The visit of the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan has reignited the flashpoint for potential conflict between the U.S. and China. However, the historical accounts on the Taiwan issue provide a clear understanding of the conflict.
One of the two centennial goals of China is the return of the lost territories and reunification of China and rejuvenation of Chinese nation by 2049. For China, Taiwan is important for its sovereignty and territorial integrity as it historically considers it an integral part of China. For Chinese, the motherland is incomplete till the renegade province returns and integrates with the People’s Republic of China. Considering its location and immense western political, economic and military support it continues to receive as part of the U.S. containment strategy, Taiwan has become an existential question for China.
Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit has triggered a new round of tensions, increased suspicions and made the danger of a military conflict over Taiwan far greater than at any time since the China-U.S. rapprochement in 1971. There is a dangerous situation brewing in Taiwan straits since the visit of the U.S. House Speaker, despite strong protests and warnings by China. China sees this as a deliberate provocation by the U.S. and has added another element of uncertainty, instability and chaos in the already worrying and unpredictable flux in the prevalent world order.
There is a dangerous situation brewing in Taiwan straits since the visit of the U.S. House Speaker, despite strong protests and warnings by China.
In its declaration of war against Japan, the Chinese Government proclaimed that all treaties, conventions, agreements, and contracts regarding the relations between China and Japan, including the Treaty of Shimonoseki, had been abrogated. The declaration stressed that China would recover Taiwan, Penghu and the four northeastern provinces.
In order to fully grasp the issue of Taiwan, it is necessary to refresh the genesis of this issue which has its roots in antiquity. Situated off the southeastern coast of mainland China, Taiwan is China's largest island and forms an integral whole with the mainland. It was known as Yizhou or Liuqiu. Many historical records have documented the development of Taiwan by China. References to this effect can be found, among others, in Seaboard Geographic Gazetteer compiled more than 1,700 years ago and is the world's earliest written account of Taiwan. In 1727, the island was officially given the name of Taiwan when the Chinese Emperor created the administrative jurisdiction of Taiwan and Xiamin. In 1885, the government formally made Taiwan a full province of China.
In the early 17th century, China began to step up the development of Taiwan, bringing an advanced mode of production across the whole length and breadth of Taiwan, accelerating the development of the island like other parts of mainland China. From the beginning, the Taiwanese society, traditions and culture derived its inspiration from China and it forms the basis of modern Taiwanese heritage, which did not change even through the periods of occupation starting in the 17th century, first by the Spanish followed by Dutch and finally by the Japanese for half a century in the late 19th and 20th century. Japan launched a war against China in 1894 and as a result of defeat, the Qing government was forced to sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki, ceding Taiwan to Japan.
This Treaty was neither accepted by the people of mainland nor Taiwan and a long struggle started to liberate the island and reintegrate it with the mainland. The 1920s and 1930s witnessed surging waves of mass protests sweeping across the island against Japanese colonial rule supported by the mainland Chinese. In 1937, an all-out war of resistance against Japanese occupation began. In its declaration of war against Japan, the Chinese Government proclaimed that all treaties, conventions, agreements, and contracts regarding the relations between China and Japan, including the Treaty of Shimonoseki, had been abrogated. The declaration stressed that China would recover Taiwan, Penghu and the four northeastern provinces. After eight years of grueling war against Japan, China finally won and recovered the lost territory of Taiwan in 1945. After the victory, Chinese government reinstated its administrative authority in the Taiwan province.
The international community acknowledged that Taiwan belonged to China as the struggle of the Chinese against Japan was a part of the worldwide struggle against fascism and received extensive support from people around the world. During the Second World War, China, the U.S., the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and others formed an alliance to oppose the Axis of Germany, Japan and Italy. The Cairo Declaration issued by China, the U.S. and Great Britain on December 1, 1943 stated, "It is the purpose of the three great Allies that Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the First World War in 1914, and that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa [Taiwan] and the Pescadores [Penghu], shall be restored to China."
The Potsdam Declaration signed by China, the U.S. and Great Britain on July 26, 1945 (subsequently adhered to by the Soviet Union) reiterated, "The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out." On August 15 of the same year, Japan declared surrender. The instrument of Japan's surrender stipulated that "Japan hereby accepts the provisions in the declaration issued by the heads of the Governments of the U.S., China and Great Britain on July 26, 1945 at Potsdam, and subsequently adhered to by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." On October 25, the ceremony for accepting Japan's surrender at Taiwan province was held in Taipei. On the occasion, the chief officer for accepting the surrender proclaimed on behalf of the Chinese government that from that day forward, Taiwan and the Penghu Archipelago had again been formally incorporated into the territory of China and that the territory, people, and administration had now been placed under the sovereignty of China. From that point in time forward, Taiwan and Penghu had been put back under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty.
