Forget about Hong Kong. The ex-British colony is a consolation prize for Beijing compared to the 23.6 million souls on Taiwan, or, to give it its claimed name, the Republic of China.
The Taiwanese have kept an eagle eye on political events in Hong Kong since before the 1997 handover. From the start they were sceptical about the Beijing’s talk of “two systems in one country” and pledges of peaceful reunification. Recent events in Hong Kong have confirmed their scepticism and is threatening to ignite a 71-year-old Asian powder keg which could all too easily lead to a Sino-American showdown.
The dispute dates back to 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek, leader of China’s Kuomintang government, fled across the Taiwan Straits a few months before Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party declared victory in the long-running Chinese Civil War. He took with him China’s gold reserves, American-backing, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and a totally unrealistic claim to rule the 3.7 billion square miles of Mainland China from an offshore island of 13,980 square miles.
It couldn’t last. And it didn’t. In 1971 Taiwan lost its seat on the Security Council and the UN. In 1979 the US caved into the pressures of realpolitik and extended diplomatic recognition to Beijing. It maintained a de-facto embassy in the Taiwanese capital Taipei and pledged itself to the continued defence of the island, but in the eyes of Beijing and the rest of the world it was the de jure recognition that counted. Today there are only 15 countries (including the Vatican) that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Given China’s long history, it is worth noting that Taiwan has played minor role until relatively recent times. For a long time it was left to the indigenous aborigines and Dutch and Spanish colonials. In 1683 the Chinese Emperor dismissed it as “a ball of mud.” It wasn’t until the British took a keen interest in the island during the First Opium War that the Chinese realised the strategic value of Taiwan. They annexed it and then lost it to the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. It wasn’t regained until after World War Two.
Beijing’s biggest problem with Taiwan is similar to that presented by Hong Kong—a Western-style capitalist alternative to communist party rule. Its population enjoys a higher standard of living than Mainland China and all the trappings of democratic government (although it was far from democratic for the first 40 years of Kuomintang rule). It is also protected by defense agreements with the US who have used the Seventh Fleet on three occasions to demonstrate their determination to keep alive the Chinese capitalist alternative.
Beijing has officially declared Taiwan a “renegade province” which needs to be reabsorbed into Mainland China. For many years the question was how? It was answered with a joint diplomatic policy of “deliberate ambiguity” which allowed both sides to interpret the legal status of the island as it sees fit. “Deliberate ambiguity” has allowed a gradual expansion of commercial, humanitarian and even nascent diplomatic relations. But the problem with ambiguity is that it opens the dangerous possibility of misinterpretation and miscalculation.
Those dangers have been heightened by the crackdown in Hong Kong, the re-election of pro-independence president Tsai Ing-wen, and increasingly bellicose rhetoric from Xi Jinping which is matched and exceeded by Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo.
Tom Arms is a regular contributor