In the following article, Dirk Nimmegeers (Co-editor of ChinaSquare and China Vandaag (Belgium), and member of our advisory group) provides a timely assessment of the political situation in Taiwan Province ahead of the elections on the island taking place on 13 January.
Dirk gives an overview of the US’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” in relation to Taiwan – recognising the One China principle whilst simultaneously providing support to separatist forces. As Dirk points out, the “Washington elite considers Taiwan an unsinkable aircraft carrier in East Asia, just as Israel is in West Asia.”
US support for separatists in Taiwan, and its increased supply of military aid, cannot be separated from the West’s escalating campaign of encircling and containing China. Dirk cites his fellow ChinaSquare co-editor Frank Willems on the US’s motivation for beating the war drums in relation to Taiwan: “They feel that a Cold War with China is not enough and are out for a hot war with China. Taiwan is the ideal focal point for that.”
The author also discusses the positions of the major parties competing in the elections on Taiwan Province, and expresses little confidence that the island’s next administration will take a sensible and pragmatic approach to relations with Beijing. However, a move towards rapprochement, with a vision for eventual peaceful reunification, would be of great benefit to Chinese people on both sides of the strait, and would contribute towards regional peace and security.
This article was first published in Dutch on ChinaSquare and has been translated into English for Friends of Socialist China by the author.
On Jan. 13, 2024, elections of a political leader will take place on the island of Taiwan as part of the general election for a parliament. The result could have implications for peace in Asia and even in Europe.
On principle, there is no question of a ‘presidential’ election in Taiwan: this region, which is still – thanks to the US – in practice an autonomous economic and political entity, is not recognized as an independent country by the vast majority of countries in the world. Only 12 countries of the 193 members of the United Nations (and Vatican City, an observer state of the UN) still maintain diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, the name that Taiwan has officially taken. Taiwanese political parties incorrectly speak of “presidential elections,” and media which use the same term when covering these elections in doing so give incomplete, even misleading information. Journalists often do not realize that they are thus propagandizing American anti-Chinese politics. Even progressive publicists occasionally (unwittingly?) acquiesce to the omnipotence of Western media and write about “presidential” elections in “the country” of Taiwan. Some media outlets even adopt the Taiwanese separatists’ claim that the island “never actually belonged to China. ChinaSquare.be editor Frank Willems informed Belgian journalists in a podcast “that this is totally untrue”. Frank referred to various international treaties such as the one obliging Japan, after its defeat in World War II, to cede Taiwan, which it had occupied, back to China, which effectively happened.
The 181 countries that diplomatically recognize the People’s Republic of China, with embassies for both sides, at the same time recognize that there is only one China, with Beijing as its capital. The United States and European countries are among this number. Washington, however, as the Americans themselves say, maintains a strategic ambiguity. Words play a major role here: the US “recognizes” the Chinese position that Beijing has sovereignty over Taiwan, but does not “endorse” it. Washington regards Taiwan’s political status as “undetermined” and wants to keep it that way. This is the foundation of the current US position that the status quo must be maintained: on the one hand, Taiwan must not declare its legal independence; on the other hand, reunification of the island with China must be stopped.
The US kept the Republic of China afloat against the People’s Republic of China, and after Taiwan could “stand on its own feet,” the US continued to support the island because the Washington elite considers it an unsinkable aircraft carrier in East Asia, just as Israel is in West Asia. An autonomous Taiwan is a link in the Pacific first island chain that is of crucial strategic military importance to the US, a pillar of US hegemony, and a loyal and good customer of its arms industry.
The United States also dons the cloak of strategic ambiguity when it comes to war and peace, for while declaring that it is in favour of the status quo, at the same time it is strengthening Taiwan’s military capabilities, even through US Congress. Washington continued to arm the island last year, a prolonged and risky provocation. For the first time, it delivered military equipment to Taiwan under the Presidential Drawdown Authority, allowing the US to draw weapons directly from Department of Defence inventories. US military personnel are already stationed in Taiwan and their numbers will be increased. All this is of course encouraging the separatist Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) now in power to continue scheming for total independence and thereby further challenging Beijing. The defence budget proposed by the current Taiwanese leadership for 2024 is 19.6 billion USD, roughly 2.5 percent of Taiwan’s gross regional product. Military service was extended from four months to one year.
Manoeuvres and strategies
Taiwanese separatists know very well that Beijing wants above all a peaceful reunification, with an economic integration that will be beneficial to all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. The People’s Liberation Army will not attack the island unless it officially declares independence or in the case of foreign military intervention. The Chinese army’s manoeuvres are a warning that China means what it has been clearly declaring on this subject for decades and that its army is ready to defend the territory against further encroachments on its integrity. Moreover, the exercises are of course a powerful response to far-reaching American provocations such as the official visit of US Parliament Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Another of those provocations appears to be in the making: the administration of US President Joe Biden is planning to send an “unofficial delegation” to Taiwan immediately after the elections.
