Until 1943 Chairman Mao did not give a monkey’s about Taiwan. Neither did the United States. The official Chinese Communist Party (CCP) position saw Taiwan as a ‘weak and small nationality’ distinct from China.
In 1936 the famous ‘fellow-traveller’, Edgar Snow, interviewed Mao Zedong for the China Weekly Review and asked, ‘Is it the immediate task of the Chinese people to regain all the territories lost to Japan?’. Mao’s answer was instructive and clear: ‘If the Koreans wish to break away from the chains of Japanese imperialism, we will extend them our enthusiastic help in their struggle for independence. The same things apply to Formosa (Taiwan).’
The CCP position changed diametrically after the November 1943 Cairo Conference. Here the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill acceded to China’s leader Chiang Kai-Shek’s demand for the recovery of Taiwan. Following their defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War, in 1895 China handed over Taiwan to Japan at the Treaty of Shimonoseki. At this point Japan had ruled Taiwan for almost 50 years. By comparison Qing dynasty China had ruled Taiwan as a province for just 8 years.
For most of Taiwan’s known history, it’s relationship with China had been decidedly tenuous. Taiwan’s first colonial rulers were the Dutch not the Chinese. When the Dutch East India company arrived there in 1624, they found that the mountainous, Switzerland sized island was inhabited by aboriginal tribes. The CCP’s description of Taiwan as a ‘forever’ part of China is a fake post-war narrative.
The Qing’s interest in the island only picked up when remnants of the Ming dynasty washed up there; not a dissimilar fate to that of Chiang Kai-shek who removed himself to Taiwan in 1949 after his nationalist (Kuomintang) civil war defeat to Mao’s communists. In exile Chiang started to turn Taiwan, the Republic of China (ROC), into the fortress that it is today. For Mao and his successors, getting control of Taiwan is the unfinished business of the civil war.
After World War II, as the United States de-mobilized its Asian armies, which at their peak numbered 1.5m troops, President Harry Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson, made it clear that neither Taiwan nor Korea formed part of their core geopolitical interests in the region. They would have to fend for themselves. That changed after the Korean War in 1950 when Kim Il Sung, backed by Stalin and Mao threatened the conquest of the entire Korean peninsula and a ‘domino effect’ communist conquest of Asia.
The next major point of change came in the early 1970s. President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, for the sake of securing global peace, wanted to bring China back into the community of nations as well as to split China from the Soviet Union. China was dangerously isolated. As eminent sinologist John King Fairbank noted, after 1950, ‘Washington sent more men to the moon than to China.’
Meanwhile Mao and his deputy Zhou Enlai, who feared that the Soviet Union, after the US defeat in Vietnam, was winning the Cold War wanted to re-engage with the US; the Russian fleet at stationed at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam seemingly threatened a Soviet conquest of Asia. The US-China reconciliation was enabled by a fudge whereby all sides agreed that there was ‘One China’ which included both the mainland (the People Republic of China) and Taiwan (the Republic of China).
In the 1980s Deng Xiaoping, who reclaimed Hong Kong and Macau with this ‘one country, two systems’ strategy, hoped that a similarly peaceful assimilation of Taiwan could eventually be achieved. President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian crackdown on Hong Kong in 2020, which breached the Hong Kong Handover Treaty with the United Kingdom, has eviscerated this softly-softly option.
Subsequently, China’s policy on Taiwan, concomitant with it rapidly rising economic and military strength, has hardened. Officially, China wanted to complete its unification by 2049, in time for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Xi has moved up that timetable to 2032 at the latest. Xi is obsessed by Taiwan. Aggressive Chinese air and naval activity around Taiwan in recent years is evidence that Xi wants to bully Taiwan into submission.
Meanwhile the US position has been largely constant since Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 which committed the US to provide the Republic of China (ROC) with arms. With US help, Taiwan has, since then, turned itself into a formidable island fortress. But, regarding whether the US would defend Taiwan militarily, US policy has until now been consistently ambiguous.
The Chinese fear is that the US position is changing. President Joe Biden dropped a clanger when he recently declared that the US would defend Taiwan. The senile fool was slapped down by his own state department who immediately responded that ‘strategic ambiguity’ remained America’s official policy.
Last week, the octogenarian US house speaker, Nancy Pelosi, third in line to the presidency, went rogue last week and recklessly visited Taipei against the advice of her own government – thereby stirring up a hornet’s nest of Chinese military activity around Taiwan. The risk is that, with ideologues now gaining the upper hand in China and America, the slightest misstep by either side could have catastrophic consequences.
A China-US war, even if confined to conventional weaponry, would precipitate a collapse of a global economy which is dominated by these two behemoths. Europe, Japan, India, Australia etc. would align with the US, while Russia and Iran etc. would align with China; in effect World War III would ensue.
As 99-year-old Henry Kissinger has recently warned, ‘It is important for the overall peace of the world for the United States and China to mitigate their adversarial relationship’. China and the US need to de-toxify the Taiwan issue. The problem is that Xi is demented and Biden has dementia. Cool heads are required. But where are they?
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