The ‘Status Quo’ and Taiwan

Jun 10, 2023
Taiwanese flag with Chinese Flag in background.

Mainstream media frequently describes Taiwan as “an island that the PRC claims, but has never ruled”. This has given rise to an increasing perception of Taiwan as a separate sovereign entity.

In both historical and legal terms it is not. Most countries and the United Nations Organisation have long accepted that Taiwan, despite being internally self-ruled, is a province of China.

In the Instrument of Surrender signed on 2 September 1945, Japan undertook to “carry out the provisions of the Potsdam Declaration” which included that the “The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out”. It is clear from the Instrument of Surrender that the provisions of both the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations had legal status, and accordingly, Japan returned Taiwan to Chinese sovereignty. Japan reaffirmed those provisions in the Treaty of Taipei in 1950. and again in the Joint Communique on recognition of the PRC in 1972, so the legal status of both Declarations is not in doubt.

If defence and foreign affairs powers are considered a prerequisite for self-governance, then no State of a federation could be considered internally self-governing. Taiwan’s political system is presidential, with legislative elections. Taiwan makes laws that apply within the province, which accords with the notion of internal self-governance.

It has been asserted that, because reunification of Taiwan into the life of the nation is the goal stated by President Xi and other top Chinese leaders, this means that they believe the ‘status quo’ cannot be maintained.

This assertion is simply incorrect. Neither President Xi nor any other top PRC leaders have ever stated that the current status of Taiwan as a province of China (the ‘status quo’) cannot be maintained. That would be a dramatic change of policy that would capture the attention of the whole world! Any change to the way Taiwan is administered within the sovereign territory of China would not, from the PRC’s perspective, change the status of Taiwan as a province of China.

The PRC’s policy regarding Taiwan was set out in Xi Jinping’s report 20th National Peoples Congress: “Taiwan is China’s Taiwan…We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification…, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force… This is directed solely at interference by outside forces and the few separatists seeking ‘Taiwan independence’ …”

This wording is drawn from the White Paper issued in August 2022 by the Taiwan Office of the State Council and the State Council Information Office.

The process of peaceful reunification has been ongoing since 1989, with the promotion of leadership talks; two-way family, business, work and tourism visits; two-way trade (the Mainland of China is Taiwan’s biggest trading partner); two-way investment (the Mainland is both the largest source of investment into Taiwan and the largest destination for investment from Taiwan).

This was all formalised under the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement in 2002. The White Paper makes it clear that the PRC intends this process to continue (unless disrupted by war) until its goal is achieved.

It has been argued that although the Biden administration may intend to use Taiwan as a proxy in a war against China, it has not said so. While it is true that President Biden himself has not explicitly stated this intention, the same is not true of the Administration. Elbridge Colby, who was directly involved in the writing of the US National Defence Strategy, spelled it out at length in ‘The Strategy of Denial’. Perhaps those who doubt US intentions should read the article in Pearls & Irritations entitled ‘Strategists admit West is goading China into war’.

President Xi, in a video call on 18 March 2022, responded to Biden’s assurance that the US “does not support Taiwan independence,“ that: “people on the US side have not followed through on the important common understandings reached by the two Presidents and have not acted on President Biden’s positive statements”.

Many commentators in the US and Australia have argued that the Chinese leadership has set a timetable for reunification. The estimates of a timetable vary from a few years hence to a few decades, depending on the particular pundit’s interpretation.

It is true that President Xi and others have expressed the ambition to complete the peaceful reunification of Taiwan in time for the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the PRC in 2049 (or earlier). However, they have never stated that force shall be used to achieve that goal. Use of force is reserved as a last resort to prevent independence.

It has been argued that, in a US war with China over Taiwan, US forces from the US and from American aircraft carriers would do most of the work. Also, US forces in Okinawa and Guam are closer than Australian territory, so Australian territory would not be useful. US National Security Adviser, JakeSullivan, and Biden’s ‘Asia Tsar’, KurtCampbell, would appear to disagree with this view. Both have described Australia as at the forefront of the projection of US power in the Indo-Pacific.

Most defence/military analysts consider American bases in Australia as central to the conduct of US military operations in the East Asian theatre, thus making Australian territory “useful” and also at risk, in a war between USA and China.

Not only Australian assets and facilities – army, navy and airforce -operating with US forces outside Australia, but those located on Australian territory, are regarded as highly significant – especially the US Indo-Pacific Command and fuel dump in Darwin; the strategic bomber base being developed at Tindal in the Northern Territory; RAN Naval base at Stirling in Western Australia; many other bases to which the Force Posture Agreement grants US access, and, most importantly, North-West Cape and Pine Gap communications facilities.

In this regard, it is worth pointing out that the much vaunted “interchangeability” of US forces with the ADF creates the possibility that US assets operating out of Australia could be badged as Australian, thus making Australia an active belligerent, and a proxy of the US, in a war against China.

It is obvious that opposition to a war over the status of Taiwan and support for independence for Taiwan are mutually exclusive goals. The latter proposition simply brings the prospect of war closer.

The best contribution Australia can make to the avoidance of war is to make it absolutely clear to the USA, Taiwan and the PRC that Australia will not participate in a war over the status of Taiwan and will not allow Australian territory, facilities or assets to be used in the prosecution of such a war”.

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