We are pleased to publish this original analysis by Dirk Nimmegeers, co-editor of ChinaSquare.be and China Vandaag (Belgium) and Friends of Socialist China advisory group member, on the issue of Taiwan.
Taiwanese and Western politicians and journalists are spotlighting alleged similarities between the war in Ukraine and Mainland China-Taiwan relations. Ignoring or concealing real differences and turning reality upside down undermines the one-China principle.
Chinese top diplomats such as Foreign Minister Wang Yi, director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee Yang Jiechi, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying react sharply to this, and rightly so.
‘Taiwan is not Ukraine’
On February 23, a reporter from Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV asked Hua Chunying, Deputy Minister and Foreign Affairs spokesperson, what she thought of ‘the Taiwanese leaders’ comparing the Ukraine problem to the Taiwan question, and expressing the hope that the international community will continue to provide Taiwan with weapons so that China’s mainland dare not invade Taiwan by force’.
Hua Chunying replied: ‘Taiwan for sure is not Ukraine. Taiwan has always been an inalienable part of China’s territory. This is an indisputable historical and legal fact’. On March 7, a Bloomberg reporter asked Secretary Wang Yi, ‘What similarities are there between the current situation in Ukraine and the question of Taiwan? How likely would you say conflict in the Taiwan Strait is at the moment?’ Wang Yi’s reply began as follows: ‘Let me first make it clear that the Taiwan question and the Ukraine issue are different in nature and are not comparable at all. Most fundamentally, Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory, and the Taiwan question is entirely China’s internal affair’.
The comparisons that you now see popping up in our media for a specific purpose revolve around the themes of independence, political-economic systems and violence.
Taiwan is not an independent state, Ukraine is.
Russia has reattached a part of independent Ukraine, Crimea (which had been transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954), and might plan to annex more regions. China wants to eventually, and peacefully reintegrate Taiwan, which is de facto autonomous, back into the motherland. The resemblance is only there for those who drag it in purposefully. Taiwan is not an independent country and China will never recognize it diplomatically. China has indeed recognized Ukraine and has good relations with that country, of which it is the main trading partner. Moreover, as Benjamin Ho observes: ‘Kyiv joined the Belt and Road Initiative in 2017, Chinese companies have been upgrading the country’s ports and subways. In 2020, Ukraine also signed a memorandum of understanding with China’s Huawei.’
Ukraine has been a disputed territory for centuries. After the October Revolution in 1917, a number of more or less independent Ukrainian republics emerged, which were still a bone of contention for neighbouring countries. The Socialist Soviet Republic of Ukraine became one of the founding members of the Soviet Union. Ukraine declared its independence after the dissolution of that multinational state. China has maintained diplomatic relations with Ukraine since 27 December 1991. Taiwan consists of a group of small islands and a large island that gave its name to the whole. It has also been a disputed territory, both Portugal and the Netherlands had a colony there, but it was never an independent state or recognized as such. The Chinese Empire expanded to the Taiwan Islands in 1683 and for a while they were part of Fujian Province. When the Chinese Empire lost the first war against Japan, it was forced to cede Taiwan to Japan in 1895. After the second war between Japan and China (1937 to 1945, an ‘episode’ of the Second World War), Japan, being defeated, was obliged to return the islands to China, at that moment the Republic of China, in 1945. The international legal status of Taiwan as part of China was also laid down in the Cairo Conference and Declaration of 1943, the 1945 Potsdam Declaration and the Instrument of Surrender of Japan in 1945. As the Republic of China, Taiwan constitutionally claims to be the legal government of the whole of China. However, since the People’s Republic of China was seated in the UN in 1971, it has legitimately represented China. Henceforth, Taiwan could no longer represent China.
