Taiwan’s Evolving Security Concerns and Prospects of Cross-Strait Unification
Amit Kumar

The ‘Century of Humiliation’ occupies a special place in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ruled People’s Republic of China (PRC) in driving the ruling narrative in the country. It has gained a renewed emphasis under the leadership of General Secretary Xi Jinping. The term refers to the period from years 1839 to 1949 when the Chinese nation was subjected to imperial intervention and subjugation, and as a consequence, lost control over large swathes of territory to the foreigners. Though the period of ‘national humiliation’ formally ended with the victory of the CCP and the establishment of PRC in 1949, the near independent existence of Taiwan (or Republic of China [ROC]) since then under the American safety net has impinged upon the Chinese memory as a cruel reminder of their humiliating past. And therefore, the resolution of the Taiwan question has been a priority for the PRC. To iterate this priority, Xi Jinping in his July 1, 2021 speech, said, “Solving the Taiwan issue and realising the complete reunification of the motherland are the unswerving historical tasks of the Communist Party of China and common aspiration of all Chinese people”.1

Reasonably, Taiwan has faced a threat of invasion and forceful unification by the CCP ever since its escape to Formosa in 1949. Following a brief stabilisation in relations between the years 2008 to 2012, the cross-strait relations between the two Chinas have been tensed since Xi Jinping assumed the party leadership in PRC (2012) especially after Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) returned to power in Taiwan (2016) under the Presidency of Tsai Ing-wen, as both have adopted a hard-line approach towards one another.

This essay however, seeks to analyse Taiwan’s evolving security situation in the context of two recent developments; China’s assertion in Hong Kong and U.S.’ withdrawal from Afghanistan - and its consequent implications for the cross-strait reunification.

The Hong Kong Crisis

Hong Kong was ceded by the Chinese to the British in 1841, towards the end of the First Opium War. Since then, it had been a British colony until 1997, when the British finally decided to transfer it back to China. However, because of its long association with Britain, Hong Kong inherited a capitalist system of political, social and economic life, even as mainland China became a communist state in 1949. Therefore, when the British negotiated the handover to PRC, they agreed to it on the condition that Hong Kong’s “previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years”. CCP accepted the condition in Article 5 of the Basic Law (alternatively Hong Kong’s Constitution) under the principle ‘One Country, Two Systems’ (OCTS).

The successive CCP leadership since then had more or less sought to patiently wait out the prescribed period before ultimately reuniting Hong Kong with mainland China. However, the CCP leadership under Xi Jinping undertook two drastic measures – passing of the National Security Law on Hong Kong and amendment of Hong Kong’s Electoral Laws through backchannels (the Hong Kong legislature, in this case) – that were viewed as attempts towards dilution of Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status and a progression towards complete integration of Hong Kong with mainland China.

Lessons for Taiwan

The CCP’s manoeuvres in Hong Kong and the crisis that followed have created a few insecurities for Taiwan. First, it indicates the great significance that Xi Jinping attaches to the goal of national reunification. A closer reading of Xi Jinping’s speeches suggests that for the CCP, the goal of ‘national rejuvenation of Chinese nation’ is incomplete without the ‘national reunification of the motherland’. In his January 2, 2019 speech marking the 40th Anniversary of the Issuance of the Message to Compatriots in Taiwan, speaking of the reunification, Xi said that it is “critical to the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the new era”.2He reiterated the point in his July 1, 2021 speech on the commemoration of CCP’s centenary year as well, saying, “We must take resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward ‘Taiwan independence,’ and work together to create a bright future for national rejuvenation”. The goal of ‘reunification of the motherland’ also finds mention in the 14-point basic policy of the ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in New Era’, which has, since its introduction, become the guiding principle for the CCP and the PRC. Now that Hong Kong’s unification process is swiftly underway, Taiwan must anticipate a vigorous CCP push across the Taiwan Strait as well.

Second, China’s moves in Hong Kong not only indicate the significance it attaches to the realisation of reunification but also the great sense of urgency among the CCP leadership towards this goal. The fact that Xi did not even have the decency to wait till 2047, the year when the special status conferred and agreed to by the CCP would anyway have become redundant, suggests that he might not be very patient towards Taiwan either. Xi Jinping has made his eagerness public by putting 2050 as the cut off year for achieving the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and since the reunification of cross-strait territories forms the core of the ‘Chinese rejuvenation’, Taiwan must remain alert. The fact that there exists an effective deadline for the ‘reunification of the Chinese nation’ is surely a security concern for Taiwan.

