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Local View: Taiwan's path to peace, prosperity depends on China

From the column: "China, for its part, also does not want to exacerbate the already fragile China-U.S. relations. Instead of saber-rattling at the U.S., China opted to hold a few days of live military tests around Taiwan and did so the day after Pelosi left."

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Adam Zyglis / Cagle Cartoons
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The official visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi immediately stoked intense ire and strong protest from China, which in retaliation launched days of military drills that virtually blocked Taiwan. Government propaganda in China inflamed fiery anti-U.S. rhetoric, and some radical nationalists even called on the military to intercept or shoot down Pelosi’s plane. Alarmed by China’s overreaction, foreign ministers in Japan, the U.S., and Australia, as well as the richest Group 7 states, issued a joint warning to China against the drill that threatened the peace in the West Pacific.

Taiwan was first made a province of China in 1885, but after China lost badly in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), Taiwan was ceded to Japan until the end of World War II, when Taiwan was returned to the Republic of China. Soon after Taiwan was retrieved by China, tensions arose between Chinese officials, immigrants (also called “waishengren” or “mainlanders”), and Taiwanese due to mutual distrust and post-war economic crisis. In 1947, the Chinese army brutally crushed local uprisings, causing thousands of deaths. After Chiang Kai-shek lost mainland China and fled to Taiwan in 1949, he rolled out a martial law that lasted 38 years. Still dreaming of retaking mainland China, Chiang perceived Taiwanese independent activists as political foes and employed draconian crackdowns and torture against them.

From the column: "Our visit to Taiwan came amid escalating acts of Chinese aggression toward the democratic, self-ruled island."

The U.S. had little interest in Taiwan at the outset. In early 1950, President Harry S. Truman publicly proclaimed that Taiwan was part of China. Yet the eruption of the Korean War and an intensifying Cold War forced Truman to send aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait to deter any Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

In the 1950s, when the Chinese army bombarded Jinmen, a Taiwanese island close to China, the U.S. Navy came to Taiwan’s aid. In the late 1960s, when the U.S. Army was bogged down in Vietnam and the Soviet Union had a bigger nuclear arsenal than the U.S., President Richard Nixon decided to cast off Taiwan and embrace Communist China. He hoped to form an alliance with China, which also treated the Soviets as its biggest foe.

Although the U.S. formally recognized China in 1979, the Republican-controlled Congress, with strong support and sympathy for Taiwan, passed the Taiwan Relations Act, dictating the need to sell arms to ensure Taiwan’s self-defense.

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Chiang died in 1975, and his hallucination to take over mainland China faded. His son and successor Chiang Ching-kuo lifted the martial law, ended the ban of opposition parties, and released political prisoners shortly before his own death in 1988.

Born in Taiwan, Taiwan’s new leader, Lee Teng-hui, no longer felt it feasible to conquer China and focused instead on Taiwan. Alarmed by Taiwan’s deviation from the one-China policy, China launched missile tests surrounding Taiwan in 1995 and 1996, prompting President Bill Clinton to send two aircraft-carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Strait. After the Democratic Progressive Party, a longtime advocate of Taiwan’s independence, took power in 2000, Taiwan’s intent became increasingly evident, sparking intense military activities and political attacks from China.

More worrisome to the Chinese leadership is that today, most Taiwanese, especially the youth, identify as Taiwanese and not Chinese, as they did in the early 1990s. Many young Taiwanese would prefer to be called Taiwanese when they travel abroad.

After President Xi Jinping took power about 10 years ago, his calls for a “national rejuvenation” and the belief of a “rising East,” vis-à-vis a “declining West,” whipped up national pride. Since Tsai Ing-wen won a landslide election in 2020, due partly to China’s attempt to tighten its control over Hong Kong, China doubled down on pressuring Taiwan.

During the rage of COVID-19, President Donald Trump, infuriated by China’s accusation that the U.S. Army and U.S. labs first spread the coronavirus, shifted his policy from wooing China to beefing up Taiwan’s defense capability. This in turn honed China’s countermeasures by expanding its navy and military drills in the Taiwan Strait.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine about six months ago, the administration of President Joe Biden has tried hard to avert a China-Russia alliance, and, in the meantime, with the overwhelming backing of Congress, to assure Taiwan of U.S. support. Accordingly, the U.S. military restrained itself from dealing with the fallout from Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and sent no aircraft carrier to the Taiwan Strait, which was a far cry from American responses to previous Taiwan Strait crises.

China, for its part, also does not want to exacerbate the already fragile China-U.S. relations. Instead of saber-rattling at the U.S., China opted to hold a few days of live military tests around Taiwan and did so the day after Pelosi left.

It is not easy to blunt the 70-plus years of hostility and distrust between Taiwan and China. Any viable solution to the Taiwan and China crisis would have to implicate the political resolve and diplomatic wisdom of Taiwan, China, and the U.S.

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Maintaining the status quo of the Taiwan Strait may be the best option. Taiwan needs to, as Tsai Ing-wen recently said, stick to its zero-provocation policy and focus on its political improvement, self-defense ability, trade expansion, and economic development. As one of the four “little tigers” in Asia, Taiwan has been highly credited for its markedly economic and political accomplishments. A reckless declaration of independence now would be nothing but a disaster to Taiwan because it would not only provoke China’s attack but also torpedo its economic progress and alienate its allies in the U.S. and Japan.

For the U.S., a consistent “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan for the moment remains the better policy. In addition to continuous access of American goods to the vast Chinese market, the policy would help prevent both a China-Russia alliance and a military showdown with China. While the U.S. and its allies might emerge victoriously in a conventional or even nuclear war with China, Taiwan, China, as well East Asia, would be the biggest losers, and the China-U.S. animosity, as we can see from the German-Franco feud after the 1871 Franco-Prussian War and World War I, could last for many years to come. In addition, by leveraging the rising nationalism fueled by a military loss, China would scramble to seek allies around the world (most likely amongst U.S. foes), and thus the whole world could be doomed to face another bloody world war.

China may hark back to the policy of “hiding strength and biding time” under leadership of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin and replace the notorious “wolf-warrior” diplomacy with one based on rational, moral, and mutually beneficial principles.

More importantly, China needs to speed up its political reform and usher in a bona fide rule of law; mitigate its military spending and naval expansion to avoid an arms race with America and Japan; restore and strengthen pre-COVID economic and cultural ties with Taiwan; ramp up its political, diplomatic, and economic relations with the West to avert a likely decoupling; and stop backing up Russia’s invasion and other authoritarian states.

If China becomes a wealthy, democratic, and civilized country, Taiwan will voluntarily and willingly unite with China and all China’s neighbors, including the U.S., and will enjoy lasting peace and prosperity. Otherwise, if China refuses to make any solid and swift reform, not only would an economically disastrous decoupling with the West occur, but Taiwan would drift further away from China, emboldened by the U.S., Japan, and some NATO countries. Once Russia loses its war with Ukraine (which is very likely), it may either become further isolated and weakened or form a new pro-West government, virtually depriving China of its only powerful ally.

Qiang Fang is a history professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth with a doctorate in modern Chinese history and 20th-century U.S. history. He wrote this at the request of the News Tribune.

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University of Minnesota Duluth history professor Qiang Fang.

Related Topics: LOCAL VIEWCHINA
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