The Tug Of War Across The Straits

Srikanth Kondapalli New Delhi 28 January 2019

Recent speeches and actions across the Taiwan Straits are ruffling several feathers in the Indo-Pacific region. Seven decades of separation (after a brief civil war in 1945-1949) has not doused the embers between the Communist Party-led China and an authoritarian but recently transformed democracy—Taiwan.

China tried every trick to resolve the Taiwan issue, adopting military, strategic, economic and diplomatic means all these decades. Military means to take over Taiwan ended in 1958 with the intervention of the United States, only to revive recently with double digit defence expenditures by China. An Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement and “three links” (through shipping, air and post and telecommunications links) with a pro-unification Kuomintang government (2008-2016) ended with the Sun Flower movement resistance. China’s dream of reunification with Taiwan is becoming elusive day-by-day.

China’s efforts at restricting the international space of Taiwan has begun again with the 19th Communist Party Congress decision on “6 nos”, that is “anyone, any organization, any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China”; “maintain sufficient ability to defeat any form of Taiwan independence”. Further, President Xi Jinping, speaking recently in Beijing, said that “we will never leave any room for any sort of Taiwan independence or separatist activities…. [and] we do not promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to use all necessary measures.” These are not new, as previously such statements have been made by China’s leaders.

Nevertheless, while previously Beijing blocked any country expanding relations with Taiwan through its “one China” policy, with incentives—such as the so-called “cheque book diplomacy”—or coercive actions, after the 19th party congress, such efforts have became more intensive. Ironically both Taipei and Beijing have been simultaneously advocating the “one China” principle, each suggesting that they legitimately represent China. That fiction is vanishing.

One of the above measures is to wean the diplomatic allies of Taiwan into Beijing’s fold. At one time Taiwan was recognised by nearly 30 countries, that number has dwindled to less than 17 now with Burkina Faso, Malawi, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador recently switching sides.

Another measure was in 2018, when 44 airlines across the globe, including Air India, were told to change their separate website references to Taiwan and instead rename it as “Chinese, Taipei”. Further in 2019, Beijing is pressuring more than 60 trans-national corporations to follow a similar pattern. Taiwan’s foreign ministry retaliated by issuing guidelines to NGOs not to use words like “Chinese, Taipei” or “China, Taipei” or “Taiwan, Province of China” etc but to no avail.

Globalisation provided an opportunity to China to woo the crème de la crème of Taiwan. Over $300 billion was invested by Taiwanese in the China market, ironically contributing to the latter’s rise. Over two-thirds of Taiwanese companies listed on the Taiwan stock exchange have invested in China. Over a million CEOs, managers, technicians and others from Taiwan shifted to China—again imparting talent to the Chinese. It’s only recently that Taipei saw pitfalls in putting all eggs in the China basket and launched the New Southbound policy towards Southeast and South Asia.

Politically, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, whose party lost the mayoral elections in November 2018 and she had to resign from the chairpersonship of the party, has seen her ratings shooting up with her “four musts” speech on New Year ’s Eve. These include that China must face the reality of the existence of the Republic of China; it must respect Taiwanese choice of freedom and democracy; it must handle issue with Taiwan peacefully and on equal basis; and it must have formal institutions negotiating cross-Straits relations.

President Tsai is well aware of the crucial role that the United States can play in cross-Straits as it did in the 1958 and 1994 crises. Despite the switch over of diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing through the three communiques in 1972, 1979 and 1982, the United States has a major say on cross-Straits stability.

Unlike during President Chen Shui-bian’s (2000-2008) tenure, Tsai’s equations with U.S. appear to be on the upswing. First was the unprecedented phone call that President-elect Trump received from her. The United States’ enactment of the Taiwan Travel Act in March 2018 provided for reciprocal visits between officials of the two countries. U.S. also set the stage by inaugurating a new office building for the American Institute in Taiwan (its de facto embassy). On the last day of 2018, President Trump also signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, for supply of arms to Taiwan. While the revival of the Quadrilateral and the Indo-Pacific strategy does not yet include Taiwan in its ambit, Taipei would like to broad-base its appeal, including towards India.

India and Taiwan began economic and cultural interaction after reciprocal offices were established in 1995. Over two decades, interactions between the two have been steady but slow and cautious—partly due to the myopic vision in both capitals.

New Delhi has tied its feet through the “one China” policy enacted in three-month-long negotiations in late 1949 to early 1950 with Beijing but without seeking any reciprocal arrangements on Kashmir. Despite Beijing announcing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passing through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, New Delhi does not exert sufficient pressure on Beijing.

Taipei as well thinks India is “far away” and had several “missed chances” to open up with New Delhi—notably in 1962, 1991, 1998 and 2017. From under a billion dollars trade in 1995, bilateral trade increased to nearly $6 billion recently—still paltry compared to their respective trade profile or potential. The investment profile does not suggest a rosy picture, although investment protection, double taxation and other agreements are in place. Political relations as well are tightly controlled—often through coercive postures although parliamentarians frequently visit each other.

(The author is Professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views are personal)

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