New tensions across Taiwan Strait

Print edition : August 14, 1999

Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui's recent remarks on Taiwan's relations with China have set off a chain of events that could lead to turbulence in East Asia.

WHEN, on July 9, President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan described the relations between Taiwan and China as "state-to-state" relations, the political temperature in East Asia rose rapidly, exacerbating the already severely strained relationship between the Un ited States and China. Tension rose further as harsh words and warnings were traded across the Taiwan Strait and the Pacific. Hong Kong's newspapers reported unconfirmed Chinese military exercises and naval movements in the Taiwan Strait, while Taiwan sa id that it was fully prepared to face any military threat from China. There was also speculation that the U.S. may deploy its vessels in those waters as it had done during the 1994-95 crisis, and the region was gripped by the fear of an eyeball-to-eyebal l standoff between the two big powers.

However, this did not transpire, for both sides quickly took steps to pull back from the briny brink. Instead, these events acted as a catalyst for resuming contacts that had been broken off by the Chinese after the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's ( NATO) forces bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade three months ago. Confrontation anywhere, and particularly in the Taiwan Strait, where it could only be of a military nature, was not in the present interests of either the U.S. or China. President Clin ton took the initiative to reaffirm U.S. commitment to a "one China" policy in a telephonic conversation with President Jiang Zemin and advised both China and Taiwan to exercise restraint.

While a U.S.-China standoff seemed to have been averted, at least for the present, the military alert on both sides of the Taiwan Strait continued. Yet, two weeks later, the spectre of the "Taiwan problem" hovered uncomfortably over the Association of So uth-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum meeting in Singapore, in a case of 'never send to ask for whom the bell tolls'. All those who were present must have been aware that any change in the status quo or any shift in the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait would herald a period of grave uncertainty and high tension for the whole of Asia. The "Taiwan problem" also took priority over the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in the talks between U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan. This was the first high-level political meeting between the two sides since the sharp downturn in their relations following the Belgrade bombing.

For 27 years, China and the U.S. have lived with the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in the "Taiwan formula" that was devised to make President Richard Nixon's 1972 "breakthrough" visit to Beijing possible. As enshrined in the Shanghai Communique issued during that visit, the U.S. merely "acknowledged" that the "Chinese" "on either side" of the Taiwan Strait "maintain" that there is only one China and Taiwan "is a part of China", and that the U.S. does not "challenge" that position. This was as far as Nixon was prepared to go. In return he asked China to seek a peaceful solution to the problem - which China said was its own preference - and to abjure the use of force - which China categorically refused. This formula served to bridge the yawning gap between their respective positions on, and interests in, Taiwan. It enabled them to build an anti-Soviet strategic understanding and to proceed towards formally ending the state of Cold War non-recognition between the two countries that had persiste d since the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949. The arrangement, as is obvious, was bilateral. It did not include Taiwan, nor was Taiwan consulted. Taiwan is a military ally of the U.S. which at that time claimed to represent all of China - a claim that the U.S. had supported since 1949. Down the years, however, when the reality of Communist China became too stark to ignore or manage, the U.S. would periodically float the idea of "two Chinas" or of "one China, one T aiwan". Each time, the Kuomintang (KMT) government in Taipei would refuse to countenance such proposals, thus helping to sustain Beijing's claim that there is only one China, of which Taiwan is an inalienable part.

President Lee Teng-hui at the Presidential Building in Taipei.-WA CHI-CHANG/AP

This shared understanding the KMT subscribed to until President Lee's recent remarks - whether as a myth or as a reality - has, over the years, upheld the status quo in that region. It enabled the U.S. and China to construct a broad-based equation of mutual benefit despite political decisions on the part of the U.S. that suggested a weakening of its commitment. However, with each such decision, the U.S. would, at the presidential level, reiterate its commitment to a "one China" policy. With each such act, China would remind the U.S. of its "solemn promise" and reiterate that the Taiwan issue was the most critical aspect of their bilateral relationship. Consequently, for the outside world, Taiwan was the symbol of an uneasy U.S.-China strategic r elationship and a reminder of China's unfinished agenda of territorial reunification. Thus, after 1971, when Taiwan ceased to occupy the China seat in the United Nations and a host of countries switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, Tai wan suddenly ceased to be an international "person". Yet it had the largest foreign exchange reserves in the world, a per capita income next only to that of Japan, and a sophisticated technological base. It was not a member of most international organisa tions; it was a member of some, but as "Taipei, China". This was because it continued to perceive itself as China.

It is this self-identification and the common understanding that have been undone by President Lee's recent remarks. In an interview to Deutsche Welle, he described cross-Strait relations as "state-to-state or at least special state-to-state relations", thereby implying that Taiwan was a sovereign political entity in its own right and was no longer China. With this one statement, President Lee shed the various personae that Taiwan had assumed over the past 50 years. As "KMT China", it challenged the leg itimacy of CCP rule on the mainland. As "Confucian China", it claimed to be the flag-bearer of the great Chinese civilisation. As America's unsinkable aircraft carrier, it upheld democracy, although itself authoritarian. As "Taipei, China" it was an econ omic and financial powerhouse. However, in July this year, President Lee presented the world with the prospect of the emergence of a new political entity called Taiwan. This development threatens to nullify China's carefully crafted strategy of "one coun try two systems", which had taken Taiwan's separate political and economic realities into account in order to achieve the goal of uniting Taiwan with the mainland.

