Thursday, July 7

The Taiwan Strait: the great powder keg of our era? | Alternatives

The President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, greets before embarking on a trip to the United States (archive) ./ REUTERS
The President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, greets before embarking on a trip to the United States (archive) ./ REUTERS

The drums of war beat again over the Taiwan Strait. This area, in which it is true that there has always been a latent tension, today could be the great focus of conflict in which the so-called ‘Thucydides Trap’ became true, which presupposes a confrontation between China and the United States. The Council on Foreign Relations has recently listed Taiwan as one of the most plausible scenarios for an armed conflict, while The Economist has come to call the Strait “The most dangerous area in the world”. Meanwhile, analysts and officials in Washington continue to warn of the proximity of a Chinese invasion. This tension responds to many factors, but mainly to a change in attitude within the three actors that play a leading role in cross-strait relations, such as mainland China, Taiwan and the United States.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always maintained the objective of reunifying what it considers to be a rebellious province, with its sights set on the centenary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), in 2049. This has been a constant in its speech that Furthermore, it has gained weight since the coming to power of Xi Jinping in 2012, who has included reunification in his “Chinese dream” and “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, a cornerstone of his thinking that, among other things, is related to the modernization of the country and the recovery of its traditional position as power, leaving behind the “century of humiliations”.

Traditionally, the CCP has always emphasized the peaceful way, but it has never renounced the use of force, to which it would resort, following the 2005 Anti-Secession Law, before a declaration of independence for the island. However, following the peaceful line, the CCP has tried to strengthen the cross-strait relationship with its old rival, the Kuomintang (KMT). Thus, both parties agreed to the ‘1992 consensus’, by which they recognized the existence of only one China, although with different interpretations of it. In addition, in 2005 both parties signed their ‘Third Cooperation’, this time against Taiwanese secessionism, then in Government with Chen Shui-bian. And this idea was maintained with the return to power of the KMT after the 2008 elections, by the hand of Ma Ying-jeou, initiating a period of bilateral catharsis for which Taipei and Beijing signed agreements of all kinds and took the relationship to its best historical level.

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However, reunification de facto that were being carried out by the KMT and the CCP was stopped in 2014 by the Sunflower Movement, a student protest and other sectors of Taiwanese civil society that took the Legislative and Executive Yuan to show their dissatisfaction with the direction of the cross-strait relationships. This fact put an end to the reunification path and crystallized, two years later, in the electoral victory of Tsai Ing-wen and his Minchintang, or Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), returning the sovereignists to power. Tsai would bring with him an open rejection of the ‘1992 consensus’ and the idea of ​​’one China’, but this at the same time as a rhetorical defense of the the state, having not pursued, for the moment, neither a formal declaration of independence nor substantial changes in the Constitution or national symbols of the country. Thus, Tsai has reversed the advances of his predecessor towards reunification and has adopted a sovereignist and anti-CCP policy, but without, yet, taking the definitive steps towards independence. de jure.

However, from the continent they have observed this change with concern and have responded harshly and aggressively, cutting off contacts with the Taiwanese government and beginning to pressure it in a whole series of spheres, be it diplomatic, seeking to deprive Taiwan of all its partners and their participation in International Organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) -which is recently being promoted with ‘vaccine diplomacy’, as in the cases of Paraguay and Honduras-; the military, with constant violations of the island’s airspace and naval patrols; or even the commercial, as in the recent notorious case of the ‘freedom pineapples’ or freedom pinapples. All of this has led to increasing tension in the Straits.

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The sovereign nightmare for Beijing seemed to be able to end in 2020. After a first term of Tsai marked by several controversies and at the hands of a popular candidate, such as Han Kuo-yu, the KMT seemed the favorite in the presidential elections of that same year. However, the events in Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020 turned any association with Beijing into a toxic asset for the Taiwanese electorate, all while Xi called for applying the very principle of “one country, two systems” to Taiwan as part of the ‘1992 consensus’. This severely affected the KMT, branded as a pro-Chinese, and led Tsai to an unmitigated electoral victory.

There seems to be a great pro-Taiwan consensus in Washington, by which the island would be key in the Indo-Pacific strategy and in the idea of ​​containing Beijing

This fact is a reflection of a profound social change on the island, whereby majority sectors of the population increasingly adhere to a Taiwanese identity different from the continental one, and reject reunification. So much so that, even within the KMT, proposals for the ‘taiwanization’ of the party have emerged with force, especially among the new generations, which, after the electoral setback of 2020, have reached their presidency hand in hand with Johnny chiang. Although there will be primaries in the party in July 2021, which could end with Chiang’s defeat to the old guard, this trend is already affecting relations between the CCP and the KMT. Thus, the Zhongnanhai did not congratulate Chiang on his arrival to the presidency and he reciprocated by stating that “He’s in no rush to meet Xi”. In this sense, a possible rift between the CCP and the KMT could add fuel to the fire and put an end to one of the moderating elements in cross-strait relations.

For its part, the third in contention, the United States, is also participating in this greater tension. Since 1979, the year in which Washington changed its recognition from the Government of Taipei to that of Beijing, the Americans have signed two policies with respect to the island. First, the ‘one China’ policy, that is, that there is only one state under the name of China. Second, the ‘strategic ambiguity’, which implies not adopting an explicit position regarding whether the United States would defend Taiwan militarily from an external attack, only committing itself to the self-defense of the island.

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These two pillars still stand, but they have been severely – and perhaps irremediably – damaged by the Trump Administration which, within its competition with China and in tandem with the Tsai Government, has raised the level of contacts with the island at levels unprecedented in the last forty years, and defense cooperation has increased with highly important arms contracts, meetings between officers or naval patrols in the Strait. Joe Biden, for its part, represents more elements of continuity than of change, at the same time that more and more voices in the country call for the definitive abandonment of the policy of ‘one China’ and of strategic ambiguity. In this sense, there seems to be a great pro-Taiwan consensus in Washington, by which the island would be key in the Indo-Pacific strategy and in the idea of ​​containing Beijing, pressuring it in one of its so-called vital interests, which also it could serve the United States as an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ off the Chinese coast.

Thus, in the three capitals, Beijing, Taipei and Washington, the restraint required by an issue of this caliber seems to have been replaced by a policy led by hawks, not doves. Taiwan is not a trivial issue for the CCP, which is again adopting a very hard line on this issue, but sovereignty is increasingly seen with more strength and confidence on the island, all at the same time that the United States sees in Taipei a great asset against the Chinese rise. If current trends continue, the future in the Taiwan Strait is unfortunately not very rosy, with potentially incalculable and catastrophic consequences.

* Manuel Fernández is an analyst at the Alternativas Foundation

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