29.03.2024 Author: Vladimir Terehov

The PRC and the US in current events on the Taiwan issue

Taiwan issue

The Taiwan issue was last discussed in the NEO in the context of the increasingly visible presence of two new centres of influence emerging in the Indo-Pacific, namely India and Japan. The latter is particularly active there.

However, the two major world powers, China and the United States, remain the main players in the games around Taiwan. And from the point of view of the former, everything that is somehow related to Taiwan concerns only China and no one else. Washington’s official position can be described by the formula “Yes, but…”, which has three main components: “First, we recognise Beijing’s core “one China” principle. Second, we do not agree with unilateral and coercive methods of implementing this “principle”. Third, we reserve the right to intervene if our main adversary continues to use these “methods”.

In other words, the last two components virtually cancel out the significance of the first. This is the content of both the Taiwan issue as a whole and the game that the US and the PRC have been playing since late 1979, when these “components” were formulated by Washington in the form of the Taiwan Relations Act. In the last month or two, both major players in this game have made several moves, some of which deserve special attention and comment.

As far as the PRC is concerned, this “move” should be seen as a remarkable change in the public rhetoric of the country’s leadership regarding the nature of the resolution of the Taiwan issue. Almost all experts pointed to the absence of the option of a “peaceful” solution in Prime Minister Li Qiang’s report to the calendar session of the country’s parliament (“Two Sessions”) in early March. Until recently, this option had been the most favoured. The possibility of a “non-peaceful” option has always been mentioned.

Opinions differ as to the message contained in this “absence”. In the author’s view, it does not necessarily mean that Beijing has finally chosen the “non-peaceful” option to solve the problem of “restoring national unity”.

It seems plausible that the Japanese Yomiuri Shimbun suggested that this signalled Beijing’s refusal to establish any contact with Taiwan’s new President, William Lai, who won the regular general election on 13 January. He was previously Prime Minister and then Vice-President on behalf of the two-term Democratic Progressive Party. The DPP is generally described by Beijing as a “separatist organisation”.

Apparently, the stigma of “leader of Taiwanese separatists,” which his predecessor in the presidency Tsai Ing-wen was labelled with in China, will now “inherit” to the new President. In any case, the leading Chinese newspaper Global Times has already labelled his place in the Taiwan issue in graphic images, just as it was done in relation to Tsai Ing-wen.

Which, we repeat, does not mean that Beijing is now refusing to work with Taiwan at all. On the contrary, there are more and more signs that (despite the ongoing military demonstrations) the Chinese leadership intends to expand cooperation with the island in various quite “peaceful” aspects. And Beijing’s partners in Taiwan may turn out to be almost everyone except the president and the DPP.

According to the same Yomiuri Shimbun, such a partner will turn out to be (and, we should add, has been for a long time), first of all, the Kuomintang Party, which now has the largest faction in the new parliament. A representative of this party was elected speaker of the legislative branch, and the Vice-President of the Kuomintang Andrew Hsia once again went on a week-long trip to China, where he visited only a year ago. During the previous trip, he held talks with a representative of the foreign policy department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Andrew Hsia’s new visit to the PRC has drawn criticism from the DPP leadership, which has long accused the Kuomintang of “clientelism” towards Beijing.

It is not out of the question that Beijing will interact with Taiwan’s future government, which is likely to be a coalition, given the new balance of power in parliament. The formation of the new government is likely to take place after William Lai’s inauguration as President, scheduled for mid-May.

But even with the current representatives of the Taiwanese administration, some contacts will be established when necessary, for example in an emergency situation. For example, in mid-March, when a small boat carrying fishermen from the province crashed near the Kinmen archipelago, which is controlled by Taiwan but close to the coast of China’s Fujian province. A request was made from the mainland to the Taiwan side for assistance in the search and rescue operation. Joint efforts resulted in the rescue of two of the six Chinese fishermen.

Commenting on the incident, the current head of Taiwan’s government noted that it was not the first time such cooperation had taken place, and suggested that “China and Taiwan” could work together, at least in the area of rescuing people in distress. Let us be careful, however, of the terms used to describe the participants in such “joint work”.

This comment, and the event itself, is noteworthy because only a month earlier another PRC fishing vessel had been chased by a Taiwanese border vessel in the same islands. As a result, the former capsized and two fishermen drowned, leading to a sharp escalation in relations between the same ‘parties’. But as it turned out, interaction between them is quite possible. And not only in these specific circumstances.

First of all, it should be noted that the People’s Republic of China, together with Hong Kong, accounts for about a third of Taiwan’s foreign trade, which is three times more than Japan, Taiwan’s second largest partner. The same Fujian province offers particularly favourable conditions for Taiwanese companies. The world leader in chip production, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC), has a factory in Nanjing. In turn, China itself took first place in the list of external investors of the same TSMC in 2023.

In other words, Beijing has a multifaceted relationship with the “rebel province” and, we repeat, intends to develop it further. However, a new President is not yet visible among Taiwan’s partners in this process. He is likely to continue his predecessor’s course of developing comprehensive relations with China’s main adversary, especially in the defence field.

For the United States, William Lai (like Tsai Ing-wen before him) will play the role of a key counterpart on the Taiwan issue in the process of implementing the same strategic course of “Yes, but…”. With a high probability that the “yes” component will become a mere fiction. Moreover, in recent years the hawkish wing of the American policy community has been calling for the complete abandonment of the “yes, but…” formula. In other words, to move definitively from “strategic ambiguity” to “strategic certainty”, which means giving relations with Taiwan a normal interstate format.

In this regard, both the fact and the nature of US participation in the upcoming inauguration of William Lai may be indicative. It remains unclear whether representatives of the official executive branch will attend. This would be a direct challenge to the PRC leadership and would disrupt the long-standing process of diminishing the importance of “yes” and increasing the importance of “but…” in the above formula. It would also jeopardise Washington’s overall strategy of “managed competition” with Beijing. For better or worse, it keeps US-China relations within certain “bounds of decency” for the time being.

On the other hand, members of the US legislature, starting with the former speaker of the lower house of Congress, Nancy Pelosi, have for some reason been more relaxed in this regard. Not a month goes by without the arrival in Taiwan of delegations from one congressman or another, always welcomed by the incumbent president, Tsai Ing-wen.

And some of the more unorthodox members of Congress have already announced their intention to attend the inauguration of the new President. In early March, for example, the Taipei Times (citing Agence France-Presse) reported such plans by Michael McCaul, the Republican leader in the Senate. This is particularly significant given the likely Republican victory in the upcoming US elections.

All in all, the ceremony promises to be an informative one in terms of the development of both the Taiwan issue and relations between the two leading world powers in general.


Vladimir TEREKHOV, expert on the problems of the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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