The status of Taiwan and its relationship with motherland China, have played a major role in every election, including in the present. That issue is becoming increasingly important and concerns us in Europe. As Frank Willems pointed out in the podcast already mentioned, the increased tensions between China and its province Taiwan are mainly caused by the United States. “They feel that a Cold War with China is not enough and are out for a hot war with China. Taiwan is the ideal focal point for that. That should worry us in Europe.” It certainly should if we take into account the opinions of top European politicians, such as Anders Fogh Rasmussen. This former NATO Secretary General went to Taipei telling the press there: “The most important supplier of weapons and military assistance to Taiwan will be the US. However, to prevent a possible Chinese attack against Taiwan, European countries could assist in different ways,” and: “Joint training or military exercises could be an important tool in that respect. We have done so with Ukrainian troops, and we can do the same with servicemen and women from Taiwan”. Rasmussen also told a news conference: “The first and foremost European contribution could be to join the US in comprehensive and profound sanctions against China.”
Moreover, in the context of the continuing Cold War, there is a growing number of voices in the United States in favour of moving away from strategic ambiguity and toward bellicose clarity. President Biden, meanwhile, has already himself abandoned any doubt as to whether the US would launch a war against China should Beijing decide that it has to use force to stop or undo the independence of its de facto autonomous province. In March, the US Naval Institute published an opinion piece by Second Lieutenant Ethan D. Chaffee of the U.S. Marine Corps with the telling title “Strategic Ambiguity on Taiwan Has Run Its Course”. This senior military officer raises the spectre of an “increasingly aggressive China that will no longer be deterred”. Chaffee now really wants to go into overdrive with the intense militarization of the island. For Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State in the Trump administration from 2018 to 2021, it’s even simpler. Pompeo advocates dropping the One China principle and believes the United States government should offer the Republic of China, aka Taiwan, the US’s diplomatic recognition “as a free and sovereign country.”
Importance of these elections
Three major parties are participating in the elections in addition to several small formations. Wu Rong-yuan, chairman of Taiwan’s small Labor Party, justifiably hopes that voters will give some kind of dialogue between Taipei and Beijing another chance.
The incumbent political leader, Ms Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP, is not eligible for re-election after two terms in office due to election regulations. Tsai has refused to adhere to the One-China Principle and the 1992 Consensus during her tenure, and she has gratefully accepted and in turn encouraged US interference. She has opposed economic relations between Taiwan and mainland China, which are mutually beneficial to all Chinese, seeking to undermine the basis for peaceful reunification. Lai Ching-te, her party’s candidate for the leadership election has announced that, as a “pragmatic supporter of Taiwan’s independence“, he wants to make the administration even more hostile to Beijing and more dependent on Washington.
The other major parties may be significantly more open-minded about a dialogue with Beijing. The Kuomintang (KMT) argues that the people of Taiwan and mainland China are one Chinese nation. Former KMT leader Ma Ying-jeou visited the mainland last year, and his trip clearly indicated that he (and perhaps his party) was willing to resume the rapprochement with Beijing. Hou Yu-ih, the presidential candidate of Taiwan’s largest opposition party however said recently that “within my term in office, I will not touch the issue of unification.” Hou stressed his commitment to maintaining increases in defence spending and close ties with the US, which he called an “allied country”. Although those may be election tactics to counter the idea that the KMT will “sell Taiwan out to China”, which Lai Ching-te has been peddling, it is a setback for peace. Ko Wen-je, the candidate of the relatively new Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), had and still has many ties to the separatists, but he is a pragmatist who, when mayor of the capital Taipei, expanded the city’s relationship with mainland China, and especially Shanghai. He also launched a proposal for a bridge between Taiwan’s island group of Kinmen and the mainland city of Xiamen.
It is also in the interest of the peoples in Europe that Taiwan’s political leaders and parliament be more open to the Beijing government’s vision. This was clearly expressed in Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Mao Ning’s regular press conference on 10 January:
“There is only one China in the world. Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. China firmly opposes the US having any form of official contact with the Taiwan region. The US needs to earnestly abide by the one-China principle and stipulations of the three China-US joint communiqués, prudently and properly handle Taiwan-related issues, stop official contact with the Taiwan region, stop sending wrong signals to ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces and refrain from interfering in elections in the Taiwan region in any form. The DPP authorities’ attempt to solicit support from the US and other countries for ‘Taiwan independence’ will not succeed.”
Sources: Reuters, VRT.nws (Belgian Dutch language radio and television), China Daily, Taipei Times, AEI.org, (American Enterprise Institute website), Global Times, USNI.org, fmprc.gov.cn, Friends of Socialist China, Wikipedia,