NEW DELHI: If the Nationalists were ruling China today, would the border issues with India and so many countries in the South China Sea have been handled differently?
“Territorial issues are very difficult to resolve,” admits Taiwan’s Ambassador to India Chung Kwang Tien (official designation is Representative since India sees Taiwan as part of China). But he also believes Taiwan would have managed the issue differently. “Our way is to shelve it and do other things but China is using muscle to resolve its territorial issues,” he said during an interaction organised by the Association of Foreign Affairs Correspondents in New Delhi recently.
Ironically, the “Eleven Dot Line” on the South China Sea, declared by the Nationalist government ruling Taiwan in 1947, closely matches the 9-Dash Line of the Communist government that overthrew the Nationalists in 1949. The Taiwanese claim at that time apparently raised no eyebrows in the region partly because colonial powers still ruled in south-east Asia and also partly because the Nationalist government did not seek to militarily assert those claims.
When the communists under Mao Dzedong seized power in 1949, they appeared content with the Eleven Dot Line for many years until the 1950s, when two dots were removed. This was to assuage the communist comrades in Vietnam about their sovereignty over the Gulf of Tonkin. The dots also became dashes. But China began to flex muscle in the 1970s when its forces expelled the South Vietnamese from the Paracel Islands. In the 1980s and 1990s, China seized seven of the 200 reefs in the Spratly chain of islands and in 2012, they occupied Scarborough Shoal which belongs to the Philippines.
China’s muscle flexing is an uncomfortable reminder to Taiwan that it falls within Beijing’s 9-Dash Line and, therefore, is vulnerable. It is separated from mainland China by less than 200 km of water. In recent times, President Xi Jinping has not ruled out the use of force to bring the island under his control. Add to that, Beijing has relentlessly sought to diplomatically isolate Taiwan—in the last three years seven countries have severed ties with Taipei leaving only 15 countries with which it has diplomatic relations.
“We have faced a lot of setbacks since we live in a hostile neighbourhood,” said Ambassador Chung. “They (China) have threatened Taiwan with the use of force, our traders have been targeted, even tourism has been hit. But we will never be defeated as the Taiwanese passport is acceptable in 155 countries with visa on arrival.”
Taiwan accepts that its problems are beyond its capacity to resolve and takes comfort in recent expressions of U.S. support. No less than Vice-President Mike Pence said in Washington DC two days ago that “we’ve authorised additional military sales and recognised Taiwan’s place as one of the world’s great trading economies and beacons of Chinese culture and democracy”.
But Ambassador Chung also acknowledges that “you can’t count on one person (Donald Trump). What matters is what people think of Taiwan. Most Americans have a good opinion about Taiwan”.
Which leaves the million dollar question: Would China attempt the unthinkable and invade Taiwan? The point is if it can use muscle in the South China Sea, why should Taiwan be treated differently. But China has largely avoided costly military exchanges and invading Taiwan may draw in the U.S. A Taiwanese declaration of independence could put pressure on Xi Jinping to unleash his military but the impact of that could result in China’s international political isolation backed by punishing economic embargos.