Though formal recognition of separate statehood is something Taiwan has never concealed, the reality is that its ties with China are more than just historic, and sometimes pragmatism must take the upper hand

 

The leaders of Taiwan and China have met for the first time since 1949. Chinese leader, Xi Jinping and Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou have met in Singapore. This again has raised the question of Taiwan statehood which has been debated within the international community.

However, with China’s continuing rise to dominant power status within the region and the international community’s acceptance and willingness to embrace this rise, the matter of Taiwan hangs in the balance.

The acceptance of the Western world was well-demonstrated by the UK after the ‘pomp and circumstances’ surrounding the Chinese leader’s royal welcome.

Taiwan’s affairs have been complex to say the least, beginning with the national leader, Chiang Kai-shek, retreating to China after the defeat by Mao and his Red Army. However, relations between China and the West began to warm, as demonstrated by Kissinger’s secret meetings with Mao in 1971 and the UN’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China which replaced the Republic of China (Taiwan). Once Taiwan no longer had the UN as an ally other states began to break formal diplomatic relations with it. To this day, Taiwan only has the formal recognition of 20 states.

The Chinese believe that Taiwan is a part of sovereign China, similar to Hong Kong, while the Taiwanese politicians believe they are under hostage by China’s repressive government. Although Taiwan has the protection of the US who came to its defence because of the Taiwan Relations Act during the Taiwan Strait Crisis, most recently in 1995-96, Taiwan cannot dismiss the power of China. With many predicting China’s rise to superpower status and the relative decline in power of the US, some states will not be willing to address formal recognition of Taiwanese independence from fear of angering China.

China is the second largest economy in the world; states are dependent upon exporting goods to the Chinese blossoming middle class. Taiwan is no different; China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, so despite their differences Taiwan remains reliant on China.

Although China has been willing to compromise with Taiwan in the past with its offer of ‘one country two systems’ which is applied to Hong Kong with significant freedoms that are not offered to mainland Chinese. For instance, Hong Kong enjoys its own legal system, freedom of speech and assembly. Although the direct election of chief executives will be shortlisted by a Chinese committee, Hong Kong continues to enjoy more freedom than its mainland counterpart.

Promisingly, Taiwan’s most recent leader has been more pragmatic and has attempted to find a compromise between the rights of the Taiwanese and the need to maintain amicable Chinese relations. China still has missiles pointed towards Taiwan, however, these talks may lead to eventual peace between the two actors. In fact, Liberty Times’ recent poll suggests most Taiwanese prefer the status quo, they do not desire to be part of a Chinese state but believe they are already a separate entity.

President Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT) is viewed as pro-Beijing, thus many fear Beijing’s desire to reunify Taiwan and have protested against the talks. However, he needs to be pragmatic; Chinese power and influence are only set to increase and although no formal agreement is expected, these tentative steps may lead to more peaceful relations.

Undoubtedly, the Taiwanese public will be suspicious of China’s increasing influence on what they believe to be their sovereign affairs. However, China despite their disagreements is Taiwan’s closest trading partner and will be needed for the future prosperity of Taiwan. With more amicable relations established, Taiwan will be able to build a better relationship with other states too, so long as they are not concerned about a possible adverse reaction from China.

What is clear is that both actors have to be willing to compromise. China must demonstrate its willingness to pursue ‘peaceful development’ by improving relations with Taiwan and Taiwan in turn must understand that despite the differences, China will be unwilling to allow an independent sovereign Taiwanese state.

So it seems then that the best solution at present is to maintain the status quo. Taiwan has already established itself to be powerful within its own rights by forming de facto relations with many states and through its membership in the World Trade Organization. If Taiwan continues to improve relations with China it can further increase ties with its neighbours — a necessary strategy to maintain its economic freedom.