Taiwan: two journeys, two roads, war or peace?

Apr 24, 2023
China and Taiwan relationship illustration. Shadow of China's.

Despite all the determined, and well-funded, efforts of Greg Sheridan, his mates at ASPI and in the media to beat the war drums and the legal shenanigans around the role of the Governor General in declaring war, it is by no means inevitable that Australia will go to war against China.

There is opposition at home, exemplified by Pearls and Irritations, an oasis of sanity in Australasia (the drum beats reverberate in New Zealand as well). Then there are serious doubts with the US national security elite and the military, about the ability of the US to prevail in a short, localised war. In the background there is the dawning realisation that America no longer has the industrial muscle to churn out the munitions for modern industrial warfare. Stockpiles of munitions are depleted, and there are difficulties in ramping up production. Reserves of European allies are being rifled to sustain the war in Ukraine and pressure is being put on South Korea to antagonise its neighbour Russia to send artillery shells to Ukraine. Europe is conflicted, torn between subservience to US strategy and the economic imperative of maintaining a good relationship with China. This was illustrated by the recent visit of Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission and Emmanuel Macron, President of France. Von der Leyen was cruelly taken through the tradesman’s entrance, being regarded as the head of America’s civilian branch office in Europe (NATO handles the military aspect) while Macron was accorded the status of a state visit appropriate to the leader of an important country. Macron for his part, aided by the lingering legacy of Gaullist independence with his advocacy of ‘strategic autonomy’, in effect declared that France wanted no part of an American war over Taiwan. Washington, and its acolytes in Europe were not well pleased: Emmanuel Macron served Xi Jinping a strategic triumph on a silver platter

China is being annoyingly uncooperative. Despite the hysteria in much of the mainstream media American experts tend to acknowledge that the likelihood of China invading Taiwan is slight. Mark Milley, Chief of the US General Staff has played down the possibility. Since generals usually exaggerate threats to secure more funding that rings true. China has mounted military exercises after provocations such as the Pelosi visit and the Tsai-McCarthy meeting; such gestures are part of the lexicon of international affairs. If Taiwan declares independence Beijing naturally reserves the right to use force to preserve territorial integrity, but all governments do that. But even then, the invasion scenario that the media uses with such gusto to generate war fever is the least likely response. The challenge for Beijing is to combine a forceful warning of the consequences of separatism, with a subtle encouragement of anti-separatist forces in Taiwan.

And that brings us to Taiwan itself. Its position is crucial, tilting the balance between war and peace. Two recent visits exemplify the major fissures within the island on that issue.

The first visit, and the one which garnered by far the most media attention, was of the visit of Tsai Ing-wen of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to the United States as part of a trip to ‘allies’ in Central America. Tsai’s formal title, which illustrates some of the key contradictions in the issue, is President of the Republic of China. Sometimes the word Taiwan is appended to the end – ROC on Taiwan, on in brackets. Her government has been pushing the envelope in various ways. One has been to try to hang on desperately to the dwindling number of small countries (down to 13 after the switch of Honduras) that can be pressured or bribed to recognise Taipei as the capital of China, a doomed strategy which has come under criticism even from friends. Another has been the creation of a new, somewhat schizophrenic, passport. The cover describes itself in English as ‘TAIWAN passport’, and in Chinese as the passport of the Republic of China. How can a place that calls itself the Republic of China be not part of China?

The other visit, by Ma Ying-jeou, former president of that same Republic of China (2008-16) was ostensibly merely to visit his ancestral home in Hunan, some 100 kms from where Mao Zedong was born. But of course there was a strong political dimension to the visit. Ma is also a former Chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT) one of the two major Chinese political parties, the other being the Gongchandang, or Communist Party (CCP). The KMT and CCP have shared origins in that they both were responses to the dire state of China during and after the collapse of the Qing dynasty (1911), devastated by the impact of Western imperialism (with Britain in the lead) and soon to face the onslaught of Japanese imperialism. Japan’s first overseas conquest was Taiwan, in 1895. The KMT and CCP both revere the nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen, and, although rivals, did fight together against Japan. Taiwan was restored to China in 1945 and the defeat of the KMT in the Chinese Civil War in 1949 saw it hole up there under US protection.

The DPP is by contrast a Taiwanese party, drawing on those who have lived in Taiwan for generations. But they are Han Chinese; the proportion of Han in Taiwan (95%) is higher than that of the Mainland itself (92%). Taiwan has been separated from the rest of China since 1895 and the sense of Taiwanese identity is strong. However declaring independence would be disastrous with Taiwan being used as a pawn by America in its struggle to prevent the rise of China. A high degree of autonomy within China offers the best solution to ending the Civil War. A KMT victory in the January 2024 election might just provide a road, undoubtedly tortuous and difficult but with hope, to that peaceful destination. Bad news for the warmongers, but good news for both sides of the Taiwan Straits, for Australia and the wider world.

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