China’s per­ilous Tai­wan pol­icy

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - INTERNATIONAL - By Minxin Pei, ex­clu­sive to the Sun­day Times in Sri Lanka

WASH­ING­TON, DC – The un­fold­ing geopo­lit­i­cal con­test be­tween China and the United States has been de­scribed by many as a new cold war. If it ever be­comes a hot one, the flash point 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 recog­nise 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 2.73 mil­lion in 2017.

Tai­wan’s gov­ern­ment has not blinke d . B u t , 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 Jan­uary 2, Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping de­liv­ered a ma­jor speech on Tai­wan, in which he made it clear that China remains de­ter­mined to seek re­uni­fi­ca­tion.

Xi dis­missed the ar­gu­ment that China’s au­to­cratic po­lit­i­cal sys­tem is fun­da­men­tally in­com­pat­i­ble with Tai­wan’s bois­ter­ous democ­racy, in­sist­ing that the “one coun­try, two sys­tems” for mula, first ap­plied to Hong Kong when it re­verted from Bri­tish to Chi­nese rule in 1997, would be suf­fi­cient to pro­tect Tai­wan’s in­ter­ests and au­ton­omy. The for­mula is, how­ever, now un­rav­el­ling in Hong Kong, where free­doms have been erod­ing dur­ing Xi’s ten­ure.

Nor did Xi 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. China must, in his words, “re­serve the op­tion to take any nec­es­sary mea­sure,” though he claims that the threat is aimed at “ex­ter­nal forces and at an ex­tremely small num­ber of ‘Tai­wan in­de­pen­dence’ sep­a­ratists.”

Again, Tai­wan’s gov­ern­ment was un­fazed. Tsai re­sponded with a de­fi­ant speech of her own, in which she flatly re­jected both the One China prin­ci­ple and the “one coun­try, two sys­tems” for­mula, and called for the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to sup­port Tai­wan’s de facto in­de­pen­dence.

Al­though Xi’s tough stance to­ward Tai­wan may end up rein­vig­o­rat­ing flag­ging sup­port for Tsai and the DPP, there is no rea­son to think that he will aban­don it any time soon. But nor is there rea­son to think that China’s pol­icy will stop back­fir­ing. 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. To re­duce its eco­nomic de­pen­dence on the main­land, Tai­wan has also been ag­gres­sively diver­si­fy­ing its over­seas mar­kets.

More­over, al­though China’s econ­omy is far larger, Tai­wan has some im­por­tant sources of lever­age. For ex­am­ple, re­strict­ing its elec­tron­ics in­dus­try -which forms a vi­tal link be­tween China and global in­for­ma­tion-tech­nol­ogy sup­ply chains -- from do­ing busi­ness with the main­land would sig­nif­i­cantly ac­cel­er­ate the ex­o­dus of ex­port- ori­ented man­u­fac­tur­ers from China spurred by ris­ing US im­port tar­iffs.

Per­haps the most dan­ger­ous con­se­quence of China’s Tai­wan pol­icy is that it raises fur­ther ten­sions with the United States. 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. Last Fe­bru­ary, the US Congress unan­i­mously passed the Tai­wan Travel Act, which will al­low se­nior Amer­i­can of­fi­cials to visit Tai­wan and vice versa. Though the mea­sure is largely sym­bolic, it has in­fu­ri­ated China, be­cause it amounts to of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion of the Tai­wan gov­ern­ment.

Fur­ther­more, 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 de­fence co­op­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing through the sale of more ad­vanced weapons, are un­der dis­cus­sion.

So far, China has re­sponded to such chal­lenges to its One China pol­icy 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.

( Minxin Pei, a pro­fes­sor of gov­ern­ment at Clare­mont McKenna Col­lege and the au­thor of China’s Crony Cap­i­tal­ism, is the in­au­gu­ral Li­brary of Congress Chair in US-China Re­la­tions.)

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