Beijing reacted angrily to what it called Lee Teng-hui's "separatist malice" in pursuing a "one-China one-Taiwan" ambition. It warned him not to defy "the will of the people and the general trend", which, it said, recognised that there was only one China in the world and that Taiwan was part of China's territory and sovereignty. It called on him to pull back from the precipice and reminded him that Beijing would never permit the separation or independence of Taiwan. Sabres could be heard rattling in the background.

President Lee has been the target of Chinese verbal assaults almost from the time he came to power. Beijing considers his views and policies to be more dangerous than those of the opposition pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), perhaps be cause the KMT could have great legitimacy as a nationalist party in a new era of Chinese nationalism, even on the mainland. After the last crisis China began to appeal above his head, to the people of Taiwan, promising to "listen to their voices" and sup port all "reasonable propositions which are in the interest of reunification of the motherland". But in today's age, nationalism is a two-edged sword, especially in multi-ethnic societies. With the big state under question everywhere, sub-national identi ties are beginning to assert themselves. Their struggles resonate with the new political values and norms that are fast becoming universal and which evoke wide support and sympathy.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright with Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Singapore.-ED WRAY/ AP

Perhaps Beijing hoped to build on the legendary Chinese pride in China and on the People's Republic of China's (PRC) successful pursuit of wealth and power now. But after Tiananmen and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the lure of democratic freedo ms has proved irresistible for the people of Taiwan, as for many others. For several years now, President Lee has said that he supports the idea of unification, but only if China changes its system and adopts democracy. Therefore, his "tilt" towards inde pendence could not have taken Beijing entirely by surprise.

After he came to power in 1988, Lee introduced fundamental changes in Taiwan's domestic political system, external relations, and, of course, cross-Strait relations. He transformed Taiwan into a democracy - the first legislative elections were held in 19 92 and direct presidential elections, which triggered off the missile crisis, in 1994. The DPP, which called for independence, was the new opposition party. Martial law, in place since 1949, was lifted and economic liberalisation was introduced. Lee took the big step of ending the state of civil war with the "bandits" on the mainland, and in effect recognised the PRC as a political entity through legislation that permits Taiwan to have separate relations with Hong Kong and Macao under the autonomy promi sed to them under the "one plus two system". Above all, he opened "official unofficial" talks with Beijing at a level equivalent to ministerial level. The talks, which were called off in 1995 following the missile crisis, were scheduled to be resumed soo n in Taipei, but have once again been postponed or cancelled by Beijing.

Also in these years, as both sides undertook economic liberalisation and opened up to each other, Taiwan soon became the largest single investor in China. Its total utilised investment to date is about $20 billion, while its committed investment is twice that amount. Cross-Strait trade amounts to about $22 billion, making Taiwan the second largest trading partner of China after the U.S. Tourism and family contacts have also flourished, but mainly in one direction - from Taiwan to China. The texture of t heir interaction thus became dense and should have enhanced China's confidence in the prospects for future unification, especially after the smooth return of Hong Kong to China. Instead, Beijing's fears have grown and have been articulated as Taiwan has sought to establish a separate political identity for itself by adopting what it called pragmatic diplomacy, and enhanced its self-defence capacity, and as critical shifts have taken place in the U.S.' dealings with Taiwan. Lee has also attempted to rede fine the basis of Taiwan's future relationship with China, proposing a "one country, two governments" formula for Beijing's "one country, two systems" formula, which China, needless to say, rejected. Lee's latest formulation of "state to state" relations could also borrow from the Korean model of "one nation, two countries, two governments", which permits full statehood while keeping the goal of unification alive. It is too early to say whether this is the direction in which Lee is headed. But it may be safe to speculate that China, which approves of the Korean formula, would any day prefer this to a declaration of independence by Taiwan.

As this process of redefinition and adjustment got under way in Taiwan, China kept a vigilant eye on what the U.S. was doing, since it is aware of the U.S.' security and strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region and the great influence that Washingt on can bring to bear on Taipei. Seven years after Nixon "dumped" Taipei for Beijing, as the U.S. and China exchanged instruments of formal diplomatic recognition, the U.S. Congress gave legal expression to the continuing American interest in that island. The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 legitimises U.S. arms supplies to Taiwan in order to ensure that it has an adequate self-defence capacity. No one needed to ask against whom, as the answer was self-evident. Over the years, the U.S. has provided Ta iwan with the latest jet fighters, tanks, frigates, anti-submarine warfare systems, Stinger missiles and so on, and more recently with radar and other equipment, despite Chinese protests. In the midst of the present crisis, the U.S. is reported to have m ade more arms transfers, calculated to make it difficult for China to think of a military solution to the Taiwan problem.