Third, the Hong Kong crisis has dashed any hopes of CCP’s commitment to the OCTS framework for cross-strait reunification. In his Jan 2, 2019 speech, Xi Jinping said, “The concept of ‘peaceful reunification and One Country Two Systems’, is the best approach to realising national reunification.” He further said, “The principle of One Country Two System was proposed precisely to accommodate Taiwan’s actual condition.” However, CCP’s recent moves in Hong Kong indicate that OCTS is not a concession PRC is willing to make to Taiwan. CCP’s through its actions has itself undermined its commitment to the OCTS principle and has set a worrying precedent for Taiwan, in case the latter ever chooses to reunite with the mainland. The logical conclusion to be drawn here is that the CCP cannot guarantee OCTS to Taiwan in perpetuity if it cannot hold true to a similar promise it made to Hong Kong under an international treaty.

But the question arises, why did Xi Jinping endanger the OCTS policy after having made years of investment into it? Xi himself has made a concerted effort in projecting OCTS as the eventual solution for the Taiwan question. It was certain that the Hong Kong crisis would limit the appeal for OCTS among whatever little support he has in Taiwan for reunification. But he allowed the crisis to unleash anyway. What explains this? This brings us to our concern number four. Perhaps, Xi Jinping believes that a peaceful solution to Taiwan is no longer a sustainable policy. Therefore, there is no longer a need to maintain the pretence of OCTS and thus the sheer indifference to Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status. China’s growing disenchantment with the idea of peacefully resolving the Taiwan question has thus created a new security challenge for Taiwan.

Fifth, a combined reading of the above concerns, i.e., PRC’s urgency to achieve reunification before 2050 and its disillusionment with peaceful reunification, suggest that the CCP is increasingly inclining towards using coercion as a means to reunite the cross-strait territories. The brutal crackdown during the 2019-20 Hong Kong protests further confirms the CCP’s intent of using coercion as a means to achieve its goal. China has already passed an Anti-Secession Law in 2005, of which Article 8 says, “… that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”3Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, there seems to exist the feeling that PRC has exhausted all possible means to achieve peaceful reunification.

Sixth, CCP’s actions in Hong Kong have exposed the hollowness of the argument that the economic cost of forceful reunification of Taiwan would deter China from resorting to coercion. Hong Kong had a similar argument in its defence. The website of the Trade and Industry Department of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) informs us that in 2020, Hong Kong was mainland China’s fourth-largest trading partner, second-largest export market, and the largest source of FDI.4 And yet, this did not deter the CCP to kill its so-called ‘golden goose’. In comparison, Taiwan, despite not figuring in the PRC’s list of top 10 traders, maintains the largest trade surplus with PRC among all its trading partners and is the tenth-largest export market for PRC.5 Taiwan was PRC’s third-largest foreign investor in 2018. (6) Thus, if not less, Taiwan certainly does not appear to be more appealing commercially than Hong Kong. Anyway, for China, the ‘reunification of the motherland’ is a core interest, a non-negotiable issue, and if there is a cost attached to its pursuit, whether economic or political, it is a small sacrificial price that has to be paid in the grander scheme of things.

Finally, the crisis in Hong Kong has further made it evident that the CCP is unlikely to be moved by any sort of global backlash or condemnation. On multiple occasions in the past, China has shown sheer indifference towards global opinion, for instance, with regard to human rights violations against Tibetans and Uighurs in Xingjian; Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in favour of the Philippines in 2016, and lately its role in abetting the Covid 19 pandemic. China has become increasingly confident that its enormous economic and diplomatic heft would enable it to ride over any criticism that the world throws at it. PRC has already robbed Taiwan of many of its diplomatic partners through its aid diplomacy, pushing their number down to only 15 now, after Solomon Island and Kiribati chose to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognise PRC.

Based on the above factors, one can conclude that Taiwan is up against an increasingly impatient PRC, which has grown increasingly disillusioned with the prospect of a peaceful resolution of the cross-strait dispute, and is determined to rejuvenate itself of which incorporating Taiwan is a core necessity. The Hong Kong crisis has raised several red flags for Taiwanese security dynamics and Taiwan needs to prepare itself for the incoming danger.

