China’s Taiwan conundrum: New year, old challenges

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photograph:( Reuters )

Shanghai, China Jan 11, 2019, 10.11 AM (IST) Sudeep Kumar

The year 2018 marked a shift in China debate from “Cooperation to Competition” in the media and academia around the world. It all began in March, 2018 when National People’s Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) extended Xi Jinping’s presidential term indefinitely. 

Xi’s signature project Belt and Road initiative (BRI), a Chinese grand strategy to reclaim centre stage in world affairs through economic trade and infrastructure investments, has faced criticism because of its 'debt-trap diplomacy'.

In last five years, China has built seaports which can be used for both civilian and military usage, hence, it is going to increase Chinese strategic influence on many critical choke points and sea lanes of communications along the shipping routes of the world. 

According to the Lowy Institute’s Asian Power Index 2018, China is evaluated as an Asian superpower, enjoying the superpower status with the US in Asia. On the account of these major backdrops, Trump administration started a tariff war for middle income trapped Chinese economy, where GDP to debt ratio is now believed to be more than 300 per cent, a dangerous sign indeed. 

This tariff war has started to look uglier in the light of geo-technological competition between the US and China as one can see in the case of Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE. Over the years, the Chinese 'one-party system' maintained their political legitimacy based on the Han-nationalism and export-driven economic development. It is interesting to watch how CCP will use Han-nationalism especially when tariff war has started to bite the future prospects of economic growth in general.

Last week, Xi’s speech on the occasion of 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC), stirred a fresh round of debate and discussion regarding the future of “one country and two systems” of Taiwan under 1992 consensus. Indeed, Taiwan has always been China’s Achilles Hills.  

During her 2019 new year speech, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, leader of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), warned city and county officials to take caution in talks with Chinese authority, after pro-China opposition Kuomintang (KMP) won a local election in November, 2018. 

Thanks to the democratic dividend in Taiwan, both popular Taiwanese political leaders, Tsai Ing-wen (DPP) and Ma Ying-jeou (KMT) rejected Chinese President Xi’s proposal of “one country and two systems” under 1992 consensus. 

Even former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou disputed the Chinese interpretation of 1992 consensus. Both major political parties, DPP and KMT are willing to enter into discussion with Xi administration, but without any Chinese precondition. In order to have a comprehensive understanding of the political situation, however, one must need to understand the legal nature of Taiwan’s constitutional order too. Any proposed amendment towards the Independence of Taiwan will require constitutional amendments.

It is a daunting task, therefore, to take the opposition parties on board with the ruling parties, which requires the approval of three-quarters of the members of the Legislative Yuan and endorsement of over half of eligible voters of Taiwan. These political scenarios pose some serious questions, which need to be analysed in the near future: Prior to the 20th party congress of CCP, can Xi administration be able to “reunify” Taiwan forcefully? Why there is a clash of interpretations on “1992 consensus” between China and Taiwan? How fundamentally “1992 Consensus” is different from “One China policy”? What are those historical trajectories, which led to creating complicated political scenarios in Taiwan? How crucial will be the role of local Taiwanese people in deciding the future of Taiwan? Based on the analysis of the above mentioned geopolitical and geo-economic realities in the Indo-pacific region, one cannot ignore the crucial role of the superpowers in deciding the political future of Taiwan.  

No doubt, the US has far superior military might than the Chinese military. The US Navy is equivalent to the next thirteen Navies put together, while the US defence budget is equal to the next seven largest national defence budgets in the world. On January 1, 2019, Trump administration signed Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), signalling the US Congress alignment for reinvigorating the US alliance and cultivating emerging regional partnerships for the Indo-Pacific region. Earlier in March, 2018, Trump administration passed the Taiwan Travel Act (TTA) for high-level diplomatic exchanges between the US and Taiwan. Though the US supports 'One China policy', the catch here is the very definition of the term “One China” for both countries. Later in June, 2018, the US established a de facto embassy along with 400 staffs in Taipei. The US has already normalised the arms sales to Taiwan. 

The US Navy has run freedom of navigation three times in the international water of Taiwan Strait. By all account, Sino-US bilateral relation certainly cannot be described as one of the best phases.  

In conclusion, the need of the hour is the use of political wisdom by all three parties involved in the Taiwan crisis namely China, Taiwan and the US. One must need to avoid any sort of armed conflict to resolve this crisis. It is only through dialogue, discussion and proper consultation by keeping consideration of local people’s opinion in Taiwan, peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region can be restored.  

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

Sudeep Kumar

Sudeep Kumar is pursuing Ph.D. in Chinese Politics from East China Normal University (ECNU), Shanghai.

Story highlights

The need of the hour is the use of political wisdom by all three parties involved in the Taiwan crisis namely China, Taiwan and the US.