More such transfers are likely to follow, as the Congress recently passed the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act which, as the name implies, seeks to enhance further Taiwan's capacity for defence. China appears to fear that this may permit the U.S. to inclu de Taiwan in its proposal for a Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) system. There is also an unsettled debate in the U.S., which China is undoubtedly following with great interest, as to whether the TRA commits the U.S. to go to the defence of Taiwan.

China's fears are focussed on the U.S. Its strategy so far has been to try and substitute U.S. interests in China for market and security-related factors for its traditional interest in Taiwan for the same reasons but with China as the "enemy". It has at tempted to persuade the U.S. that the two countries have shared, not competing interests in Asia and the world, and that they should "stand tall and look far" and build a cooperative relationship and structures that advance mutual security. China's main objective was to prevent the return and consolidation of a hostile U.S. military presence in Asia. But in recent years, despite two summits, Beijing and Washington have been pulling in different directions. Broadly speaking, the U.S. has over the past fi ve years worked to revive its security arrangements in Asia, particularly with Japan, which also has economic and other interests in Taiwan. (Taiwan was a Japanese colony for 50 years from 1894.) China fears that this will impair the balance of security in the region and lead to an arms race.

Is China already in this race? Since the Kosovo crisis and in the midst of the present crisis vis-a-vis Taiwan, China has revealed some of its nuclear achievements. President Jiang is reported to have called for speeding up plans for military mode rnisation and acquisitions. Whether or not this is indicative of China joining an arms race, it does point to the return of the military and strategic factor in world politics and in U.S.-China relations, in which it was perhaps never entirely absent. Th is factor has acquired greater salience after President Lee's pronouncements. By knocking down the foundation on which the status quo in East Asia has remained undisturbed for the past quarter century and more, Lee has forced the U.S. and China to bring their reserved positions to the fore, just as he did by talking about "state to state" relations with China. In the same telephone conversation that Clinton had with Jiang in which he assured Jiang that the U.S. position on "one China" remained un changed, he added that U.S. policy was "governed" by the TRA. China knows, as do a lot of other countries that have suffered, that in the U.S. system, domestic law takes precedence over international commitments or treaty obligations. In short, he chose, as it were, to inform Jiang that the TRA (which can be further amended, as was done recently), will override the three presidential communiques that uphold the Taiwan formula. This legislation, as discussed above, assures Taiwan of U.S. military supplie s for purposes of self-defence. In that same conversation, Jiang is said to have reiterated that China was not committed to abandoning the possible use of force. "We will never sit idle," he is reported to have told Clinton, "if some people engage in 'Ta iwan's independence' and foreign forces interfere in China's reunification cause." Both are reported to have supported their words with deeds. China is said to have put its forces on alert along the coast facing Taiwan, besides seizing a Taiwanese supply ship bound for Hainan. The U.S. is reported to have conducted "naval exercises" near the mouth of the Strait, but without much fanfare.

More than 2,000 supporters of Taiwan's New Party in front of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial to march towards the Presidential Building, calling for President Lee to revoke his "state to state" declaration.-WALLY SANTANA/AP

Thus, President Lee's remarks have served to reveal the contradictions and ambiguities in the positions of the U.S. and China on the Taiwan problem. They have also revealed that there may be no return to the relatively more innocent days of 1972, since t he world has changed, and Lee's remarks have only exposed this change. For one, Taiwan is now a full party to the problem to which it has lent its name. No longer can its future be decided in the main by the two great powers of East Asia. Instead, in the months to come, it may be Taiwan that will take the initiative and call the shots, while the U.S. and China merely react. For another, if Lee holds on to his present position, the Taiwan problem will no longer be primarily a Sino-U.S. one: it will be m ore critically a China-Taiwan problem, which will create foreign policy and security issues for all countries, but more urgently for those in Asia. Thirdly, if Taiwan does proceed towards independence, it not only will make nonsense of China's reunificat ion goal, but could set a precedent for Tibet and Xinjiang - already restive and capable of summoning external support and sympathy. It will also create for Beijing the need to devise a new strategy. The "one country, two systems" approach has been nulli fied by Lee's denial of its "one China" basis as well as by Taiwan's search for a cultural and political Taiwanese identity that reaches back to its tribal and aboriginal roots. The other aspect of the PRC's strategy, that is, the threat to use force, ca n perhaps no longer be employed, for it appears that the costs will be prohibitively high.

Suddenly, one seems to be entering a whole new era of uncertainty in which the cards seem to be stacked against China in both the short and the long run. Much of what may happen will depend on the ability of the Chinese leadership to deal with a set of p roblems that it did not appear to have anticipated or prepared for. If President Lee, with the support of the U.S., does take Taiwan forward to full independence, it is not unlikely that East Asia may become a region of great turbulence in the first deca des of the next century.

Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea is with the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.

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