A commenter directed me to Philip Bowring’s excellent article about China’s apoplexy over the Taiwan unification issue, and why, if China refuses to broaden its thinking, there will be an inevitable clash.
While Japan and the United States remain in principle committed to One China, emphasis on peaceful resolution inevitably means that unification can only come about when the people of Taiwan consider the price of de facto independence too high. That is clearly a long way off so long as either Japan or the United States is willing and able to prevent unification by force.
China has predictably reacted by denouncing the statement as interfering in China’s internal affairs – which, from Beijing’s perspective, it undoubtedly is. The question is how far China is now prepared to go in risking upsetting relations with the United States and Japan in pursuit of its nationalistic agenda.
The joint statement must be viewed against the background of increasing Japanese concerns at China’s strategic arms development and its military build-up opposite Taiwan. Indeed, as Japan emerges from hiding behind the skirts of U.S. power in the western Pacific, it may in time become the most important determining factor in the Taiwan strait equation. Japan already has a formidable navy and increasing military spending is clearly aimed at countering any attempt by China to control the vital sea lanes, the Luzon and Taiwan straits, into and through the South China Sea.
The Japanese are keenly aware that Taiwan lies as close to Japan’s southernmost Ryukyu Island as it does to mainland China, and is even closer to the northernmost Philippine islands. They also fret at China’s so-called “historic” claim to almost the whole South China Sea and its reefs and islands despite the size of the sea and the existence of other littoral states – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Meanwhile, Japan and China are also at loggerheads over their seabed demarcation in the East China Sea, where there are also hopes for hydrocarbons.
Then the writer brings up a point raised in earlier posts by Jerome Keating, and one that always seems to elicit strong opinions.
As for mainland Chinese, they often prefer to forget that Taiwan was only settled by ethnic Chinese after the arrival of the Dutch in the 16th century, and that its current prosperity owes much to the education and infrastructure it received during 50 years of Japanese rule. China’s leaders in the past have not always given unification with Taiwan high priority. For Mao, it mattered because his enemies, the United States and Chiang Kai-shek, were there. For Deng Xiaoping, it was an issue to be resolved by history.
Unification should not be allowed to get in the way of China’s modernization and economic growth. But if now it is to be se seen as a symbol of that modernization, the fruit of economic and military power, a clash with the strategic interests of others is inevitable.
Reading the article, one walks away with the distinct impression that China is in the weakest position, still dependent on US and Japanese markets and in no position to discourage foreign investment. China’s also in a tougher spot, he says, because it’s been ineffectual in helping us negotiate with North Korea, making the US less dependent on the them.
Bowring warns that Europe should watch the unfolding situation carefully, as it indiates “the commercial benefits of advanced weapons sales to China carry long-term risks. For myopic Europe, Taiwan may be a small and distant place, but it has the potential to be the pivot of East Asian power relationships.”
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.