‘Unsinkable aircraft carrier’
Immediately after 1945, the Chinese Civil War started again. The forces of the Republican Chinese government led by the Kuomintang Party lost that civil war against the People’s Liberation Army of the Communist Party and its allies. The vanquished regime fled to Taiwan. In the year 1949, Taiwan was the only territory left of the Republic of China. The Kuomintang party continued to call Taiwan Republic of China and planned to reconquer the mainland. It soon became clear that this would not work, partly because the Kuomintang had lost all credit with the Chinese people. It seemed only a matter of time before the People’s Republic of China would incorporate Taiwan, thus restoring the country’s territorial unity. In the context of the Cold War, the Asian chapter of which began in Korea, US President Truman dispatched the US Navy’s 7th Fleet to the Taiwan Strait to prevent Taiwan’s reunification with mainland China. US military officials called Taiwan an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’. Until 1971, Taiwan, under the name Republic of China, remained a member of the United Nations and its Security Council. Then a majority of the member states decided to recognize the People’s Republic as ‘the one and only China’ and Taiwan as a de facto breakaway province. The One China principle has been recognized by more and more countries over the years. In 1972 the US also agreed to it. The vast majority of countries, including the western ones that adopted the one-China principle did this when China was not yet an economic or political heavyweight. This is one reason to believe it didn’t happen under pressure from China, because the People’s Republic simply didn’t have much pressure to apply. Rather the truth of the matter is, as China’s top diplomats say, ‘the One China Principle is a universally recognized standard for international relations.’
If Taiwan were to break away now, it would be as much a separatist act as that of Ukraine’s two people’s republics, Donetsk and Luhansk. China does not recognize these mini-states, for one because it remains strongly opposed to separatism for reasons of principle. China also assumes that it does not want to see other states disintegrate, any more than it does not want to disintegrate itself. It is precisely the US and Western countries that support separatist movements when this is in line with their own interests and that oppose separatism only when it goes against their interests.
Historical examples seem to suggest that the United States and Europe hold a double standard when choosing whether to support or oppose referendums in former Soviet territories, backing secession movements that reflect their own interests and opposing those that do not. The West may now strongly disapprove of the Donetsk and Luhansk declarations of independence, but the United States and Western Europe supported and recognized the independence of Ukraine, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as soon as possible in order to contribute to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Union. After the bloody civil war in Yugoslavia, for which Western states bear a heavy responsibility, and the disintegration of that country, some of the countries in the G20 recognized the small state of Kosovo that had split from Serbia. They were: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Kingdom and the United States. Eight countries to this day do not regard Kosovo as a separate state: Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, South Africa and … China. Of course, the US would not tolerate the secession of Texas, annexed in 1845, or foreign aid to a separatist Texan movement. However, the United States of Trump and Biden is siding with the separatists in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and … Taiwan in words and deeds. A textbook example of the Western opportunist strategy of supporting specific forms of separatism and of intervening in the internal affairs of other countries.
Time will tell
If China recognized the secession of Donetsk and Luhansk, the US and NATO would no doubt say that ‘In Donetsk and Luhansk, China approves what it does not allow to Taiwan’. China is wise not to fall into the trap. Beijing has also not officially approved the annexation of Crimea to Russia, although the annexation has been justified by the parties concerned on the basis of the referendum result among the regional population. Only the future will tell how the complex Ukrainian situation will evolve.
The ‘desire for democracy’
Some Western observers will also argue that the Ukrainians and the Taiwanese share a desire for democracy, which in the West by default means the Western variant of democracy exclusively. Indeed, part of the Ukrainian population, especially in the west of that country, is in favour of a political and economic affiliation with the West, in particular with the European Union. Taiwanese people are part of the Chinese nation, historically, linguistically, culturally. There are minority nationalities in Taiwan – as elsewhere in China – often known there as indigenous or aboriginal people – but they account for slightly over 2 percent of the population. Many Taiwanese however, are politically and economically oriented more towards the West than towards Mainland China and therefore there are voters who want Taiwan to extend its autonomy, to establish and declare independence. The number of these proponents fluctuates depending on the economic successes of government policies and ideological influences both internal and external. The possibility to demand independence arose through the democratic reforms from 1987, which resulted in a multi-party democracy based on the Western model. In striving for peaceful reunification with Taiwan, the Chinese government must take this development into account, and Beijing does so indeed. In particular, the People’s Republic has promoted the development of strong and multifaceted economic and financial ties between the island and the mainland. This has brought prosperity to both sides of the Taiwan Strait. China proposes the One country, Two systems model to the de facto autonomous island. In Hong Kong, that is still working to a great extent. The prosperity and future of the Hong Kong Autonomous Administrative Region will benefit from its increasing integration into China’s Greater Bay Area. Extensive individual freedoms continue to be fully guaranteed, also after the introduction of the National Security Act. In fact, this act has merely halted the separatism that ravaged Hong Kong for two years with chaos and internal violence.
