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Taiwan Strait I: What’s Left of ‘One China’?
Taiwan Strait I: What’s Left of ‘One China’?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
How A Long-awaited Hotline Could Pave the Way For Calmer China-Japan Relations
How A Long-awaited Hotline Could Pave the Way For Calmer China-Japan Relations
Report 53 / Asia

Taiwan Strait I: What’s Left of ‘One China’?

In the last decade, Taiwan has moved slowly but surely away from its commitment to the idea of ‘one China’, the proposition, long agreed on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, that Taiwan and the mainland are parts of one country.

Executive Summary

In the last decade, Taiwan has moved slowly but surely away from its commitment to the idea of ‘one China’, the proposition, long agreed on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, that Taiwan and the mainland are parts of one country. This has led to steadily mounting tension between Taiwan and China, for both of whom the issue goes to the heart of their sense of identity. While the prospect of an outbreak of war across the Strait remains distant, action is needed by all relevant parties to contain and reverse the situation.

This report is a background study, describing how the ‘one China’ formula has eroded and why this matters: it makes no specific recommendations about the way ahead. But two companion reports released simultaneously with it address in detail the risk of military confrontation and how this might be contained, and the political and economic strategies by which a peaceful relationship might best be maintained in the short to medium term. What an ultimate, next generation, political settlement might look like if peace can be sustained will be the subject of a later ICG report.

The changes that have occurred since the early 1990s had their primary roots in Taiwan domestic politics.With democratisation came the emergence of a ‘new Taiwanese’ identity – no longer mainlander but not original Taiwanese either. Taiwan’s impressive economic performance and integration with the international trading system became a special source of pride to its people and began to have an impact on attitudes about its place in the world. The sense was that these achievements had come in spite of the constraints imposed by China and the international community in respect to the ‘one China’ principle. As a result, many Taiwanese resented China for imposing this international straitjacket. China’s military threats, resuming in 1995, also strengthened the new Taiwan identity and weakened support for the ‘one China’ idea.

Now, in 2003, the position that Taiwan is already an independent sovereign country is not one of a radical political fringe, but a mainstream view. It was first clearly asserted under a Kuomintang (KMT) President, Lee Teng-hui, in 1994, following hints of a change of direction as early as 1991. The other main political party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), whose leader, Chen Shui-bian, was elected President in 2000, is even more vigorous in its advocacy of Taiwan’s status as an independent sovereign state. The only mainstream debate now in Taiwan is about how to deal with the evident contradiction between the old idea of ‘one China’, still formally supported by the KMT, with the idea of Taiwan as an independent sovereign state, now in fact supported by both the KMT and the DPP.

As a result of this domestic evolution in Taiwan, the old ‘one China’ principle, though still the reference point for international thinking about the China-Taiwan relationship, is no longer by itself an adequate device for containing the emerging new tensions in cross-Strait relations. The Administration of President Chen Shui-bian and his DPP are committed to the view that China needs to acknowledge Taiwan’s status as an independent sovereign country. But because Chen and his ministers, like most voters in Taiwan, also know that they are walking a tightrope, he has committed his government to the need to prevent a final show-down with China by avoiding highly provocative political acts such as conducting an independence-related referendum or changing the Constitution to create a ‘Republic of Taiwan’.

China has been very concerned about Taiwan’s gradual move away from support for ‘one China’. In 1995 and 1996 Beijing used highly visible military exercises to put pressure on Taiwan to return unambiguously to its observance. Though there seemed to be some relaxation of tension after that, the problem never went away and in fact became worse. When in 1999, Taiwan’s President Lee called the cross-Strait relationship a ‘special state to state relationship’, China’s leaders felt that the country may have come closer to war over Taiwan than at any time for decades, and they let this be known. Recognising the gravity of the situation, they also adopted a more creative mix of policies than was in evidence in 1995 and 1996. This mix, including more extensive contact with political parties in Taiwan and economic pressure on Taiwan businesses in China that support the DPP, is having good results as far as China is concerned.

China was particularly pleased with the announcement by Taiwan in May 2002 of plans to resume comprehensive direct air and shipping links, a move long advocated by Beijing as a first step on the path to reunification. There has been a solid improvement in U.S.-China relations as well, with some positive spin-offs for China’s concerns about Taiwan. And there has been no weakening in the formal position of the majority of states on recognition of China and ‘no Taiwan independence’. The U.S. under President Bush has repeated its stand to this effect. The bottom line for China is preventing Taiwan getting de jure recognition, especially from the major powers, for its claim to be an independent sovereign state: it is able to point to all of these positive developments as evidence that its position may be holding and that, therefore, there is no need to resort to military action. China’s leaders feel that the heat has subsided for the moment, and they now see the Taiwan issue as a second order priority in terms of day to day pre-occupations.

But for all this, China’s leaders remain deeply concerned about the underlying trends in Taiwan domestic politics and, more recently, in U.S.-Taiwan military relations. Neither of these hold out much promise for China. It had only been prepared to live with the situation of Taiwan’s de facto independence on the basis that the de jure situation – international recognition that Taiwan cannot be independent – did not come under serious threat. After a decade of gradual change, the longstanding position that both sides supported ‘one China’ but had differing interpretations of what it meant is now on the point of final fragmentation. Domestic political imperatives suggest Taiwan’s challenge will continue.

China has made plain that this course could still lead to war but is hoping that its strategy of carrots and sticks, supported by occasional demonstrations of its military power, can convince Taiwan to sign up once again to a non-confrontational, mutually acceptable formula for defining the relationship. But Taiwan’s challenge is drawing new momentum both from China’s threats and from the resulting rejuvenation of the U.S.-Taiwan military relationship.

