Taiwan and People’s Republic of China – A possible peace dialogue?

Taiwan does not seek military confrontation. It hopes for peaceful, stable, predictable, and mutually beneficial coexistence with its neighbours.

Tsai Ing-Wen, President of Taiwan (quoted from the Foreign Affairs magazine)

Since the National Day of the People’s Republic of China (the PRC) on 1st October, its People’s Liberation Army has sent over 150 military jets into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the four consecutive days, including nuclear-capable H-6 bombers. PRC’s recent military stance has garnered extensive attention and raised serious concerns for the international community. Western countries, particularly the US, condemned the PRC on its proactive military activity that can “destablise” regional security.

Unlike previous press coverage, which often over-emphasised the PRC’s stance, especially the one-China policy, Taiwan’s statements have been more widely reported since the start of the PRC’s military incursion. Ms. Tsai Ing-Wen, Taiwan’s President and the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (the DPP), published an op-ed in Foreign Affair magazine, upholding Taiwan’s democratic values and Taiwan’s longingness and openness for “peaceful, predictable, and mutually beneficial coexistence” without any political pre-conditions. At the same time, President Tsai also warned if Taiwan were to fall, the consequences could be “catastrophe” for regional peace and security. She advocates more inclusiveness from the international community. Taiwan’s Defense Minister commented that the current situation is “the worst in 40 years” and that “China will be ready to mount a full-scale invasion of Taiwan by 2025.”

The cost behind this regional competition is the lives of 23.5 million Taiwanese people, who quite possibly, will be pushed into a war without any support.

The PRC, on the other hand, defended itself by claiming the flights were purely defensive, and were arranged to protect, according to the PRC, their “sovereignty,” including Taiwan, South China sea, and its disputed mountain border with India. In response to the US’s destabilisation comments, the PRC’s spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affair, Zho Lijian, fought back with the warning that the US should abide by the one-China principle and stop all arms sales, as well as military contact, with Taiwan. In addition, the PRC took a strong stance that any Taiwan independence “plots” will be “firmly smashed,” and China will take all steps to stop its happening.

Cross-strait Relationship

The confrontation between Taiwan and the PRC dates back to the end of Japanese rule in Taiwan in 1949. The fight over the cross-strait relationship mainly surrounds Taiwan’s sovereignty issue despite its de facto self governance on the island. While the PRC upholds that only one China, under the ruling of the Chinese Communist Party, exists, Taiwan’s sovereignty has long been ignored and undermined by the international community, especially after Taiwan lost China’s representation in the United Nations Security Council to the PRC in 1971. Although it might seem a long confrontation, there is an opportunity for open dialogue for peace in the cross-strait relationship.

During the 1980s, the unprecedented economic cooperation between the PRC and Taiwan laid down the foundation for open and public communication between the two governments. Despite un-official (or at most semi-official) status, the leader of the Strait Exchange Foundation, a semi-official Taiwanese organisation responsible for cross-Strait affairs, met with the leader of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits, a PRC organisation with similar functions, in 1993 and 1998 respectively. Increasing economic cooperation has fostered confidence in some Taiwanese that the PRC might not resort to violence in view of its increasing economic ties with Taiwan.

Nevertheless, this does not entirely ease the nerves and mistrust that the Taiwanese hold toward the PRC. In 2014, the Cross-Strait Trade Agreement, seen as a trade that would strengthen the political impact of the PRC and undermine the economic power of Taiwan, spurred a large-scale protest among Taiwanese youths. The confrontation was further intensified after President Tsai won the 2016 presidential election with her party, the DPP, which pursues the ultimate goal of Taiwan’s independence.

The Right Timing of a Peace Dialogue?

In view of current regional developments in Asia, especially East Asia and South Asia, it seems difficult to predict whether there is any chance that the PRC’s recent incursion will escalate to the total breakout of war. However, calls for a peaceful resolution are continuously brought up. Kuomintang, the opposition party in Taiwan, whose position is often described as pro-PRC, claimed lately that Taiwan should be a “peace facilitator” instead of a “trouble-maker.” Japan’s defense minister, Nobuo Kishi, also hopes the tension between the PRC and Taiwan can be settled through dialogue. In this scenario, another question needs addressing before discussing the possibility of cross-strait peace talks: is the environment ripe for initiating the so-called peace dialogue?

Apart from any “consensus” between the DPP and Kuomintang, in Taiwan, a poll, conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation in 2021, revealed that only 45.4% of Taiwan’s people were confident in the Tsai government’s ability in handling cross-strait relationships. The number of people who did not have faith in the Tsai government totaled 45%, showing how ambiguous the local position is regarding Taiwan’s relationship with the PRC. While the poll does not specifically draw out the reasons behind this perspective, one thing is certain – if the Taiwanese government wishes to initiate a peaceful dialogue in future, no matter which party takes the office, the government should adopt a policy that will build up people’s confidence in the government’s ability to handle the cross-strait relationship. For now, any government-led action toward the PRC’s incursion can only increase insecurity and instability felt in Taiwan’s society, especially since the island is still under the semi-lock down due to the pandemic.

Another possibility is that the US will lead the peace dialogue between the PRC and Taiwan. The leading role of the US is seen as a firm hope by some Taiwanese. In the poll mentioned above, over 60% of Taiwanese people believe that the US will defend Taiwan if the PRC conducts a violent invasion. However, the US takes a rather ambiguous position when it comes to “defending Taiwan”. Mr. Jake Sullivan, a United States National Security Advisor, expressed to the BBC that the US is going to “take action now to try to prevent that day from ever coming to pass.” Besides Mr. Sullivan’s comments, US President Biden also avoid answering the question directly and pointed out that the PRC should “abide by the Taiwanese agreement,” leaving massive room for the speculation on what the Taiwanese agreement stands for.

But what the US and other western powers have been undertaking for the last few months intensifies the instability in East Asia and the South Sea, and is detrimental to the goal of setting up a peaceful resolution in the cross-strait relationship. To the PRC, one of the most aggressive moves is the US security pact with the UK and Australia, also known as the AUKUS, in which the US provided Australia with the techs to build nuclear-powered submarines. The alliance, which largely focuses on military capacity, has brought Australia an emerging role in the Indo-Pacific region. Whilst Britain has already joined the US-led “freedom of navigation” exercise in the South Sea and Taiwan Strait, Australia also raised its voice against PRC’s recent incursion. At the same time, the US, with Britain, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, is also holding a large-scaled military exercise in the southwest sea of the Philippines. To the PRC, increasing western deployment of troops, submarines, and air force could only trigger its sensitiveness and insecurity concerning its claims of sovereignty in the South Sea and other disputed areas, including Taiwan. The PRC, under the stress of western powers’ entry, is likely to use Taiwan as a chess move to counter the US or/and its alliance in an even fiercer and perhaps violent way. The cost behind such regional competition is the lives of 23.5 million Taiwanese people, who are being pushed to the brink of war possibly without any support.

Peace dialogue is not impossible in the cross-strait relationship between the PRC and Taiwan. However, the PRC’s red line – the one-China policy – has been continuously challenged by both President Tsai and western countries, especially the US; so much so that we can only see the accusations pointing at others’ faults instead of effective dialogue. To initiate or resume any peace dialogue between the PRC and Taiwan, the effort should not be just made between the two players, much more focus should be placed on internal confidence building by Taiwan’s government and greater stability of regional security.

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