Observations of an expat: Asian Stew

The current president of Taiwan is in America. Her immediate predecessor is in China. Meanwhile Beijing and Washington are slipping deeper into a dangerous stew of suspicion, enmity and mutual recriminations.

The visit to America by President Tsai Ing-wen is unofficial. It has to be to mute Chinese objections. But even unofficial visits by the Taiwanese raise the ire of Beijing and in this case the protests will be louder than usual because on April 5th President Tsai flies to California to meet Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy and other Republican leaders.

President Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party are not flavour of the decade in Beijing. They lean towards a separate and independent Taiwan, although President Tsai is careful to avoid an explicit policy. She has cautiously declared: “Taiwan is already an independent state, thus rendering a formal declaration of independence is unnecessary.”

President Ma Ying-jeou was Taiwanese president from 2008 to 20016. He and his Kuomintang party lean towards a rapprochement with Beijing. Ma is currently on a 12-day unofficial visit to Mainland China. The first such visit by a past or present president of Taiwan. Like Tsai, he hedges his bets on relations with Beijing. In his first inaugural address he pledged: “No reunification, no independence, and no war.” He might have added: no commitments in any direction.

It was during Ma’s administration that shipping and other transport links with the mainland were re-established as well as a family reunification plan and a number of commercial ties. Some of those ties have been suspended by the Chinese Communist Party during Tsai’s administration.

Elections are scheduled in Taiwan in January and relations with the mainland are likely to dominate debates.

The Peoples Republic of China (Mainland China) and the Republic of China (Taiwan) both claim in their constitutions to represent all of China. This has been the case since October 1949 when Mao’s Red Army drove Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces out of the mainland and onto the island.

Since then US support for Taiwan has been one of the sacred cows of American foreign policy. Up until 1971-72, that support was explicit. The US blocked Chinese membership of the UN and during the Korean War General Douglas MacArthur considered allying with Chiang to launch a two-pronged attack on China. But from the 1970s relations gradually improved as Washington needed a counter to the Soviet Union. In 1992 the US extended formal diplomatic recognition to Beijing.

But at the same time, strong conservative support in the US (known as the China Lobby) made it impossible to abandon Taiwan. So in 1992 diplomats came up with a convoluted form of words which said everything and nothing and left all parties in a political limbo. Washington and Beijing basically agreed that there was “one China” but agreed to disagree on what that one China was. At the same time, the US continued to supply Taiwan with weapons – and the Seventh Fleet– to defend itself against Chinese attack. There is, however, no formal military alliance between Taiwan and the United States.

Americans call their Taiwan policy “strategic ambiguity.” The Kuomintang and Democratic Progressive Party are equally ambiguous with their policy towards mainland China. The only one who is not ambiguous is Chinese President Xi Jinping. Taiwan, he says, is part of China and will be reunited with the mainland by force if necessary. He has even given a deadline for reunification – 2049.

Meanwhile mainland China has changed since Chiang fled to Taiwan. The end of the Cold War coincided with the demise of Maoism and the start of a Chinese economic revival. By 2015 China was the world’s second largest economy. Beijing now had money to spend on defense and building an international base through grants, soft loans and development projects. At the same time it allied itself with Russia with the aim of replacing the American-run world order with one more suited to their autocratic style of government.

China shifted back to enemy status as it rose to challenge American hegemony. America responded by attempting to contain Chinese power. Obama’s ill-fated Trans-Pacific Partnership was an early attempt at such containment. It involved 12 Pacific Rim countries in a free trade agreement. Conspicuous by its absence was China.

The attempted containment of China was stepped up under Donald Trump with sanctions and embargoes. American conservatives are almost instinctively anti-Beijing and pro-Taiwanese. For a while it eased slightly following the election of Joe Biden but then stormed back with a vengeance. China-bashing is now a bipartisan Washington sport. Taiwan is the weapon with which each side beats the other.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Peter Hirst 1st Apr '23 - 5:41pm

    We are increasingly dependent on China acting responsibly and reasonably in regard to international relations. This will take time to acclimatise to. We will need to continue to use a combination of sticks and carrots and hope it does as the contrary hardly bears thinking about.

  • Tom,

    Xi will be long gone by 2049. I understood Xi’s deadline for reunification to be 2027 https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/China-eyes-armed-unification-with-Taiwan-by-2027-key-academic.
    The PLA under Mao invaded and annexed Tibet in 1950 and seized the Island of Hainan as a preliminary assault to the full scale invasion of Taiwan. The outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula saw the deployment the U.S. Seventh Fleet to defend Taiwan. Hostilities resumed after the Korean war with Russian advisers encouraging an amphibious assault on the Yijiangshan Islands and Dachen Archipelago, which was successfully executed by the PRC in 1955 bringing an end to the Kuomintang presence in Zhejiang Province.
    The 1958 Taiwan Staita Crisis saw a further attack by Mao’s forces on the Quemoy and Matsu island group n the Taiwan strait. Eisenhower ordered U.S. naval vessels to help the ROC government enforce a naval blockade to protect Quemoy’s supply lines. The 1958 crisis finally ended with a ceasefire and Mao turned his attention to the Great Leap Forward, a five-year plan of forced agricultural collectivization and rural industrialization It is estimated the plan caused between 30 to 45 million deaths by starvation, execution, torture, forced labor, and suicide out of desperation. It was the largest single, non-wartime campaign of mass killing in human history.
    Strategic ambiguity may be the best way forward for all concerned, but that may not suit the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic agenda.

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