By Jonathan Power
November 10th 2015
President Xi Jinping of China has poked us in the eye again. What you see is what you get. In the case of his meeting last Saturday with Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s president and leader of the Kuomintang Party, it tells the world that if it plays its hand quietly, even gently, China, if it is shrewd, can in the end win re-unification.
The leaders of the two parties, the communists and the Kuomintang, the Republican claimants for power, hadn’t met since 1945 during aborted peace negotiations. A while later the Kuomintang, facing defeat from Mao Zedong’s communist army, fled the mainland to Taiwan.
Beijing has over a thousand rockets aimed at Taiwan. The US supplies arms aplenty to Taiwan – some of which, provocatively, need American cooperation and participation to be fired. Despite that China cis capable of overwhelming the island’s defences.
But in reality both sides need each other. Taiwan wouldn’t be so comfortably off if it didn’t have the Chinese market for its huge investments, a home for factories churning out the latest products designed by the highly skilled Taiwanese inventors and engineers, and legions of Chinese tourists from the mainland pouring in, not least to look at the old Chinese artifacts that Mao’s Cultural Revolution destroyed at home but have been preserved in Taiwan.
China would not have done so well over the last two decades if it hadn’t had this Taiwanese input. Indeed, one could argue that it was the most important single ingredient in China’s technological success.
For years US strategists have been saying this is the world’s most dangerous flashpoint, one that could even lead to a nuclear war with China. But what would be the point of destroying all that in war?
Presumably weighing these factors, Xi overrode his bureaucracy’s advice and made this historic reach out. President Ma, as pro-China as Taiwanese voters will permit, wanted to take a step that would leave his mark in history before he leaves office in two months’ time.
Some have said the meeting was just election politicking. Realistically neither side could have thought that they could influence the outcome of Taiwan’s presidential election in 2 months’ time- the opinion polls show a big defeat is about to be inflicted on Ma’s Kuomintang party by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. The DPP is critical of the idea of unification and contains within its ranks a strong human rights contingent which was responsible for Taiwan becoming a democracy and who thus showed that Chinese can be democrats too.
It should be said that when it comes down to it both parties are pro the status quo with one party leaning more towards China and one party leaning away.
Simply put, Xi’s intention at this meeting was to underline that China is the senior partner but at the same time to emphasise it wants re-unification to happen peacefully, thus suggesting that for the time being China also respects the status quo.
After this Xi/Ma meeting what else can be done to make resolving the dispute easier?
China, as Lyle Goldstein writes in his new book “Meeting China Halfway”, should agree to initiate military confidence-building measures without any political preconditions. If the US significantly reduced the planned redeployment of 8,000 marines to its base at Guam, which China considers to be another hostile move, China could well agree to start talking.
Second, China should remove its short-range missiles from within a radius of 1000 kilometers from Taiwan. At present in a first strike they could knock out Taiwan’s air-force and navy. Admittedly the Chinese weapons could be quickly moved back but it would show goodwill and build confidence both between Taiwan and China and the US and China.
Third, China should institutionalize a system for allowing more leeway in allowing Taiwan to become a member of international entities like the World Health Organisation.
For its part the US should halt the sale of new weapons’ systems, indeed all arms transfers. The idea that the US maintains arms sales to an island off the coast of a nuclear-armed rising power is absurd. There never can be mutual deterrence. The arms are symbolic but profoundly irritating to Beijing.
If these moves are made then China can be asked to renounce the use of force as a preliminary to negotiations leading to a peace treaty in which full autonomy is given to Taiwan. However, if re-unification ever comes it will have to be on better terms than Hong Kong received and the Taiwanese, in a stronger negotiating position than Hong Kong ever was, will only allow it when they see a good measure of democracy and human rights observance in the mainland.
Progress is in the offing. Only statesmanship can bring it about.
Copyright: Jonathan Power.