How to Interpret Latest Remarks on Taiwan by Chinese Leaders
China Times, May 22, 2020
Political drama has come one after another with fanfare. Taiwan was denied participation again at the World Health Assembly (WHA) this year, and President Tsai Ing-wen reiterated her cross-strait policy of maintaining the status quo under the Constitution.
Mainland China’s Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of National Defense, responded pragmatically, and Chairman Wang Yang of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang delivered remarks at the two sessions without mentioning the 1992 Consensus, emphasizing policies related to cross-strait exchanges and integration will not change. These developments underscore how cross-strait relations is faced with both crises and opportunities. Although not earth-shaking, the relationship is enshrouded with dark clouds.
In particular, President Tsai announced her plan to initiate a constitutional amendment process which has added spirals and negative variables to the cross-strait relationship. In her inaugural address, President Tsai emphasized the need to build up military capacity and train reserve forces, and the United States announced the sale of 18 Mark 48 torpedoes and related equipment and technologies, almost like a generous gift, yet impressing people with imminent tension and turbulence in the Taiwan Strait.
As the Taiwanese people get over-excited over a message congratulating President Tsai’s inauguration from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, we must pour cold water and remind that while this was indeed the first time that our president has received a congratulatory message from the U.S. secretary of state, President Ma Ying-jeou received congratulatory messages from presidents of the United States in 2008 and 2012. That President Tsai is now receiving a message from the U.S. secretary of state appears to be a downgrade in political stature and significance. The comparison reminds the people to reflect whether the policy choices of the current administration is wise and whether we should make timely adjustments.
Danger of Dissecting the ROC’s History
During the Ma administration from 2008 to 2016, Taiwan never took sides by putting all its eggs in one basket but instead maintained stable interactions with mainland China and mutual trust with the United States. The actions taken by Taiwan in dealing with the mainland and America were considered from Taiwan’s own position and national interests, not subordinate to either. Consequently, we became a crucial chip in the strategy balance scale, making both mainland China and the United States value us dearly and desire to attract us. Thus, the privileges enjoyed by Taiwanese officials were correspondingly high.
President Tsai has taken sides and declare loyalty to the United States. This is nothing but self-degradation and has been taken by Washington for granted. Therefore, she could only be accorded with a congratulatory message from the secretary of state.
In the world of power politics, if a small state unconditionally attaches to a hegemony and is willing to be treated like a bargaining chip at the mercy of another, then naturally the superpower is entitled to exercise its discretion and make choices. In these circumstances, the small state completely loses its control and ability to decide its destiny. It is therefore not surprising to see that the courtesy or protocol level afforded to Taiwan was scaled down.
The Republic of China (ROC) Constitution has been implemented in Taiwan for over seven decades. Although amended several times, the document remains deeply rooted in its Chinese and cross-strait heritage. The national flag and official name of the ROC have become the legitimacy that all politicians must acquire to justify their power, although they may not strongly identify with the historical legacy bequeathed by the Chinese revolutionary martyrs.
The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has purposely dissected the history of the ROC, using 1949, the year that the Nationalist government retreated to Taiwan, as demarcation. This purposeful separation of the ROC’s history before and after 1949 is absurd and unjustified. Intentions underlying President Tsai’s proposal to amend the constitution is bound to provoke sensitive political nerves across the strait and may prove to be a Pandora’s box.
To take sides in desperation is bound to lose control. In face of the ever-increasing rivalry between Washington and Beijing, how to avoid being treated like a bargaining chip and victimized pawn on the battlefield and grasp our own destiny and future development tests the political wisdom and strategic vision of Taiwanese leaders.
That President Tsai avoided discussing the World Health Organization (WHO), Hong Kong, and U.S.-Taiwan relations and avoided using the term “Wuhan pneumonia” in her inaugural address shows that she understands current cross-strait tensions and is willing to brake.
Based on the recent remarks by Wang Yang and Li Keqiang, it seems that mainland China using military force against Taiwan to impose unification is not imminent. However, amid the intriguing and complicated global situation, military conflict is not imaginary, and the possibility of misfire is increasing with lapse of time. If Taiwan persists in taking one side, choosing confrontation, and leaving no room for communication and compromise, then Taiwan may be heading towards a road of confrontational showdown with no return.
Thawing Cross-Strait Hostility Among the Youth
Another focus should be on the rising hostile sentiment of the youth on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. After Taiwan implemented de-Sinicization in its curriculum, young people in Taiwan have abandoned their Chinese identity. This has exacerbated a deepening psychology supporting Taiwan independence and loss of Chinese cultural identity. These characteristics invoke despise and backfire from mainland Chinese youth across the strait. The crossfire and humiliation on the Internet between the younger generation will only kindle the fire of cross-strait confrontation.
Faced with increased frequency of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military aircraft activities around the strait, Taiwan cannot find any jurisprudence or rationale in international law to prohibit such aggression. Both sides of the Taiwan Strait are now engaged in closer interactions which intensify the degree of muscle-flexing and contention. The possibility of misfire by misunderstanding and miscalculation is also increasing.
On the eve of World War I, the political atmosphere in Europe was like an explosives facility filled with the smell of gasoline. A bullet of politically-oriented assassination immediately enkindled the Continent into raging flames of warfare. Now, as the cross-strait relationship continues to intensify, if the incumbent administration in Taiwan continues to build a conflict-oriented political environment and allow military activities to be triggered by misfire, the consequences would be inconceivable. We should take every caution not to write another foolish chapter in history.