China has temporarily ended its military drills around Taiwan, which began as “a response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan”, according to Western media, although the US doesn’t recognise Taipei as an independent state.
Meanwhile, Taiwan announced the commencement of its drills in response to the Chinese exercises, insisting that those had been planned a while ago.
China saw Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan as a political provocation, an “interference in its internal affairs,” and a “serious violation of the one-China principle and the three Sino-US joint communiques.”
US President Joe Biden said US military rejected Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. In Taipei Pelosi said her trip was intended to make it “unequivocally clear” that the US will “not abandon” Taiwan. “We are proud of our enduring friendship,” she added. Pelosi stated that “we come in friendship to Taiwan, we come in peace to the region.”
Following Taiwan, Pelosi, known for her political animosity towards China, visited South Korea’s border area between Seoul and North Korea’s Pyongyang as well as Japan, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Hours after Pelosi landed in Taipei China announced halting natural sand exports to Taiwan and the suspension of some fish and fruit items from the Asian island. Furthermore, it summoned US Ambassador to Beijing Nicholas Burns to voice its strong protest against Pelosi’s move.
Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China by the leader of the Communist Party Mao Zedong in early October 1949, and the “National Republic of China” in Taipei around the same period, Beijing has been seeking to annex the island to the mainland. Beijing considers Taiwan part of China, and that its inevitable fate is peaceful union with Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping stated in October 2021 that the Chinese people have a “glorious tradition” of opposing separatism.
Since the end of the 20th century, China has announced its official policy of “one country, two systems”, which has been accepted by the majority of world countries. Only 13 countries recognise Taiwan as an independent state, namely the Vatican, Belize, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Paraguay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Tuvalu, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Even the US, whose president agreed that Washington would defend Taiwan militarily, is officially committed to the one-China principle, and does not recognise Taiwan, despite the economic support represented in the massive Western investment and technology transfer, and military aid in the form of arming the island’s army. However, China’s great capabilities cannot be compared to Taiwan’s.
The White House took a step back, however, announcing its “historical” commitment to the one-China, fearing Washington’s economic interests would be compromised.
Since the addition of Taiwan to official Chinese records in AD 239, the rulers of China have regarded the island as part of their vast empire. In 1624 the Dutch occupied the island before it was restored to China in 1661. Taiwan remained under the control of Chinese emperors until the victory of Japan in 1895.
Half a century later, Taiwan returned to China after Japan’s defeat in World War II, and with the Communists’ victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and his loyalists – numbering 1.5 million – fled the mainland to Taiwan to establish a government in Taipei. They controlled the island for decades although they made up only about 14 per cent of its population.
The island’s residents requested “democratic” measures and the first elected Taiwanese president rose to the helm in 2000, when Beijing announced it didn’t recognise the median line, which Taiwan regards as its official “maritime border with Beijing”.
A Western country recognised Taiwan as the representative of China, and Taipei occupied China’s seat in the Security Council and used its veto right until 1971, when countries began to recognise the government in Beijing as the legitimate representative of China.
This was under pressure from developing countries, which began to recognise the People’s Republic of China since the early 1950s, such as Egypt, Sudan, and a number of African countries. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, China benefited from the leadership of Egypt, India, and Yugoslavia in the Non-Aligned Movement to help it gain recognition for the newly independent nations in Asia and Africa. The number of countries recognising Taiwan kept dwindling until they finally reached 13.
Relations between Beijing and Taipei began in the 1980s. In the 1990s Taiwan declared “the end of the war with the People’s Republic of China.” Beijing responded by declaring its “one country, two systems” policy, which grants Taipei autonomy if it accepts Chinese unity.
Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 to boost the position of Beijing, which remained committed to its pledge to maintain the privacy of the former British colony.
With the beginning of political pluralism in Taiwan in 2000, Beijing passed the anti-secession law, which recognises China’s right to use non-peaceful methods against those trying to secede.
Over the past two decades in Taiwan, the Kuomintang Party, which favours unity, and the Democratic Progress Party, in favour of secession from China, have exchanged power, and with them Taiwan’s relationship with China either improved or became more hostile.
Nonetheless, trade between Beijing and Taipei has recorded $193 billion, which gave rise to division among the Taiwanese. One group believes that their economy is now more dependent on China, while the other group feels that economic cooperation with China would remove the spectre of the use of force.
Many Taiwanese, such as members of the Sunflower Movement, believe that China’s economic and political influence is growing on the island, increasing its de facto dependency on Beijing. However, the majority of the Taiwanese people prefer the status quo, where Taiwan is not recognised as a country but at the same time not part of China, according to recent polls.
Meanwhile, the Taiwanese are divided between believing they are purely Chinese, or Chinese-Taiwanese. The cultural aspect in China and Taiwan is almost identical. And China will in all likelihood remain peaceful towards Taiwan – unless the latter’s leaders opt to announce secession.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.