Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based freelance journalist.
From one standpoint, Taiwan, an island 160 kilometres off the Chinese coast, is insignificant, recognized as a sovereign state by a mere 13 countries. Most of the 193 member states of the United Nations have diplomatic relations with China and respect its “one China principle” under which they can’t have official ties with Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China.
Yet this island of 23 million people is today a global hot spot, capable of precipitating a military conflict between China and the United States, possibly even a nuclear war.
Why? Because Beijing insists on “unification” with the island which, it claims, belongs to China. When communist forces in 1949 defeated the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist party, in the Chinese civil war, Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China. Chiang Kai-shek, the KMT leader, fled to Taiwan, the only province still held by the Republic of China.
For 30 years, the United States refused to recognize the communist government. In 1979, it reversed itself, recognized Beijing and cut ties with Taipei. It admonished Beijing not to use force over the Taiwan issue. But China refused to renounce force.
China appealed to the people of Taiwan to rebuild the motherland together. In 1982, a new constitution stipulated: “Taiwan is part of the sacred territory of the People’s Republic of China. It is the inviolable duty of all Chinese people, including our compatriots in Taiwan, to accomplish the great task of reunifying the motherland.”
Meanwhile, in Taiwan, dramatic events unfolded. Martial law, imposed in 1949, was lifted in 1987. Direct presidential elections were introduced in 1996 and, in 2000, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party won power.
The new leader, Chen Shui-bian, indicated that if he won a second term in 2004, he would lead Taiwan toward independence.
China pre-empted the situation by announcing that it would introduce legislation, and the Anti-Secession Law was enacted in March, 2005.
Interestingly, while the constitution dubs Taiwan “the sacred territory of the People’s Republic of China,” the 2005 law makes no such claim. Instead it says, “Both the mainland and Taiwan belong to one China.”
This reflected the so-called “1992 consensus,” when both the communists and the KMT agreed there was only one China but disagreed on what “China” meant: the Republic of China or the People’s Republic.
In April, 2016, then-Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou told the Straits Times, days before leaving office, that the accord was “One China, respective interpretations.”
Today, however, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping only quotes the first part of the agreement – “one China” – but is silent on “respective interpretations.”
The 2005 law made it clear that if Taiwan seceded, the mainland would use force to achieve reunification. Since then, there has been no serious attempt to create a Republic of Taiwan. Politicians in Taiwan have shied away from amending the constitution or calling for a referendum. The law has had an impact.
However, the 2005 law gave Beijing the right to use force even if Taiwan makes no attempt to secede. Article 8 says that if “possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted,” then “non-peaceful” means shall be employed.
But when can anyone say that possibilities for a peaceful reunification have been exhausted? Deng Xiaoping and his immediate successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, did not say so. However, 10 years ago, while he was in the first year of his first term as president, Mr. Xi told a senior envoy of Ma Ying-jeou, then Taiwan’s president, that a political resolution of the Taiwan issue could not be postponed forever.
Speaking in Bali ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, Mr. Xi told Vincent Siew, Mr. Ma’s representative, that such issues “cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”
This raises another issue: Why is reunification so important? It is certainly not a universal principle that all nations should be united at all times. China itself recognizes divided states. Currently, it has diplomatic relations with both North and South Korea. Previously, it had relations with both East and West Germany. Why is it so important for China to be united and not for other countries?
The civil war was fought in the 1940s. More than 70 years later, do the communists, the winners of that war, still think that violence is the only way to solve problems? Is that the Chinese wisdom that Mr. Xi is offering the world to solve current problems? Is that the accumulated wisdom of 5,000 years of Chinese civilization?