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Two Chinas and Asia-Pacific: Or When One plus One Equals Three [ 2005.12.23 ]

Viewers from outside the Asia-Pacific might point towards the Korean peninsula as the most troubling political issue between nations in that region, however arguably a more difficult problem exists just slightly to the south, specifically in the South China Sea. For those who have yet to guess I am referring to the island of Taiwan and the nation of Chinese Taipei. Whilst the former geographical statement is undeniable, the latter geopolitical statement is one of the most hotly disputable in contemporary world politics. But why should this be? Here you have a chain of islands inhabited by a population who are independent and self-governing. They have chosen social democracy as their form of governance and are seemingly attempting to live free and independent lives. Where is the drama? If only things were so simple, for the Taiwanese have history biting at their heels more than almost any other nation. Across a small stretch of water lies either an enormously super-sized bigger brother or a terrible distant cousin with only vengeance on its mind, depending on your view point. The rhetoric out of the People’s Republic suggests that neither option exists, but rather the two mismatched land masses are in fact the same country. And herein lays the problem. What happens when two nations disagree about the independence of one or the other? In history, if a dominant nation has its heart set on establishing or maintaining its rule over a lesser state than usually they succeed, through sheer military and economic weighting. Many examples exist throughout the world where pockets of people with their own unique culture succumb to their domineering overseer and resign themselves to being part of a greater nation. Wales in the United Kingdom, Basque in Spain, Chechnya in the Russian Federation, and Aceh and West Papua in the Indonesian archipelago are all examples of modern states confining smaller nationalities to within their own ‘national’ boundary. Whilst the international community may feel some degree of sympathy for these cultural regions it does not extend into intervention unless things come to a problematic head, as was the case of East Timor freeing itself from Indonesia. In that instance under the guidance of the United Nations the Australian government contributed a successful peacekeeping force in order for the transition from one country’s region to an independent nation-state be realized as smoothly as possible. Doubtless many human rights violations still occurred but the extent of trouble was greatly diminished thanks to a third party presence. In the case of Taiwan however international observance and intervention is made extremely difficult because of the magnitude of one of the players, the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

On the face of it the so-called ‘West’ appreciates Chinese Taipei for adhering to the principles of democracy and for representing a workable alternative form of governance for Chinese people other than Mainland communism. The democratic world really loves the fact that Taiwan is an established Chinese democracy right in the heart of Asia that supports the whole notion of the region being a free and fair group of societies devoid of human rights abuses and governmental corruption. The problem is that the West also loves and fears the PRC in equal measures with regards to economic and military ties respectively. Led by the United States, the western world cannot get enough of trade links with the PRC. Via the whole mish mash that is the global economy the West receives its goods at cutthroat prices from China and in turn can sell vast quantities of its own materials to a nation that is growing so rapidly its appetite for industrial resources far outstrips its own capacity to supply them. Where this relationship turns slightly sour though is when talk of armies and navies comes into play. Even though America is currently largely concerned with the global threat of terrorism it has to be said that if there is just one modern militia on the planet that the USA can be truly wary of it is that of the PRC. Pound for pound in the technological stakes the PRC’s armed forces may be slightly lacking, but whilst they may not match the US army in scientific and engineering progress they more than make up for this through sheer volume of hardware and number of troops. For every United States service man and women (499 000) there is at least four Chinese counterparts (2.3 million) so if it came to the cold hard light of day and the killing of each other across the battlefield then China reigns supreme in the firing of bullets. Basically the two best equipped and strongest armed forces in the world belong to the current super power and the pretender to the throne, but what happens when the global power base shifts historically?

