Is perfect storm headed for the Taiwan Straits?

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By John J. Metzler

NEW YORK — While the world is looking elsewhere and transfixed on the whirling Washington Merry-go-Round, a perfect political storm is brewing in East Asia.

Unpredictable winds are gathering over the Chinese Mainland. The epicenter is the Zhongnanhai compound near Beijing’s once Forbidden City, as leader Xi Jinping renews his call for an independent Taiwan to “rejoin” the People’s Republic of China — or else.

Xi Jingping’s New Year’s clarion call for Peaceful Reunification, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the 1979 “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan,” the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) stressed that “achieving the country’s greatness, national rejuvenation, and Cross Straits reunification is a trend of history.” It’s all part of Chairman Xi’s “China Dream of national rejuvenation.”

The western wall of the Zhongnanhai compound in Beijing. / Wikimedia Commons

Having lost the civil war to the communists in 1949, China’s Nationalists retreated to the offshore island of Taiwan where they subsequently established a separate government which exists to this day as a democratic counterbalance to authoritarian China.

Nonetheless Beijing is offering Taiwan a sugar-coated poison pill to annex the island state.

Significantly, the Beijing communists have never renounced the use of military force to bring Taiwan back to the Motherland; Chairman Xi reiterated that threat yet again.

As state run China Daily editorialized, “Xi offers practical means to inevitable reunification.”

The Chinese love numerology. Indeed 2019 holds of slew of anniversaries, both proud and ominous, which could possibly presage actions towards what the Chinese communists view as the unresolved case of Taiwan.

The 40th anniversary of Washington opening diplomatic relations with Beijing was in January 1979. President Jimmy Carter’s surprise actions, which not only switched political ties from the Republic of China on Taiwan to the People’s Republic, also crucially severed the U.S./ROC Military Treaty.

Also in 1979, Deng Xioaping’s China called for wayward Taiwan to accept a “One Country, Two Systems” plan by which the island would join Mainland China in a presumably coercion free arrangement. This system was applied to British Hong Kong when it reverted to China’s control in 1997.

Precisely in reaction to the swirl of events, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) in April 1979 legislating a formula to facilitate future political and economic ties with Taiwan. The TRA is not a formal military Treaty but establishes mechanisms which could allow for the defense of the island state.

Taiwan’s security has recently been enhanced through the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) of 2018 which recommits Washington to promote key geopolitical interests in East Asia. The Trump Administration has firmly backed this legislation.

While we are reviewing notable dates, 1919 recalls a significant if humiliating year for the newly independent Republic of China who suffered from an overlooked slight of the Versailles Peace Treaty ending the First World War. Some small German enclaves on the China coast were awarded to Japan. Though Japan was a WWI ally, so too was China! The subsequent May 4th Movement which represented the smoldering embers of Chinese nationalism will be commemorated this Spring.

The Beijing rulers may well use the theme of “being the victim” yet again to call for the overdue “reunification” of Taiwan.

Of course the seminal year of 1949; that being when the Chinese communists under Mao took over the Mainland and the routed Chinese Nationalists moved into exile on Taiwan. The 70th anniversary of “Liberation” as the People’s Republic will celebrate it, puts additional political pressures on and threats to Taiwan.

Modern Taiwan is a thriving East Asia democracy. Despite a fractious political scene, most people overwhelmingly prefer to keep the status quo in links to Mainland China; trade and tourism, but not formal political ties to Beijing. Equally, the argument has always been phrased as One Chinese nation which has two separate de facto governments much like South and North Korea or former West and East Germany.

Any move by Taiwan’s political figures to alter this fragile but working arrangement, through advocating formal independence or separatism, would likely trigger a military attack by Beijing.

Xi demands Taiwan to accept a dubious “One Country, Two Systems” has ironically united most of Taiwan’s disparate political spectrum against Beijing’s dictate.

The Taipei Times stated editorially, “The rosy picture that Xi paints might appear harmless and come across as sincere, but Taiwanese are not as easily fooled as he might think.”

Chairman Xi’s renewed Taiwan overtures may actually be more about politics in Beijing than Taipei. Given China’s economic slowdown and social ills, the CCP knows that shifting the political focus from the Mainland to “errant” Taiwan offers Beijing a nationalistic rallying point.

It could equally ignite a dormant flashpoint for China/U.S. strategic interests.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]