Taiwan Strait III: The Chance of Peace
Taiwan Strait III: The Chance of Peace
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
China’s Military Activities Near Taiwan Aim to Impress at Home and Abroad
China’s Military Activities Near Taiwan Aim to Impress at Home and Abroad
Report 55 / Asia

Taiwan Strait III: The Chance of Peace

Apparently irreconcilable positions on the ‘one China’ principle have emerged between China and Taiwan over the last decade, with Taiwan for some time now asserting not only that it is a separate political entity but an independent sovereign country.

Executive Summary

Apparently irreconcilable positions on the ‘one China’ principle have emerged between China and Taiwan over the last decade, with Taiwan for some time now asserting not only that it is a separate political entity but an independent sovereign country. China for its part remains absolutely unwilling to compromise its position that Taiwan and the mainland are part of one country, and has not renounced the use of force as a means of making that principle a reality. The risk of war between them must, accordingly, continue to be taken seriously.

But there is a real chance of continuing peace across the Taiwan Strait for the foreseeable future, provided that:

  • conscientious efforts are made at the military level to create transparency and build confidence to lower the risk of miscalculation and misunderstanding;
     
  • the present tendency toward growing cooperation between the two entities on economic and social matters continues; and
     
  • the broader international community, while making some greater accommodation with ‘status sentiment’ in Taiwan, continues to hold the line against formal recognition of Taiwanese sovereign independence.

This report focuses on the non-military measures necessary to ensure continuing peace. There are many positive dimensions to the relationship between China and Taiwan that can compensate to some degree for the increasing political and military tension between them as a result of their conflict about Taiwan’s status. China is now Taiwan’s principal export market, and Taiwan is a major source of foreign investment in China. The two governments are also edging closer to a formal relationship in other areas of policy, such as joint offshore energy development, fisheries and customs activities. And the two are now meeting formally for the first time ever at officials’ level in the context of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), a process initiated in December 2002.

Prospects for a resumption of high-level political contacts are now the best they have been for several years, since there is now considerable overlap in the short to medium terms goals of China and Taiwan. Both sides want dialogue, further opening up of the economic relationship, and progress toward economic integration. The resumption of comprehensive direct shipping and air links, severed since 1949, now looks more likely than ever, but may still take one or two years to be implemented.

The political point scoring that both sides have used in responding to the many tactical issues involved in re-establishing such links is a reminder that the big issue of principle – Taiwan’s status – is never far form the surface. But the depth of contacts in various areas of practical work-a-day civil policy (transport, customs, fisheries, energy development, investment, trade and tourism) provides a very rich canvas for increasing contact between the two sides.

All that said, the two sides’ long-term objectives on the question of Taiwan’s status are far apart. And China is demanding that Taiwan make sustained, visible progress toward a peaceful settlement or risk a resort to armed hostilities. These considerations will continue to play themselves out in the domestic politics of Taiwan as it tries to move forward on reopening of comprehensive direct transport links, on further opening up of economic ties, or, at a higher level, on the reopening of political talks with China. Taiwan is insisting that it be treated as an equal to China, and that China begin to deal with Taiwan government officials in that capacity.

For the moment, China is prepared to appear more flexible on whether Taiwan should openly support the ‘one China’ principle as a precondition for reopening of political dialogue. Some meeting of minds is possible, and we cannot rule out a major symbolic rapprochement between the leaders of China and Taiwan within two to three years – perhaps in the context of Taiwan hosting one or more of the 2008 Olympic Games events. But Taiwan’s government does not have much room for manoeuvre, and its hand will be shaped by the prospects for re-election of President Chen Shui-bian in the 2004 presidential elections.

If Taiwan wants to stop China increasing military pressure on it, it does not need to entirely abandon its pursuit of a new national identity. Not that it could do so anyway: the strength of sentiment in Taiwan about a new national identity makes it essential for Taiwan’s leaders to continue to give some public prominence to this issue. But Taiwan’s leaders do need to continue, as President Chen has shown he can, to ensure the appropriate balance between public handling of the identity issue and the momentum of practical measures for better cross-Strait relations. Scores on the board in these practical areas of cooperation are absolutely essential in China’s leadership councils for constraining impulses toward use of force.

The international community has a role to play in this. There is considerable scope for giving greater play to ‘status sentiment’ in Taiwan by progressively but gradually extending its participation in international organisations. But one proviso must still hold. Taiwan cannot expect to be admitted to membership of international organisations where statehood is a requirement of such membership. The major powers must not give China any room to think that movement on Taiwan’s participation at a technical level in certain international organisations is a prelude to formal recognition of Taiwan as a state.

Growing cooperation between China and Taiwan in concrete, day to day policy areas and a greater, though still constrained, international accommodation to ‘status sentiment’ in Taiwan, do appear to provide a fairly certain path to peace. This will be threatened only by the extent to which China or Taiwan, or any of the major powers, moves to resolve the ambiguity surrounding Taiwan’s international status. Taiwan will need to remain an anomaly in the international system for some years yet.

Beijing/Taipei/Washington/Brussels, 6 June 2003

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