China’s per­ilous Tai­wan pol­icy caus­ing fric­tion with US

Arab News - - Opinion -

The un­fold­ing geopo­lit­i­cal con­test be­tween China and the US has been de­scribed by many as a new Cold War. If it ever be­comes a hot one, the flash­point could be Tai­wan, ow­ing in large part to Chi­nese pol­icy to­ward the is­land. China’s gov­ern­ment sus­pended diplo­matic con­tact with Tai­wan in June 2016 be­cause the pro-in­de­pen­dence Demo­cratic Pro­gres­sive Party (DPP), which had just re­turned to power, re­fused to rec­og­nize the so-called

1992 Con­sen­sus, the po­lit­i­cal ba­sis for the

“One China” prin­ci­ple. Since then, how­ever, Tai­wanese Pres­i­dent Tsai Ing-wen has pur­sued a mod­er­ate pol­icy, dis­ap­point­ing hard­line DPP sup­port­ers.

That is not good enough for China, which has con­tin­ued to tighten the screws on Tai­wan. For ex­am­ple, it per­suaded five other coun­tries to fol­low it in sev­er­ing diplo­matic ties, re­duc­ing the num­ber of coun­tries that main­tain for­mal re­la­tions with the is­land to just 17. China has also taken steps to sti­fle tourism from the main­land: Whereas nearly 4.2 mil­lion main­land Chi­nese tourists vis­ited Tai­wan in 2015, when the pro-Bei­jing Kuom­intang gov­ern­ment was in power, the to­tal fell to just 2.7 mil­lion in 2017.

Tai­wan’s gov­ern­ment has not blinked. But, last Novem­ber, the DPP did suf­fer dev­as­tat­ing losses in lo­cal elec­tions, largely be­cause of ane­mic eco­nomic growth — an out­come that drove the po­lit­i­cally weak­ened Tsai to re­sign as party leader.

For China, this seemed like the ideal mo­ment to turn up the heat. So, on Jan. 2, Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping de­liv­ered a ma­jor speech on Tai­wan, in which he made it clear that China re­mains de­ter­mined to seek re­uni­fi­ca­tion.

But Xi did not in­di­cate that he would of­fer con­ces­sions to en­tice Tai­wan back to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble. On the con­trary, de­spite declar­ing that “Chi­nese will not fight Chi­nese,” he re­fused to re­nounce the use of force to pre­vent Tai­wan from seek­ing for­mal in­de­pen­dence.

While in­flict­ing eco­nomic pain and diplo­matic hu­mil­i­a­tion on Tai­wan may pro­duce some short-term psy­cho­log­i­cal sat­is­fac­tion for China, the is­land will ad­just over time, and Chi­nese ac­tions will yield de­creas­ing re­turns.

For ex­am­ple, after China cut the num­ber of main­land vis­i­tors, Tai­wan turned its at­ten­tion to at­tract­ing tourists from other coun­tries. De­spite the de­cline in vis­i­tors from the main­land, 11 mil­lion tourists — a new record — vis­ited the is­land in 2018.

Per­haps the most dan­ger­ous con­se­quence of China’s Tai­wan pol­icy is that it raises fur­ther ten­sions with the US. As the ul­ti­mate pro­tec­tor of Tai­wan’s de facto in­de­pen­dence, the US has al­ready taken steps to con­vey the mes­sage that it will not just sit by and watch China bully the is­land into sub­mis­sion. In Septem­ber, the US re­called its am­bas­sadors to the Do­mini­can Repub­lic, El Sal­vador and Panama in protest over these coun­tries’ de­ci­sion to sever diplo­matic ties with Tai­wan. And pro­pos­als to strengthen US-Tai­wan de­fense co­op­er­a­tion are un­der dis­cus­sion.

So far, China has re­sponded to such chal­lenges by ratch­et­ing up the pres­sure on Tai­wan — sus­tain­ing a highly dan­ger­ous dy­namic at a time when US-China re­la­tions are al­ready fraught. Un­less China’s lead­ers break the cy­cle, an es­ca­lat­ing bat­tle of wills with the US could erupt into di­rect con­flict.

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