Listen to what US presidents have to say …
Separatists currently have political power in Taiwan and they are going strong. They are receiving substantial and increasing military support from the US that is increasingly flouting the agreements it has made with China and guarantees it has given, despite claims to the contrary. At her regular press conference Hua Chunying notes that this year marks the 50th anniversary of President Nixon’s visit to China, saying: ‘During that visit in February 1972, the two sides issued the China-US Joint Communiqué in Shanghai, marking the normalization of China-US relations. There are very important lines on the Taiwan question in the Shanghai Communiqué. The US side stated: There are essential differences between China and the United States in their social systems and foreign policies. However, the two sides agreed that countries, regardless of their social systems, should conduct their relations on the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, nonaggression against other states, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. The US side also declared: The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves. With this prospect in mind, it affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan. In the meantime, it will progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan’.
Hua Chunying then points out that in the August 17 communiqué, issued by the Chinese and US governments in 1982, the US government reiterated the foregoing and also that it ‘has no intention of infringing on Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity, or interfering in China’s internal affairs, or pursuing a policy of “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan.” The United States Government states that it does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, and that it intends gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan, leading, over a period of time, to a final resolution’.
Then judge them by their actions
Since the turn of the century, US presidents have resumed massive arms sales, exchanged visits with political representatives from Taiwan, and granted Taiwanese offices in the US itself and in Taiwan embassy status. Since 2020, US soldiers for ‘special operations’ and marines have been training the Taiwanese army. That was kept secret at first, but in the meantime the Taiwanese leaders, as well as the supreme leader, Ms. Tsai Ing Wen, have openly admitted this. These developments have gone into overdrive under Trump, and Biden has not reversed them despite all his soothing statements. Pompeo, Secretary of State under Trump, visited Taiwan on March 2 and stated that the US should recognize Taiwan as a free and sovereign country. (This hawk and his cronies are preparing for the 2024 presidential election).
On 14 March China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi met with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in the Italian capital of Rome. When Yang Jiechi talked about China-US relations, he brought up the Taiwan question. Yang stressed that ‘the current US administration has pledged to adhere to the one-China policy and not to support so-called Taiwan independence, but its actions are obviously inconsistent with its statements. China has never renounced the right to reverse a Taiwanese declaration of independence by the use of weapons’. To the provocations of Washington and Taipei, China has retorted with assertive statements and actions to indicate that the violent option still exists if worst comes to worst. But truth should not be turned upside down: this would be a situation completely differing from the invasion of an independent state, after the recognition of regional secessions, that has taken place in Ukraine. Yang Jiechi stressed that the Taiwan question concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Peaceful reunion or embarkation on an aircraft carrier
Should Taipei decide to declare Taiwan’s independence, China has two equitable and compelling reasons not to accept it and ultimately, if there is no other option, to reverse that secession by force of arms. First of all, a constitutional independence of Taiwan would be the most serious imaginable breach of China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Second, as an independent entity, Taiwan would become a military base at China’s front door. This would be an unacceptable escalation of a process already initiated by the Trump and Biden administrations: the creation of a kind of NATO in Asia. The following steps have been taken in this regard over the past decade: the formation and activation of the Five Eyes, the Quad, the so-called Freedom of Navigation operations in the South China Sea, Washington taking sides against China in the East and South China Seas and last but not least AUKUS. Like NATO in Europe, this whole constellation of military and political organizations, under the impetus of the US, aims to advance further and further to China’s borders to further encircle and threaten the PRC with military bases. Declaring Taiwan’s independence would be a double-edged sword: on the one hand it would practically force China into military action, so provide the ideal pretext for attacking China and on the other ‘free and sovereign Taiwan’ would be a military base to play a key role in that attack. This is not a fantasy: influential think tanks such as the Atlantic Council are seriously considering that scenario. Eventually, Taiwanese voters will have a choice between either a future of even more economic cooperation with the mainland that can guarantee stability and peace, or embarking on the ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ that some American politicians want to make of Taiwan. That is why Chinese diplomacy is making an effort to explain that there are fundamental differences between Taiwan and Ukraine. And that is why Western observers and journalists should take Beijing’s concerns seriously instead of uncritically accepting and spreading the propaganda of Taipei and Washington.
Many thanks to Carlos Martinez and Keith Bennett for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this article.