Taiwan was therefore returned to China de jure and de facto at the end of the Second World War. During the war of resistance against Japanese aggression, the Chinese Communist Party and other groups pressed Kuomintang into a national united front with the Communist Party to fight Japanese imperialist aggression. After victory in the war, the two parties should have joined hands, but the Kuomintang group, headed by Chiang Kai-shek, started the movement for building an independent, democratic and prosperous new China in Taiwan.
Because of the strategic location of the island and the fear of Communist Party winning and establishing a communist regime in Mainland China, the separatist movement received full support of the U.S. and European countries. Relying on the U.S. support, Chiang Kai-shek tore up the October 10, 1945 agreement between the two parties and launched an all-out civil war. Finally, the Communist party of China succeeded in overthrowing the government of the "Republic of China" in Nanjing and the People's Republic of China was proclaimed on October 1, 1949, becoming the sole legal government of China. A group of military and political officials of the Kuomintang took refuge in Taiwan and with the support of the then U.S. administration, created division between the two sides of the straits. Thus, creating the issue of Taiwan which, with Western support, occupied the China seat at the United Nations.
At the time of the founding of the People's Republic of China, the then U.S. administration could have pulled itself out of the quagmire of China's civil war, but it failed to do so. Instead, due to the fear of the communist regime in mainland China, it adopted a policy of isolation and containment of New China. When the Korean War broke out, the U.S. started an armed intervention in the inter-Taiwan straits relations which People’s Republic of China considered an entirely internal affair. On June 27, 1950, U.S. President Truman announced, "I have ordered the Seventh Fleet to prevent any attack on Formosa." Thus, the Seventh Fleet invaded the Taiwan straits and the U.S.’ 13th Air Force set up a base in Taiwan. In December 1954, the U.S. with the Taiwanese authorities signed a mutual defense treaty placing China's Taiwan province under the U.S.’ "protection". The policy of the U.S. government led to a prolonged and intense confrontation in the Taiwan straits and henceforth, the Taiwan question became a major dispute between China and the United States.
Against the backdrop of East-West confrontation in the wake of the Second World War and guided by its conceived global strategy and national interest considerations, the U.S. government gave its full support to the Kuomintang, providing it with money, weapons and advisors to carry on the civil war and block the advance of the Chinese people's revolution.
Pakistan was the bridge used by the U.S. to reach out to China when Kissinger made his historic secret visit to Beijing, starting a new era in world politics in 1971. Mao made it clear to Kissinger during this first meeting that China would be patient provided One-China policy was strictly observed and the Taiwanese government did not declare independence.
In order to ease the tensions in the Taiwan straits and seek ways of solving the dispute between the two countries, the Chinese Government started dialogues with the U.S. from mid-1950s onwards. The two countries held 136 sessions of talks at the ambassadorial level from August 1955 to February 1970. However, no progress had been made in that period on the key issue of easing and removing tensions. It was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s – when the international situation had undergone changes and as mainland China had gained in strength – that the U.S. began to readjust its China policy and the relations between the two countries started thawing.
Pakistan was the bridge used by U.S. to reach out to China when Kissinger made his historic secret visit to Beijing, starting a new era in world politics in 1971. Mao made it clear to Kissinger during this first meeting that China would be patient provided One China policy was strictly observed and the Taiwanese government did not declare independence. According to Kissinger, Mao said, "We can do without Taiwan for the time being, and let it come after 100 years." Since this understanding had been reached with the U.S., China demonstrated great patience and farsightedness upholding its part of the understandings reached. Despite repeated incitements of various kinds and attempts by U.S. to facilitate Taiwan’s entry at various international forums and organizations, understanding reached by Nixon-Mao rapprochement underpinned the U.S.-China relationship on the Taiwan question.
In October 1971, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted at its 26th session, Resolution 2758 which restored all the lawful rights of the People's Republic of China in the United Nations and expelled the "representatives" of the Taiwan authorities from the UN. The U.S. President at the time, Richard Nixon, visited China in February 1972 in the course of which the two countries issued a joint communique in Shanghai stating that “the United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan strait maintain peace and there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position."
In December 1978, the U.S. Government accepted the three principles proposed by the Chinese Government for the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, namely, the U.S. should severe "diplomatic relations" and abrogate the "mutual defense treaty" with the Taiwanese authorities and withdraw U.S. military forces from Taiwan. On January 1, 1979, China and the U.S. formally established diplomatic relations. The Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations said that, "The United States of America recognizes the Government of the People's Republic of China as the sole legal government of China. Within this context, the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan… The Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China." Normalization of Sino-U.S. relations was thus achieved.
However, scarcely three months after this agreement, a Taiwan Relations Act was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by the President. A domestic legislation of the U.S. as it was, this Act contained many clauses that contravened the communique on the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the U.S. and the principles of international law, and seriously prejudiced the rights and interests of the Chinese people.