In this environment, it is highly unlikely that any of the three key actors will, or can, abandon their current positions. An early resumption of the high-level informal talks between China and Taiwan is unlikely. All parties must, therefore, continue to find creative ways of going forward with each other under a framework of otherwise irreconcilable positions on the big matters of principle. They need to operate much more visibly and vigorously in the positive domains of cross-Strait relations (trade, investment, direct links, exchanges, joint oil exploration and fisheries ventures in the Taiwan Strait), and they must continue to subdue any tendency to provoke. The period leading up to Taiwan’s next presidential election, now announced for 20 March 2004, will be an important test of whether its pro-independence leaders will be willing to act this way.

Beijing/Taipei/Washington/Brussels,6 June 2003

Op-Ed / Asia

How A Long-awaited Hotline Could Pave the Way For Calmer China-Japan Relations

Originally published in South China Morning Post

Japan and China should use a new maritime and aerial communication mechanism to manage disputes with professionalism, dialogue and diplomacy.

The clouds of anxiety in East Asia over Donald Trump’s hawkish policy shifts showed a silver lining this past week with the first official visit by a Chinese leader to Japan in eight years. Premier Li Keqiang’s constructive meetings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were a welcome indication that the past year of intense bilateral diplomacy is yielding progress.

While some of this warming is rhetorical and reversible, there was at least one durable deliverable worth applauding: an agreement to set up within 30 days a Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism to avoid accidental encounters.

The new hotline it includes will connect Chinese and Japanese military chiefs via their embassies, enabling faster and smoother communication between decision-makers in case of an incident at sea or in the air. The pact also commits defence officials to hold regular meetings and implements a mechanism for their naval ships to communicate directly, in line with the Code for Unexpected Encounters at Sea (CUES), to which both are party.

Despite the evident need, it has taken Beijing and Tokyo a decade to reach agreement.

The need for such crisis management channels is growing. China’s ambition is to become a maritime great power with a true blue-water navy. Its massive shipbuilding capacity has created the largest fleet in Asia, with some 300 vessels, while modernization and reforms are increasing the range, frequency and complexity of operations.

Japan has responded with its own modest defence budget increases. It plans new bases and missile deployments to the Ryukyu (Nansei) Islands, which separate the East China Sea from the Pacific Ocean. PLA ships and planes increasingly seek to transit the air and waters of the adjacent Miyako Strait to drill in the Western Pacific.

The PLA Air Force is likewise sending more pilots out over open water. Japan’s Self-Defence Force scrambles fighter jets when unidentified aircraft approach its Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). In 2017 there were 500 such intercepts for PLA aircraft, and that number is likely to increase.

One of the key challenges captains face is understanding the intentions of another captain. Last year’s fatal collisions involving the USS Fitzgerald, the USS John S. McCain and two merchant ships illustrate the danger. In the geopolitically roiled waters of the East China Sea and South China Sea, where ships may be used to create “facts on the sea” that assert national presence, misunderstandings can lead to deadly escalation. A hotline could help overcome language barriers and clarify whether an action is a deliberate exercise of policy or freelancing.

Despite the evident need, it has taken Beijing and Tokyo a decade to reach agreement. The key sticking point has been their dispute over five islets and three rocks in the East China Sea that China calls Diaoyu and claims, and Japan calls Senkaku and controls. Negotiations halted in 2012 when Japan’s government purchased three of them from a private owner to keep the nationalist politician Shintaro Ishihara from acquiring them. Beijing responded by declaring an ADIZ over most of the East China Sea, implying that it sought dominance and sovereignty over the waters and features below. China also stepped up its presence around the islands. As recently as this January, sightings of a Chinese frigate, submarine and coast guard vessels near them brought protests from Tokyo.

Talks resumed in January 2015 but had been treading water over the past year as China sought to include the Diaoyu/Senkaku in the agreement, while Tokyo worried this could legitimise Beijing’s claims. The final text avoids the issue by not specifying the geographical scope and noting it has no implication for sovereignty.

China’s expanding maritime presence may be an inevitable aspect of its economic and geopolitical rise.

In April, the two militaries took another positive step by resuming an exchange program that had been halted since 2012. This summer, the both navies will again participate in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises sponsored by the U.S. Pacific Fleet. These opportunities for direct contact, dialogue and training are crucial in building familiarity and mutual confidence—if not actual trust—and should continue, ideally including coast guard personnel. Other governments and organizations could help by sharing best practices through multilateral forums and training opportunities.

Once the hotline becomes active on June 8, Japan and China should keep it open at all times and ensure those responsible can reach both front-line personnel and the top brass quickly in emergencies. Pilots and captains will need orders to use the common radio frequency and standard signals. Further guidelines and training based on CUES or the 2014 U.S.-China defence memorandums might help.

China’s expanding maritime presence may be an inevitable aspect of its economic and geopolitical rise. But it need not become a trigger for conflict. The Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism is helpful both as a practical tool and a signal of political intent to prevent clashes. Japan and China should follow it by committing to manage disputes and encounters with professionalism, dialogue and diplomacy, and to have their planes and vessels refrain from risky or intimidating behaviour. That might truly calm the waters between them.

Read more about Sino-Japanese relations and the East China Sea in Crisis Group Asia Report № 280 East China Sea: Preventing Clashes from Becoming Crises, Asia Report № 258 Old Scores and New Grudges: Evolving Sino-Japanese Tensions and Asia Report № 245 Dangerous Waters: China-Japan Relations on the Rocks.