U.S.’ Withdrawal from Afghanistan

The U.S. entered Afghanistan in 2001 to avenge the 9/11 attacks and toppled the Taliban regime that was sheltering Al Qaeda, the perpetrators of the attack. It installed a democratic government to replace the Taliban regime. The U.S. had a dual goal of dismantling the Al Qaeda and the reconstruction of Afghanistan were aimed at securing itself against any future terrorist attacks with origins in Afghanistan. Towards this end, the U.S. committed both military and economic aid and continued the counter-insurgency operations against the Taliban along with training the Afghan army. However, America’s failure in eliminating the Taliban even after 20 years of its arrival has frustrated it into leaving the country, effectively ending its commitment to the Afghan people. In Feb 2020, the U.S. negotiated the terms for the Taliban’s return to power almost two decades after having toppled it in 2001 and withdrew its last soldier from Afghanistan on Aug 31, 2021.

Implications for Cross-Strait Unification and Taiwan’s Security

The arbitrary nature of U.S. withdrawal has dented its image as a reliable ally. In the past, the possibility of a U.S. intervention has deterred China from using military coercion to settle the cross-strait dispute with Taiwan. Taiwan has relied on the U.S.’ security cover to keep a PRC invasion at bay. Although, the CCP ruled PRC did try its luck with limited offence in the 1950s, 1970s and the 1990s, but has been cautious ever since. The manner of the U.S.’ retreat from Afghanistan has introduced a few apprehensions that have drastic repercussions for Taiwan’s security, and consequently for the prospects of cross-strait unification.

First, America has a demonstrable history of abandoning its allies in event of a protracted stalemate. It has had a dubious record of succumbing at least twice to such a challenge in history - once, against the Communists in the Vietnam War in 1975, and now against the Taliban. Taliban’s resilience made America’s presence unsustainable in Afghanistan and difficult to justify its continued engagement to its people. The U.S. finally decided to withdraw without taking the war against terror to its expected conclusion. However, in the process, it also abandoned its allies - the Afghan government and its National Army [Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF)] - by withdrawing the military and logistical support. In 2019, the U.S. had abandoned the Kurds who had been fighting alongside the American troops against the ISIS and the Russian-Iranian backed Syrian regime for five years by abruptly ending its operations in Syria, leaving the Kurds surrounded by enemies, and ultimately subjecting them to Turkish invasion.

This raises the concern that in the future if cross-strait tensions somehow turn into a standoff or a prolonged conflict eventually hitting a stalemate, a frustrated US may succumb to the pressure again and try to find a managed exit - abandoning Taiwan against China’s peril.

Second, America’s worrisome history of cutting deals with its ally’s enemy. The stalemate in Afghanistan did not allow a desperate U.S. to unilaterally exit the war as that would be akin to accepting defeat. Thus, to save face, the U.S. struck a deal (Doha Agreement) with the Taliban, and it did so by excluding the national government of Afghanistan from the negotiations. Moreover, the U.S. forced the Afghan National Government to make concessions towards the Taliban by releasing imprisoned terrorists to extract assurances from the Taliban for themselves. In return for the Afghan government’s favour, the U.S. could not secure any concession for its ally from the Taliban, let alone the guarantee for a cessation of violence against the government and the civilians. The process accorded global legitimacy to the Taliban at the expense of America’s 20-year ally in its war on terror. Another precedent lies in the U.S.-Turkey deal in 2019 that completely sold off the Kurds. The deal effectively negotiated Kurdish surrender without their consent or participation.7

This gives rise to the apprehension that on the Taiwan issue as well, the U.S. might enter into a backdoor deal with China if a prolonged conflict starts to make it uncomfortable. In comparison to Taliban’s medieval army, the Chinese PLA is much more sophisticated and therefore has more power to frustrate the US in a cross-strait conflict. Further, China can also offer a lucrative trade deal to the US or denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula (through cessation of North Korean nuclear ambitions) to leverage the deal. Former NSA of U.S. John Bolton, in his memoirs, has written that Trump consistently downplayed Taiwan’s importance vis-à-vis China.8 The key variables that would specifically determine this outcome are U.S.’ domestic politics (especially with the rise of rightist policies); the party in power in the U.S. and China’s intent to use its leverage. The U.S. has already declared its acceptance of a peaceful resolution allowing the reunification of cross-strait territories.9 And it might use the declared policy to absolve itself of its commitment to Taiwan.