In order to resolve the issue of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the Chinese and the U.S. governments negotiated and reached an agreement on August 17, 1982. A communique bearing the same date became the third joint communique governing Sino-U.S. relations. In that communique, the U.S. Government stated that: "It does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China and that it intends gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan, leading, over a period of time, to a final resolution." Yet, in the past dozen or more years, the U.S. Government has not only failed to implement the communique in earnest, but has repeatedly contravened it. In September 1992, the U.S. Government even decided to sell 150 F-16 high-performance fighter aircraft to Taiwan. This action of the U.S. Government added a new stumbling block in the way of the development of Sino-U.S. relations and settlement of the Taiwan question.
Although since 1949, the West, led by the U.S., have fully backed secessionist elements in Taiwan and have always encouraged it to defy Beijing, Trump’s presidency, however, openly challenged Mao-Kissinger rapprochement of 1971, unravelling the U.S.-China relationship and heralding the end of over four decades of relative stability in U.S.-China relations. Trump's first action as the president was to talk to Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, the first time since 1979 that a U.S. president had spoken with a Taiwanese regional leader. He even began to question the One China policy, although he was dissuaded from pursuing this path by soberer elements in his administration.
In December 1978, the U.S. Government accepted the three principles proposed by the Chinese Government for the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, namely, the U.S. should severe "diplomatic relations" and abrogate the "mutual defense treaty" with the Taiwanese authorities and withdraw U.S. military forces from Taiwan.
The U.S. has continued to encroach on the long-term understandings with China by increasing weapon sales to Taiwan, boosting military patrols in the region, and giving diplomatic backing to the island through visits by U.S. politicians. The visit of Pelosi, the third seniormost person in U.S., has caused colossal damage to decades-old understanding over Taiwan, leaving China with little choice but to respond in a manner it deems befitting. Pelosi’s visit goes against the spirit of the U.S. promise not to support "Taiwan independence" forces on the island. China feels that this provocation by Pelosi was a clear evidence that U.S. was deliberately trying to change the status quo in Taiwan straits and undermining cross-straits peace and stability. Pelosi’s visit has only added fuel to a relationship that is already highly charged and intensely volatile. Many analysts in China feel that the relationship is now partly unhinged if not completely irretrievable.
The People’s Republic of China is clear that they would not allow external interfering forces and internal separatist forces to jointly conspire to undermine its sovereignty, security and territorial integrity. They have clearly manifested their intention to defend China's core interests, and to take all countermeasures necessary, and will exercise all rights that a sovereign country has to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. In this regard, China announced a number of countermeasures which fundamentally aim to promote the process of national reunification. China's countermeasures will not be a one-off but a combination of long-term, resolute and steadily advancing actions.
Expressing their determination, the Chinese officials stated that, “The time and momentum to achieve the reunification of the motherland are always firmly in our own hands. No matter what form they take to support Taiwan and contain the mainland, forces like Pelosi cannot change the historical and legal fact that Taiwan belongs to China, nor can they hinder the trend of China realizing full reunification. It should be noted that every step external forces, such as the U.S., and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) authorities take to upgrade their collusion and provocations, the faster China will realize the full reunification.” This is a clear signal that although taking Taiwan by force is not an option of choice for China, but if need be, it could be done.
China also moved to ensure that strength of its armed forces and will of China to defend its sovereignty does not go unnoticed by both the U.S. and Taiwan authorities. Just as Pelosi was nearing Taiwan, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force sent its Su-35 fighter jets over the Taiwan straits in a show of force. PLA Eastern Theater Command held joint military operations around Taiwan island with joint maritime and air drills in north, southwest, southeast of island, long-range artillery shooting in Taiwan straits, and conventional missile test firing in sea regions east of the island. PLA also conducted exercises and training activities including live-fire drills surrounding Taiwan. The unprecedented drills featured advanced weapons, including anti-ship ballistic missiles, stealth fighter jets and an aircraft carrier group with a nuclear-powered submarine, as well as realistic tactics that simulated a real reunification-by-force operation, demonstrating and honing the PLA's capabilities to not only take over the island, but also prevent any external interference including from the U.S.
This latest episode is a demonstration of the growing fear of China’s phenomenal rise and the imminent possibility of its emergence as a powerful state in the world economically, politically and strategically. It has also made the China-U.S. relationship unpredictable, unstable and volatile.
In order to save the world from yet another devastating conflict, both the U.S. and China need to reaffirm the basic principles of their long-held and shared understanding over Taiwan and adhere to the One China policy as enshrined in the UNGA Resolution. The danger of a military conflict would be disastrous as China is now almost at par with the U.S. and is a far more formidable military adversary than before. It is also a fact that such a confrontation would increase challenges for countries who are already situated in the turbulent region and are desirous of maintaining good and stable relations with both the U.S. and China. It is therefore in the interest of the global community that such a devastating conflict is avoided by both sides. Maintenance of peace and security in South China Sea is the collective responsibility of all parties.
The writer has served as an Ambassador to China, the European Union, Belgium, Luxembourg and Ireland. She has also authored and edited several books including Magnificent Pakistan, Pakistan-China All Weather Friendship, and Lost Cities of Indus.
E-mail: [email protected]
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