Op-Ed: The Dragon Next Door

Taiwan must tread carefully in China’s front yard

by Probir Kumar Sarkar

The new leader of Taiwan will inherit the challenge of balancing relations between Taipei and Beijing after the upcoming elections on January 16. Democratic Taiwan lies just east of China in the Pacific Ocean and holds itself as separate from mainland China, on the basis not only of its physical separation by the waters of the Taiwan Strait but also of having its own distinct Chinese culture. Many Taiwanese, however, believe that the island’s prosperity requires close interaction with the larger Chinese economy, while still maintaining the Taiwanese identity. The island nation must deal with Beijing in a way that encourages the twin goals of maintaining its independence and developing its economic well-being.

Historically, one of two major political coalitions, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Kuomintang (KMT), usually runs the government in Taipei. Currently, the KMT holds power, but if a DPP-led majority comes to power, this will further strain the already frosty relations between Taiwan and China. The DPP are in favor of eventual independence for Taiwan, while the KMT are in favor of slowly unifying with mainland China, though under their own government. For now, both parties express a desire to maintain the status quo.

The issue is how to protect Taiwanese sovereignty while, at the same time, creating an atmosphere conducive to free trade with a hostile mainland China that awaits unification with its neighbor. Taiwan has traversed a long and rough diplomatic road since 1949, when its government lost the civil war against the Communist regime in Beijing.

In November, President Xi Jinping of China met with President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan in Singapore. These were the first-ever talks between leaders of the rival states and were what both sides described as a breakthrough gesture meant to promote peace and mutual prosperity.

Unfortunately, a few weeks later, all euphoria for the apparently impending peace and stability in the region was eclipsed by Beijing’s warnings to the United States and Taiwan when the Obama administration authorized a sale of $1.83 billion in advanced weaponry to Taiwan in December. Beijing threatened to retaliate with economic embargos. Taiwan is a sensitive issue in Sino-American relations and has remained an important and unpleasant question for both countries for a long time.

The relationship between Beijing and Taipei is complicated: the former claims that Taiwan is a renegade province of China. It was once, and the island has played an integral part in Chinese history, but the majority of the island nation’s twenty million inhabitants prefer to be identified as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.

Taiwan looks very small on the world map compared to giant China, but Taiwan enjoys significantly higher standards of living and much more freedom of expression than its larger neighbor. Though it has only a twentieth of China’s total GDP, Taiwan’s GDP per capita is nearly 4 times that of its neighbor’s when expressed in terms of purchasing power parity; Taiwan ranks 24th in the world, while China ranks 88th, according to the CIA World Factbook. Taiwan’s unemployment now stands at 4 percent, while China’s is estimated to be between 15 and 20 percent.

In terms of infant mortality, China’s 21.96 per 1000 live births is 4 times worse than that of Taiwan (5.45), and Taiwanese life expectancy is 4.6 years longer than in China. When it comes to freedom of expression, Taiwan ranks 32nd in the world, well over a hundred places ahead of China, whose utter lack of press freedom has landed it in 163rd place. By many other standards, China is lagging behind its much smaller neighbor.

China’s military expenditure, however, is a large threat to Taiwan’s national security, a fact reiterated by Taiwan as recently as November in the nation’s 13th National Defense Report. Taiwan’s security apparatus has been greatly jeopardized by Beijing’s rapid expansion and modernization of its military. In the Asia-Pacific region, the global security environment is becoming increasingly uncertain.

Unlike during the civil war, China now has a large array of modern weapons it could deploy to quickly overwhelm Taiwan’s defensive position. In the face of this strategic challenge, many observers believe, Taipei cannot afford to be complacent, and it must actively pursue an effective defense strategy. Taiwan’s one advantage is the broad political support it receives from the West for its de facto democratic self-rule, but there are serious worries Beijing would use military force should Taiwan seek formal statehood as an independent nation.

Reacting to the U.S. arms deal with Taiwan, China’s Assistant Foreign Minister, Zheng Zeguang, said that opposition to the deal is strongly in China’s national interest, and that Beijing has decided to take necessary measures to retaliate, including sanctions against the companies involved in the sale. He reiterated Beijing’s position that Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brushed aside China’s complaints, noting that the situation presents no new developments. Arms sales to Taiwan have always been part of U.S. foreign policy.

Taiwan’s independent governance, enabled by U.S. support, has irritated the Beijing establishment since 1949. Though there is a popular mood among Taiwanese for greater democratization of the island, any move toward nationhood would provoke a severe backlash from Beijing.

The potential danger of the situation hangs over Taipei’s head and jeopardizes world stability. The slightest miscalculation could escalate to a larger conflict and destabilize the whole of the Asia-Pacific region as other bigger players, including Japan and the United States, are pulled in. Many strategic observers classify the dispute between Taipei and Beijing as a dangerous flashpoint where conflict between the two states could entangle other powers and cause a broader conflict.

China currently seems content to block Taiwan’s potential statehood diplomatically, but the situation may escalate if Taiwan appears prepared to formally declare independence.

Washington’s Taiwan policy is marked with strategic ambiguity. Americans have no obligation to defend the island in case of war in the Taiwan Strait, but the Taiwan Relation Act of 1979 obliges the United States to sell weapons of a defensive character to Taiwan. Washington, however, has always become involved in earlier escalations between the two.

To date, Beijing has deployed more than 300 missiles along its coast, aimed at Taiwan, and is engaged in training in the Taiwan Strait. It has deployed over 70 submarines in the area. The nation is also in the process of rapidly acquiring advanced aircraft and missiles, provoking an arms race with Taiwan that continues to deeply worry inhabitants of the island.

Authorities in Beijing, on the other hand, are afraid of Taiwan’s democratic ideology, which the Communists fear could one day engulf the mainland and destabilize the whole regime should they fail to contain it. Annexing a formerly democratic state could contaminate the people of Communist China, who have never known the taste of democratic freedoms. Though China points its missiles toward Taiwan, it has not pressed to reunite the island and appears prepared to wait decades to do so. It seems war hysteria has just become a part of Beijing’s strategy to quell rebellion at home and keep Taiwanese democratic ideology from spreading to mainland China.

Mr. Sarkar is a senior international journalist who studied U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security at Cambridge. He is the Executive Editor of The Global Intelligence.

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