Third is the fickleness of America’s foreign policy priorities. One of the arguments forwarded in favour of the US pullout from Afghanistan was that its preoccupation with the region was limiting U.S.’ resources and focus in the Pacific, allowing China to grow unchecked. This is not the first time that the US has been erratic in its choice of the preferred region as its foreign policy priorities. Obama, after assuming the presidency, sought to reorient America’s foreign policy priority away from the Middle East to the Pacific.10 He launched the ‘Pivot to Asia’ or the ‘Rebalancing Asia’ project to show his commitment. However, the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2013, and Iran’s nuclear programmes, drew Obama’s attention back to the Middle East and prevented him from doing anything concrete for his Pacific allies - leaving them disappointed. With Trump’s arrival, the Pacific was again back in focus as America’s priority region, albeit with a transactional undertone.

For Taiwan, the concern arises that if in the future the U.S. is confronted with multiple crises at once (say, there comes up another exigency in the Middle East or Central America), the U.S. might think it prudent to avoid a multi-front situation and thus, either retreat or abandon the Taiwan question, exacting a quick trade-off like the one in Afghanistan.

Most importantly, the Afghan and Vietnam wars have illustrated the limits of the U.S.’ military capacities in terms of sustaining and winning a war away from home. The U.S. failed miserably, both tactically and strategically in Afghanistan; and reinforcements were never enough. The fact that a military superpower could not crush a medieval army raises the question that will the U.S. be able to sustain a confrontation with the modern People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the latter’s backyard? Fighting PLA in the Pacific would be an uphill task, much difficult than fighting the Talibs in Afghanistan. If the American forces falter in the Pacific, the burden of securing the island would entirely fall upon Taiwan, testing its defensive capabilities against the PLA. In its China Military Power Report 2020, the U.S. Department of Defence has pointed out a glaring mismatch between the PLA and Taiwan’s army indicating that it will be nearly impossible for the Taiwanese military to hold off a relentless PLA attack.11

Conclusion

While the development in Hong Kong might reflect PRC’s intent vis-a-vis Taiwan, the development in Afghanistan is expected to mitigate some of PRC’s inhibitions and hesitations vis-à-vis Taiwan. U.S.’ failure in Afghanistan is expected to boast PRC’s resolve that it already made apparent in Hong Kong. CCP might just be more inclined now than ever before to adopt a coercive approach to Chinese rejuvenation.

References
  1. Full Text: Speech by Xi Jinping at a ceremony marking the centenary of the CPC. Xinhuanet. [Online] 01 Jul 2021. [Cited: 10 Sep 2021.] http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/special/2021-07/01/c_1310038244.htm.
  2. Working Together to Realize Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation Advance China’s Peaceful Reunification: Speech at the Meeting Marking the 40th Anniversary of the Issuance of the Message to Compatriots in Taiwan January 2, 2019. Taiwan Work Office of the CPC Central Committee & Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council. [Online] 12 Apr 2019. [Cited: 10 Sep 2021.] http://www.gwytb.gov.cn/wyly/201904/t20190412_12155687.htm.
  3. Taiwan Issue: Anti-Secession Law. Embassy of PRC in U.S.A. [Online] 15 Mar 2005. [Cited: 13 Sep 2021.] http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/zt/999999999/t187406.htm.
  4. HONG KONG AND MAINLAND OF CHINA: SOME IMPORTANT FACTS. PRESS RELEASE, SPEECHES AND PUBLICATIONS: Trade and Industry Department, The Government of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. [Online] June 2021. [Cited: 13 Sep 2021.] https://www.tid.gov.hk/english/aboutus/publications/factsheet/china.html.
  5. Workman, Daniel. China's Top Trading Partners. World's Top Exports. [Online] [Cited: 10 Sep 2021.] https://www.worldstopexports.com/chinas-top-import-partners/.
  6. Statistics, Foreign Investment. Ministry of Commerce, People's Republic of China. [Online] 22 Nov 2018. [Cited: 12 Sep 2021.] http://english.mofcom.gov.cn/article/statistic/foreigninvestment/201812/20181202815485.shtml.
  7. ALJAZEERA. Full text of Turkey, US statement on northeast Syria. 17 Oct 2019.
  8. Bolton, John. The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoirs. s.l. : Simon & Schuster, 2020.
  9. U.S. Department of State (United States Government website). [Online] 31 Aug 2018. [Cited: 14 Sep 2021.] https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-taiwan/.
  10. The Obama approach to the Middle East:Gerges, Fawaz A. 2013, International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-) 89, no. 2, pp. 299-323.
  11. Department of Defence, U.S. Military and Security Developments Involving the PRC. s.l. : Office of the Secretary of Defence, 2020. Annual Report to Congress.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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