Before the now mighty United States ‘ruled’ the planet it was Britain or the United Kingdom’s turn. Across every continent almost every culture was touched to varying degrees by the British Empire. America is no different in its turn but aside from sending troops and governors it also sends soft drinks and big business to spread its ‘peaceful’ hegemony. All the same Britain was managing quite nicely until in 1939 it decided to bite of more than it could chew in international relations. Nobly coming to the aid of then Czechoslovakia against the Nazi fascist invaders it believed it was doing the ‘right’ thing but by choosing to enter into a great global war it inevitably took its eye of its empire which subsequently crumbled. Weakened through the economic burden of maintaining its army, navy, and air force to repel both German and then Japanese invasions of its world wide territories, the once glorious Britain and her empire became nothing more than romanticized stories and epic historical essays. Now can you see a parallel situation brewing in the South China Sea? What if, against its will, Taipei is invaded or attacked by the PRC? Who will be the noble nation now, to come flying in to beat back the oppressors? As we have seen in the Korean and Vietnam wars it would be yet another clash of Communism, the US’s big red monster, versus Democracy, China’s despised political nemesis. The crazy thing is the two sides, that is the PRC versus Taipei and the US, are actually extremely successful business partners. They make money off of each other like there’s no tomorrow so who in earth or heaven would want to spoil that? It seems the fickle ideological relationship that pits the ‘commies’ against the ‘west’ is set to override it all and spoil world peace yet again.

The issue that is difficult to understand from a non-mainland Chinese person’s viewpoint is why does the PRC hold so strongly the desire to ‘own’ Taiwan? Is China’s memory so short that it has already forgotten the suffering done to it by fellow would-be occupiers Japan? Surely the PRC knows what it is like to feel the pain of an unprovoked attack from a near neighbour, so what could drive itself to do the same? The Taiwanese islands have very few natural resources from which to gain wealth. Indeed the island is famed for its light industrial production not an ability to export raw materials, so it can’t be that the PRC desperately wants to obtain some sort of precious natural resource. Sadly, from a near neutral perspective, it appears that the PRC simply cannot face the fact that it did not completely crush the democratic spirit of a section of its society way back in the civil war. It cannot bear to feel embarrassed by having Chinese people living in a thriving democracy on its very own doorstep whilst 50 odd years of communism have yielded few major achievements in the way of social progress. The Chinese it must be said are a fiercely proud race and whilst there is no shame in believing strongly in one’s convictions the model of any successful race of humans should include humility, morality, and above all acceptance and tolerance. Whilst all races possess varying degrees of corrupt values it seems that mainland China possess least of all these attributes when looking towards its island people. Despite this fact and despite being vastly outnumbered by its major neighbour, Chinese Taipei still continues to express itself to the rest of the world as a free and independent nation, but is anyone really listening?

The problem as touched on earlier is most nations in the world really do not want to offend the PRC for a number of reasons. There is of course the upsetting of valuable economic and trade ties, and then there is the fear of incurring China’s wrath politically and even militarily. Most governments in the world lend a very sympathetic ear to the Dalai Lama and his own nation’s plight at the hands of Beijing but not one is prepared to engage China in an actual confrontation over the problem. Can the same be assumed over the Taiwan issue? Whereas Tibet is considered a quaint little religious kingdom hidden away somewhere underneath the Himalayas, Taiwan is a popular symbol of fledgling Asian democracy sitting well out in the public gaze of the East Asian waterways. The two are incomparable, and whereas any country will receive the exiled Buddhist leader only 26 nations recognize Taiwan as an independent State, and most of these are tiny aid recipient countries such as the Solomon Islands. In other words the Western nations are expressing extreme hypocrisy. On one hand they would love to pat Taipei on the back as a friend who thinks the same democratic thoughts as them but on the other they must shun its independency as a gesture of goodwill to the PRC in order to not disrupt trade links. The key question remains, if its hand is forced, will the US support Taiwan militarily against its mainland brethren? And that is why really one plus one equals three as Taiwan clutches to the hope that if ever under physical threat the United States government will back it all the way, the way it has done and is still doing in the Republic of Korea. For what it is worth the Australian government has publicly declared on numerous occasions that it would not support any future military conflict with the PRC, unlike its current support of the US position in the Middle East. Perhaps Australia’s federal politicians are wiser in deciding to avoid Chinese engagement at all costs out of respect to humanity, but then again Australia does earn around ten billion dollars from exporting goods and services to China annually. So is the West with its attitude towards the two Chinas promoters of peace or hypocrites of ideology?

By Bernard Laidlaw


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