Taiwan and China’s relationship with the West

In the aftermath of the Chinese Communist Party’s harsh crackdown on Hong Kong’s independence, many observers believe Taiwan will now face increased pressure from Beijing to fall in line with the political and economic goals of mainland China.

President Roosevelt, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his wife
In 1944, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, among other Western leaders, met Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his wife in Cairo to discuss the fate of postwar Asia. © Getty Images

During the past two months, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi toured Europe. Against a backdrop of high tension with communist China, Mr. Pompeo promoted an alliance of free democracies. Meanwhile, Mr. Wang made goodwill visits to appease European concerns over dependence on Chinese supplies, the Hong Kong crisis and the oppression of Uighurs.

Historical background

In 1949, the government and the army of the Republic of China, led by President Chiang Kai-shek, retreated to the island of Taiwan to escape the pressure of the communist People’s Liberation Army. After a long and bloody civil war, the latter won and Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since then, the PRC has maintained the One-China policy, which considers Taiwan a renegade province. The U.S. and the UN did not recognize the PRC until the 1970s.

Taiwan became a steadfast American ally in the fight against communism, so much so that celebrated U.S. General Douglas MacArthur called it an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.”

Under Mao Zedong’s terror regime, China played only a marginal role on the international scene.

After President Chiang’s defeat, the containment of communism in East Asia became more challenging. In Vietnam, France fought an unsuccessful guerilla war against the communist Viet Cong. In 1945, Korea was divided into two zones, one American (today’s South Korea) and one Soviet. From this division, a communist state in the north and a free state in the south emerged. In 1950, the north attacked the south and began occupying it. The U.S. intervened, driving communist troops back deep into their own territory. The PRC joined the fray later that year in order to “rescue” fellow communists.

Washington, fearing an escalation, asked General MacArthur to retreat to the original demarcation line. The three-year war that ensued cost the lives of almost one million soldiers and three million civilians. General MacArthur bitterly remarked that: “In war there is no substitute for victory.” The truth of this aphorism would later haunt the U.S. during the Vietnam war.

It was thus 70 years ago that the U.S. first clashed with the PRC. Under Mao Zedong’s terror regime, China played only a marginal role on the international scene during the following decades – while its population suffered from poverty and oppression. At the same time, Taiwan was becoming a major industrialized country and a successful democracy. 

Most Western countries did not recognize the PRC till the late 1960s and 1970s. This recognition meant breaking diplomatic ties with Taiwan, whose system is based on democracy and the rule of law, and recognizing the oppressive PRC as the only Chinese government. Taiwan was excluded from the UN and other international organizations. Realistically, circumstances probably required recognizing mainland China’s regime, but was it necessary to exclude Taiwan? At the time, the rationale was that stronger ties with the West would curtail Soviet influence in China.

Freedom under threat

Although Taiwan became a diplomatic pariah, it remained, along with Japan, the most solid democracy and Western ally in East Asia. But Beijing has now made it one of its topmost objectives to end this freedom and  bring Taiwan in-line with the mainland, both economically and politically.

It is in this context that we have to look at the trade dispute between the U.S. and China. The media misguidedly calls it “Trump’s trade war,”  but it would be more correct to describe it as a response to Xi Jinping’s attacks on trade.

In order to beef up its economy, Beijing is breaking international rules.

In order to beef up its economy, Beijing is breaking international rules. Industrial espionage, intellectual theft, investment and import restrictions, regulatory and bureaucratic barriers – in short, every trick from the toxic toolbox of protectionism – is being used. The country is also boosting its exports with subsidies and price dumping, which has the added benefit of increasing Chinese political influence through dependence on supplies.

China wishes to be a global hegemon and feels restricted by the U.S. – rightly so, since Washington has no wish to contend with an equally powerful player who disrespects global principles. Containing China is not a new challenge. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) signed during the Obama administration was intended to serve this purpose, among others. Beijing was clearly excluded. However, the agreement was administered through an intricate multilateral organization and damaged relations with Tokyo. The present U.S. administration is betting on bilateral rather than multilateral ties and has resigned from the TPP. Trade and defense cooperation with Japan have both improved.

Right from the beginning, the Trump administration promoted Taiwanese statehood. One of the first heads of state President Donald Trump contacted after his inauguration was the President of Taiwan. After the PRC intensified its navy and air force activities around the island, the U.S. strengthened its strong preexisting defense relations with Taipei. 

The Taiwanese question has become a priority in Beijing, especially during the current economic downturn. It could be the next step after Hong Kong. But the West cannot afford to lose Taiwan. The good news is that, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has strongly improved its defense potential in view of China’s rising assertiveness. This is not likely to change under Mr. Abe’s successor, and will also strengthen Taiwan’s position.

If most European countries recognized Taiwan, it would send China a clear signal, with little possibility of further pressure.

Realpolitik will require Europe to maintain relations with mainland China, the world’s second-largest economy and home to some 20 percent of the global population. However, the European economy is strong enough to allow negotiations on a level playing field. European countries will also need to take a strong stand on certain issues. The latest events in Hong Kong and the treatment of Uighurs were certainly a wake-up call. Stronger support for Taiwanese independence would make a statement. The island is unfairly excluded from the international diplomatic world and several international organizations. If most European countries recognized Taiwan, it would send China a clear signal, with little possibility of further pressure.

Europe could speak up more. When Foreign Minister Wang toured Europe, some governments brought up their concerns regarding Hong Kong and the Uighurs, but none mentioned the brutal oppression of Christians and the threats to Taiwan. Sometimes, little gestures help. Last week, Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil made an official visit to Taipei, boosting morale in Taiwan. The city of Prague also entered a partnership with Taipei two years ago, even though it cost them their partnership with Beijing.

A strong Taiwan is crucial for maintaining peace in the Pacific.

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