Ev­ery­one sticks to script on Tai­wan’s sta­tus

The Delhi News-Record - - OPINION - GWYNNE DYER Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist based in Lon­don, Eng­land.

“In­de­pen­dence for Tai­wan would only bring pro­found dis­as­ter to Tai­wan,” said China’s Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping in Bei­jing re­cently, and he ought to know. He is the one who would make the dis­as­ter hap­pen.

Speak­ing on the 40th an­niver­sary of U.S. diplo­matic recog­ni­tion of the Chi­nese Peo­ple’s Repub­lic, Xi said Tai­wan was “sa­cred ter­ri­tory” for Bei­jing. He would never tol­er­ate “sep­a­ratist ac­tiv­i­ties” there: “We make no prom­ise to re­nounce the use of force and re­serve the op­tion of tak­ing all nec­es­sary means.”

Well now, that would be ex­cit­ing, wouldn’t it? Start with Chi­nese air and mis­sile strikes on Tai­wan, pre­sum­ably re­cip­ro­cated by the Tai­wanese forces. Prob­a­bly no nukes, although China does have them, but the first ma­jor sea bat­tle since the Sec­ond World War, fol­lowed by a Chi­nese as­sault land­ing on Tai­wan in­volv­ing sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand troops. Quite a lot of death and de­struc­tion, in fact.

No? That’s not what he meant? OK, then, what did Xi mean by “all nec­es­sary means”? Harsh words and a trade em­bargo? Then why not say so? Is the Trump thing catch­ing?

There is a pe­cu­liar am­bi­gu­ity to Bei­jing’s of­fi­cial state­ments on Tai­wan. On the one hand, no­body in the Com­mu­nist regime is in a great rush to gather Tai­wan back into the fold. It will hap­pen even­tu­ally, they be­lieve, and they can wait.

On the other hand, the regime’s cred­i­bil­ity (such as it is) comes from two sources: its na­tion­al­ist pos­tur­ing and its abil­ity to de­liver ris­ing liv­ing stan­dards. With the lat­ter as­set rapidly de­pre­ci­at­ing, the na­tion­al­ism be­comes more im­por­tant, so chest­beat­ing is in­evitable.

Many peo­ple will there­fore dis­count Xi’s words as rhetoric the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist leader was obliged to use on a sig­nif­i­cant an­niver­sary, but not a real threat to in­vade. Af­ter all, the deal made 40 years ago pretty much ruled out the use of force. The U.S. agreed in 1979 that there is only one China, and that it in­cludes Tai­wan. There just hap­pened to be two ri­val Chi­nese gov­ern­ments at the time.

Both of these gov­ern­ments agree that there is only one China. In prac­tice, the one in Taipei can never re­gain con­trol of the main­land, but it claims to be the le­git­i­mate gov­ern­ment of China, not of Tai­wan. Al­most every­body else rec­og­nizes the Com­mu­nist regime in Bei­jing as le­git­i­mate.

The 1979 deal as­sumed this con­flict would be resolved peace­fully at some un­spec­i­fied fu­ture time, and Bei­jing made some help­ful com­ments about how Tai­wan could en­joy a spe­cial sta­tus if it re­u­nited with the moth­er­land: democ­racy, a free press, the rule of law — the same prom­ises made to Hong Kong when Britain re­turned it to China in 1997. Then every­body set­tled down to wait.

Bei­jing as­sumed the Tai­wanese would even­tu­ally see the light and re­join the main­land. The Tai­wanese as­sumed Com­mu­nist rule on the main­land would even­tu­ally mel­low or col­lapse.

But Com­mu­nist rule in China has not col­lapsed, and Xi is the most pow­er­ful and au­thor­i­tar­ian leader since Mao. Tai­wan has not grown re­signed to re­union; on the con­trary, a sep­a­ratist Tai­wanese na­tion­al­ism has grown stronger with the years.

Sep­a­ratism can never hap­pen: China has 1.3 bil­lion peo­ple, Tai­wan has 23 mil­lion. Tai­wan’s Pres­i­dent Tsai Ing-wen takes po­si­tions that ap­peal to the lo­cal na­tion­al­ist/ sep­a­ratists, but she’s never go­ing to de­clare in­de­pen­dence.

What Xi is re­ally try­ing to do with his fierce talk is to re­in­force the anx­i­ety many Tai­wan vot­ers feel about de­fy­ing China too openly. They don’t want re­uni­fi­ca­tion, but they do want a quiet life. And his strat­egy is work­ing: Tsai’s party lost badly in the re­cent lo­cal elec­tions, and may be voted out of power in the na­tional elec­tions next year.

It’s just a game, most of the time, and each player plays his or her al­lot­ted role safe in the knowl­edge that the script has not changed for decades. The sta­tus quo is more se­cure than it looks. But let just one player de­vi­ate from the script, and every­body would sud­denly be in a new and very fright­en­ing world.

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