Reassurance across the straits

Isabel Hilton – The Guardian

There are other ways for Beijing to achieve reunification with Taiwan
than issuing military threats
Published Friday March 18, 2005 – Copyright The Guardian
The National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, has never been what
you could call a radical body. So when it adopted the Taiwan secession
law, a measure that gives China the right – in her own eyes at least –
to take military action against any attempt by Taiwan to declare formal
independence, it is obvious to everyone that this is the voice of the
Chinese party-state. In Shanghai a few days after the measure was
adopted, I asked China’s foreign ministry spokesman what China could possibly
gain by military action against Taiwan. “It would,” he said, “restore
the territorial integrity so beloved of the Chinese people.”
This is a saga that goes back to 1949, when two political paths
diverged: the Nationalists, led by Jiang Kaishek, retreated offshore to Taiwan
after losing the civil war to Mao Zedong’s communist forces. US support
kept Taiwan, unreasonably no doubt, in the security council until, in
the last twist of the cold war narrative, President Nixon played his
China card. Taipei was dumped; Beijing became the new best friend.
Since then, it would be tempting to read in the twin tracks of Taiwan
and the People’s Republic of China the inevitable eclipse and eventual
absorption of Taiwan by Beijing. China would certainly like to read
history that way and, as its power expands, its impatience has grown. There
is one China, says Beijing, and the world, its eye on China’s growing
power, or covetously on its booming market, nods in agreement. How to
make the facts on the ground conform to the rhetorical position, though,
is re-emerging on the international agenda in a worryingly dangerous
The military option would be so detrimental to China’s real interests
that it is hard to imagine that even in Beijing it is regarded as a
serious option. More than 50 years have elapsed since Beijing’s military
occupation of Tibet, and it remains a troubled project. To force an
occupation of Taiwan now would set in train a resistance a hundred times
more powerful. Diplomatically isolated Taiwan may be, but that does not
mean the world could be indifferent to its fate. In the last few weeks
the issue of Taiwan has been discussed almost exclusively in military
terms: first a subtle shift in diplomatic language in Japan provoked an
indignant response from Beijing. Now Taiwan has reacted furiously to
Beijing’s Taiwan secession law, and Washington has been forced to express
disapproval and reiterate US willingness to defend Taiwan.
At the same time, Washington has been putting heavy pressure on the EU
to prevent it lifting the arms embargo to China imposed after the 1989
Tiananmen massacre. Normally sober senators are talking excitedly about
trade sanctions and are citing growing tensions over Taiwan in support
of their censure of what they describe as an irresponsible European
There is a case against lifting the arms embargo, but it is more a
moral than a military one, a question of signals rather than hardware. As
far as hardware is concerned, US indignation might have been better
spent on China’s second most important supplier of lethal and hi-tech
hardware, Israel. Israel repays US military generosity by
reverse-engineering the US weaponry and selling it on. Among other items, Israel has sold
China advanced fighter planes and Python 3 missiles. Only last December
the US stepped in to prevent Israel from upgrading an unnamed
“sensitive weapons system” sold to China in the 1990s. Should it ever come to
blows, US forces will find themselves defending Taiwan against missiles
sold to the Chinese by Israel. Coming to blows, though, would be
catastrophic for all concerned.
China’s military war-games Taiwan regularly: it is the most significant
project of the People’s Liberation Army, apart from the task of keeping
the home front in order. They like to be ready for any move by Taiwan
toward formal independence, however unlikely. A senior Chinese official
recently confided that Beijing was haunted by the thought that Taiwan
planned to declare independence on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, on
the assumption that Beijing would not wish to spoil the party with a
But all of this moves the issue in the wrong direction. The only way
Beijing will achieve its stated objective of “reunification” with Taiwan
is by becoming a country with which the Taiwanese people would wish to
be “reunited”. After decades of dictatorship, Taiwan has become a
functioning democracy. Why should its people want to give that up for
arbitrary rule from Beijing? If Beijing really wants to advance the prospects
of unification it should offer reassurance, rather than threats.
There is, indeed, one immediate step Beijing could take: to give Hong
Kong a full franchise and allow the direct election of its next chief
executive. Not only could Beijing gain brownie points, but it could
demonstrate to Taiwan that one country, two systems, was a formula that
could be trusted. If Beijing believes in peaceful reunification, it is time
it began to show it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *