The US is focussed on its own interests, not the people of Taiwan

Dec 8, 2022
A close-up photograph of Taiwan and China on map.

Taiwan’s politics is tied to that of mainland China because of the unfinished business of the Chinese civil war between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT).

The KMT lost and decamped to Taiwan, claiming to rule the whole of China from there and had even thought they could recover the mainland. All the while, the mainland’s goal was reunification at some stage, and Taiwan politics is defined by mainland-Taiwan relations.

From the mainland’s perspective, the reunification with Hong Kong and Macao in 1997 and 1999 is viewed as great successes. Beijing aimed for the peaceful transfer of power, and extensive negotiations took place between China and the two former colonial powers – Britain and Portugal – to ensure the maintenance of ‘stability and prosperity’, the emphasis of which was crucial in the 1980s because the mainland’s economy was small and weak, and the country had been through many periods of political instability.

Taiwan has never seen the ‘one country, two systems’ model, used to resume Hong Kong and Macao, as good enough for them. The political elites there see Taiwan’s mature self-governing system backed by universal suffrage as superior to the pre-and-post reunification systems in the two former colonies.

Nevertheless, what insights might there be from the reunification with Hong Kong and Macao that could help us to look at mainland-Taiwan affairs?

First, change represents unknown risks, and the public usually prefers as few changes as possible. Most Hong Kong people preferred ‘no change’ when asked in the 1980s about the transition. The fear of the unknown could explain why the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan lost seats, including crucial ones in November, to the KMT in local elections for mayors, county chiefs and local councillors.

The DPP party leader, president Tsai Ing-wen, used the elections as a referendum for her aggressive stance against the mainland. Her rallying cry had a moralistic tone. She claimed that she and her party were the true defenders of Taiwan’s democracy and freedom. The KMT criticised the DPP for being unnecessarily confrontational, and it could lead to terrible consequences. The former KMT president, Ma Ying-jeou, asked people to “choose peace and reject war” by supporting KMT candidates. Tsai resigned as party chairman after the election, acknowledging her strategy failed.

Second, people hedge their bets. Large numbers of Hong Kong people – possibly half a million – sought foreign passports prior to 1997 to give themselves an insurance policy in case the transition didn’t work. Taiwan folks, especially high net worth and professional people, are seeking relocation plans with greater earnestness considering rising tension that also involves geopolitical concerns.

While Beijing would like to settle cross-strait issues without the involvement of the United States, the fact is Taiwan lies at the heart of Sino-US relations. In the 1970s, the Richard Nixon administration was willing to sacrifice its relations with Taiwan because it wanted to get China to be a counterweight against Russia, its major enemy at the time.

Today, the US sees China as its nemesis because of its rapid economic and technological advancement. The US has imposed many restrictions on China since 2018, the latest being new rules to bar American companies from selling certain high-tech semiconductor chips used for supercomputing and artificial intelligence to Chinese companies. Moreover, the US is also rallying ‘like-minded allies’ to also limit their trade with China.

The totality of US actions is causing abrupt changes in the hi-tech industries that is also impacting Taiwan, as it is a leading semiconductor chips producer with plants in Taiwan and the mainland with the mainland being their largest customer. We have not yet seen how this saga is going to evolve but America’s new policy against China is adding to the discomfort being felt in Taiwan.

Third, the mainland is not without support among Taiwan folks. It is easy to rationalise in the US and perhaps the West that there is little support for China among ordinary people because they see the Chinese system in negative light. They may justify their view by pointing to the recent wave of Hong Kong people taking advantage of the United Kingdom offering residency to them that could lead to citizenship, as well as Canada and Australia making it easier for Hong Kong people to work there, as part of the allies’ effort to support those who wish to leave on the basis that Hong Kong has become repressive due to the passage of national security laws in 2020. Despite these departures, there is solid support for Chinese sovereignty among Hong Kong people and they would dispute the description that Hong Kong has become a ‘police state’.

As for Taiwan, its people have many ties with the mainland through family, and business. In 2021, the mainland and Hong Kong accounted for 42 percent of Taiwan’s exports and 22 percent of imports, and many people from Taiwan live and work on the mainland. They wouldn’t want to see their lives and business disrupted by increasing tension and for Taiwan to be used by the US to thwart the mainland.

Lastly, what might be the best outcome for Taiwan’s political future? In 1982, Hong Kong people were asked in a public opinion survey about how they saw their future. Hardly anyone chose independence as a viable option. They knew it was unrealistic with the mainland right next door. What do the people of Taiwan think today is their best option?

There is no easy answer. If they want to ‘choose peace and not war’, likely they will have to negotiate with the mainland one day even if they prefer to dial down the tension and buy time. America is unlikely to be able to guarantee a lasting peace because it is focussed on its own interest, but it could stir things up to provoke a war if it calculates that is to its advantage as a way to thwart the mainland.

A common wish by both Taiwan and Hong Kong – and indeed much of Asia – is that there should be no careless actions on anyone’s part – including Beijing – that a quick punch-up could settle matters. The stakes are too high and the losers would most of all be the people of Taiwan.

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