwan in the 21st Century (New Delhi: Viva International, 2009), pp. 12-36.

Categories
Foreign Policy Sub-nationalism

China’s Olympic Hurdles: The Three ‘Evils’

Originally published: 4 April 2008

China appears to have had a pretty rough time in the month of March having to deal one after the other with what it calls the three ‘evils’ – extremism, terrorism and separatism. First, it was the attempted hijack of a domestic airliner by ‘terrorists’ of Uyghur ethnicity from Xinjiang, the site of China’s extremist problem. Next, came the problem of ‘splittism’ or separatism as exemplified by the protests by ethnic Tibetans not just in the Tibet Autonomous Region but also in its neighbouring provinces. Even as the protests raged, Taiwan, China’s ‘renegade province,’ held presidential elections and referendums on whether the island would seek UN membership.

 

The Olympics have been widely perceived as showcasing China’s arrival on the global stage. However, along with its Olympic preparations, Beijing must have, no doubt, been preparing also for eventualities related to each of the three ‘evils.’ What then, do China’s reactions to the events of March indicate about its level of preparedness? And, what do these reactions say about how China sees life after the Olympics?

 

Xinjiang’s ‘extremism’ is clearly the easiest of the three ‘evils’ China has to tackle. China has been quick to take advantage of 9/11 and the resulting increased global focus on Muslim-led terrorism. Xinjiang’s Uyghurs are Muslim and while they have become increasingly radicalized from the 1990s, post-9/11, it has been easier to categorize Uyghur movements as terrorist. The airplane hijack was the first real crisis in the Olympics year and from putting it down to the investigations and arrests that followed, as also the statements by Chinese leaders everything appears to have gone by the book. On view, was a China that was prepared for any threat and ready to host the largest spectacle on the planet, until Lhasa erupted, that is.

 

Meanwhile, Taiwan was, on paper, China’s biggest worry in the run-up to the Olympics, but Beijing must have known for sometime, that the island’s separatists were not likely to win either the presidential elections or the UN referendum. Nevertheless, it constantly kept up the pressure on the island and on its perceived supporters. China’s leaders, it seemed, had become comfortable focusing on a problem that was both familiar to them and which provided them the opportunity to affix the blame more easily on external actors such as the United States or the outgoing Taiwanese president, Chen Shui-bian. It was also an issue more amenable to being leveraged by Chinese leaders as a rallying point for the country. However, with international media attention remaining focused on Tibet, the KMT’s return to power in Taiwan did not allow Beijing much opportunity to feel relieved.

 

It is China’s reactions to the Tibetan protests that will have the most to say about the country, post-Olympics. While China might have expected Tibetan protests in other parts of the world in the run-up to the Olympics it clearly did not expect them to occur within its own territory, either so violently or so widely spread. Tibet has always been a sensitive issue internationally but Beijing too, has in recent years, wished to be seen as more open and accommodative of popular aspirations. As a result, it apparently did not crackdown on the protests immediately. Once they started getting out of hand, however, Chinese leaders were left with no choice but to put troops on the streets and blaming the “Dalai clique” for fomenting the unrest.

 

The protests in Tibet have garnered international attention more for emotive issues such as ‘cultural genocide’ or for issues of geopolitics rather than the increasingly economic content of Tibetan grievances. For China’s leaders, however, it will be the domestic implications of the latter that are the more serious long-term concerns than any international opprobrium. For long, the idea in China has been that economic development and prosperity would make up for constraints on political rights and for other political ills. However, despite several years of sustained economic attention, rising income inequalities and regional disparities are, evidently, providing additional fuel to political discontentment and cultural and ethnic grievances in China’s western periphery. It is doubtful that China will solve these domestic issues in the near future. However, Beijing is also unlikely to face a sustained challenge, as long as the Tibet issue remains caught in a time-warp of religious and cultural concerns and focused on the personality of the Dalai Lama, without consideration of the changing internal dynamics of Tibet, itself.

 

Meanwhile, even as it accused the international media of biased reporting, China appears to be crafting a far more confident response to the sustained attention on its domestic troubles. It has moderated its fire-and-brimstone approach and even slipped in the occasional feelers about being willing to enter into talks with the Dalai Lama. Further, despite the fiasco it turned out to be, opening up Lhasa to foreign journalists in quick time was still a bold stroke and indicative of Beijing’s willingness to deal with international attention head on. It is this confidence that is going to be China’s biggest achievement from hosting the Olympic Games.

Original Article: “China’s Olympic Hurdles: The Three ‘Evils’,” IPCS Article No. 2539, 4 April 2008.

 

 

Categories
Borders Comparative Politics Foreign Policy Political Parties War and Conflict

Direct Flights between Taiwan and China

Originally published: 2007

 

Extract:

Is a direct flight from Taipei to Shanghai an international flight or a domestic flight? It is both. It is international by the International Civil Aviation Agreement of 1944. It is domestic in the sense that it probably won’t be operated by any foreign airline, but by airlines in Taiwan and in the mainland. So what is it then? It is a special flight. What should we call it? Say, Cross-strait Flight.

Ma Ying-jeou

 The above statement by Guomindang (KMT) chairman Ma captures the nature of the problem of cross-straits flights. The ambiguity involved allows the respective government to interpret to its own advantage the nature of the flights. However, the issue at hand has always been more than one of a simple renewal of contacts between Taiwan and the mainland. Direct transport, trade and postal links – known as the “three links” – with the mainland were snapped by the Republic of China government that had fled to Taiwan following its defeat. Today, in an era of deepening economic ties, the lack of direct and convenient links between the two political entities remains something of an anachronism. What has complicated matters however, is the fact that the strengthening of Sino-Taiwanese economic ties has also been accompanied by the rise of Taiwanese nationalism.

Original Article: “The Implications of Direct Flights: Beijing in Taiwanese Politics,” in Anita Sharma and Sreemati Chakrabarti (eds.), Taiwan Today (New Delhi: Anthem Press, 2007), pp. 22-41.