Taiwan and China: A Ticking Clock

The first-ever ministerial meeting shouldn't obscure an enduring danger. 

With all the bad news coming out of East Asia thanks to China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea and East China Sea, the recent meeting between representatives of China and Taiwan offered a glimmer of hope for at least one flash point in the region.

But the smiles and handshakes on display in Nanjing for the first official bilateral meeting since 1949 should not obscure the fact that the clock is running on Taiwan’s fate. Mao Zedong surprised Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in November 1973 by telling him that China could wait up to a hundred years before it moved to take Taiwan by force.

Mao’s successors have been less relaxed about the timetable. In 1995, China conducted missile tests in the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait to protest a U.S. visit by (appointed) President Lee Teng-hui, who had antagonized Beijing by stressing a Taiwanese identity separate from China. In March 1996, China again fired missiles, this time to express displeasure over Taiwan’s first direct presidential election, which Lee won as the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) candidate. On both occasions, Washington sent aircraft carriers to the area to deter any further aggression Beijing might have been contemplating.

For the 2000 presidential election, China made clear its hostility to Chen Shui-bian, the independence-minded candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Eschewing missiles this time, Beijing instead sent “reformist” Premier Zhu Rongji before the television cameras to warn Taiwan’s voters not to make the wrong choice. Chen, who had been behind in the polls until then, won the election.

During his first term, his 2004 reelection campaign, and his second term, Chen made his independence proclivities clear, infuriating China and alienating Washington, which feared a cross-Strait flare-up. In 2005, the National People’s Congress enacted an Anti-Secession Law (ASL), declaring China’s right to use force if Taiwan declared independence from China.

But, contrary to some academic and think tank mythology in the United States, China’s law was not merely a preemptive defensive warning against a formal separation declaration by Taipei. Article 8 states grounds for resorting to violence against Taiwan, including the occurrence of undefined “major incidents entailing Taiwan's secession from China.” Presumably, China would know such an incident when it saw it, and Taiwan would find out soon enough that it had crossed some red line.

Most ominously, the ASL states that war would be justified even if Taiwan did . . . nothing! “In the event . . . that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity” (italics mine).

In other words, if Taiwan’s government and people simply continue living freely and democratically as they are, Beijing accords to itself the right to attack the island at a time of its choosing. Taiwan is not to worry, however. The ASL promises that “the state shall exert its utmost to protect the lives, property and other legitimate rights and interests of Taiwan civilians and foreign nationals in Taiwan, and to minimize losses.” Deployment of hundreds of Chinese aircraft and up to two thousand submarine- and land-based ballistic missiles would subjugate the Taiwanese people as painlessly as possible.

Given that strategic framework, Henry Kissinger, who knows the minds of Chinese leaders as well as any Westerner, has warned Taiwan to get on with its political accommodation with China. He told an Asia Society audience in 2007 that “China will not wait forever.” Western China specialists often give Taiwan’s officials the same advice, even as public opinion polls show longstanding, significant opposition to political unification with China despite deepening economic ties.

Interestingly, the lead visionary architect of the opening to China, Richard Nixon himself, changed his mind regarding the China-Taiwan merger he originally expected. With Taiwan on the road to full democracy, the former president likened cross-Straits relations to a domestic divorce. He wrote in 1994: “The situation has changed dramatically ... The separation is permanent politically, but they are in bed together economically” (italics mine).

Xi Jinping begs to differ. China’s fifth paramount leader said in October 2013 that the question of Taiwan’s status “cannot be passed down from generation to generation.”

By 2008, Beijing was relieved that it no longer had to deal with the obstreperous Chen and that the DPP candidate lost the presidential election to the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou. China was content to play a softer hand with Taiwan for the time being, cultivating greater economic, cultural, and travel contacts during Ma’s first term.

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