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What about the Taiwanese?

November 6, 2022

What you think of the story in the Indo-Pacific, connecting the US, Australia, China and Taiwan, depends on how you start telling it. Try the top line of both international human rights covenants: on civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights, respectively. “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”.

There is no doubt that Taiwan’s 23 million inhabitants constitute a people in their own right. Evidence from decades of opinion polling shows they have very distinctly come to consider themselves as such. About two-thirds say they identify as Taiwanese, a tiny handful Chinese, the rest both. They have, moreover, built a vibrant liberal democracy.

And yet Xi Jinping, in his address to the Chinese People’s Congress last month, referred to the island as part of the “motherland”. Ambassador to London, Zheng Zeguang, claims that “Taiwan has been an inalienable part of China’s territory since ancient times”. It was recovered from Dutch colonial rule, he continues, “by Chinese national hero Zheng Chenggong”.

In fact, that Zheng was a renegade. His son, Zheng Jing, who succeeded him, held out against the Qing dynasty, and wanted Taiwan to enjoy the same independent status as Korea. Only when it was eventually taken by force did the island come under Chinese rule. In 1895, it was handed to Japan in the agreement that ended the first Sino-Japanese war. That lasted until the end of World War II – and shortly afterwards, of course, it entered its present semi-detached condition as the last redoubt of the nationalist government overthrown by the Communist revolution.

The latest policy document on Taiwanese “reunification” omits an undertaking made in its predecessors, that Beijing would not send troops or its own administrators to the territory. Previous versions had provided for a variant on the “one country, two systems” model that was supposed to prevail for half a century in Hong Kong, after the city was handed back by the British in 1997. Halfway through the prescribed period, it has been entirely subsumed into Communist Party rule. And the scheme for Taiwan is now clearly the same.

That would be to deny the Taiwanese their right to self-determination. If it was achieved against their will, especially by force, it would be a grievous blow to human rights. The Chinese maintain that the Cairo Declaration of 1943, and Potsdam Proclamation of 1945, puts legality on their side. Others argued at the time that these texts conferred no transfer of sovereignty. Whatever the rights or wrongs of that dispute, however, they should be relegated to a distant second place behind the wishes and preferences of the Taiwanese themselves.

(This is not a double standard. The same should apply to Scotland and Wales. Scots last voted Tory in 1955; the Welsh never have. And yet both nations have endured the worst effects of Tory misrule from Westminster. More power to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as she seeks to establish in court her people’s right to another referendum, now they have been wrenched out of Europe against their will, on Scottish independence. The legalities should be led by the principle of self-determination – not the other way around).

From that starting point, then, the question becomes: how can the trampling of Taiwanese rights be avoided? And, given the universality of those rights, and the negative and dangerous ramifications of having them set aside, how can and should the rest of us act to help prevent it?

This is where we must delve into China’s motives for seeking to exert sovereignty. The recent ABC 4 Corners program, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, offered the standard explanation, that control over the territory would be a strategic gain, enabling Beijing to project maritime military force beyond the ‘first island chain’ and into the blue waters of the Pacific – as the Americans do.

The humiliation of China, forced to open itself to western domination after the 19th-century Opium Wars, confers a historically transmitted case of bruised narcissism. (It is by no means unique – indeed, it is a political bane of our time. The British version – a post-imperial toxic sludge of thwarted entitlement and imagined victimhood – brought us the disastrous Brexit vote. And a still more poisonous formula adorned those wretched red baseball caps: “Make America Great Again”).

For China to strike successfully in spite of the west (thus taking back control) would soothe this trauma. For such a venture to put the country on an equal footing with the superpower would add extra satisfaction. The patriotic fervour whipped up through such means as the bellicose PLA videos shown by ABC 4 Corners is based on fomenting and exploiting such feelings, as a means of political control. This was the glint in the eye of Victor Gao, of the Center for China and Globalization, as he told interviewer Angus Grigg: “The reunification of China is very much part and parcel of China’s rejuvenation”.

Stay with that word, rejuvenation, for it offers the possibility of a different approach. China’s population is ageing and may already be shrinking. It shows signs of being caught in a ‘middle income trap’ that misallocates resources through excessive saving, investment and debt. (Cases from the recent past include both Japan and the Soviet Union). There is too little domestic consumption. Productivity growth is stalling. It needs to transform an economy built on imported technology to what Xi called, in his speech to the Congress, “great self-reliance and strength in science and technology”.

These factors will sharpen China’s incentives to seek cooperation. Instead, it is decreasing. The Biden Administration’s decision to cut access to advanced US-made semiconductors was a setback. It followed the fire sale of a Chinese-owned share in a digital cable across the Pacific, connecting Hong Kong directly with Los Angeles. They gave up when the US withheld regulatory approval on national security grounds.

Of course, Europe could be the key to continuing prosperity through global trade, though recent news that Chinese shipping giant Cosco had withdrawn from the Duisburg Gateway rail and river terminal may indicate a tapering of those ties, as well. It must be clear that if China were to seize Taiwan against its people’s wishes, the worldwide response would further deepen its isolation in the very fields in which it needs engagement with the west.

So now to the different approach. What if that engagement were to be offered as part of a greater understanding, conditional upon leaving Taiwan alone? How naïve that sounds, given all the vested interests that are served by antagonism and escalation – and the US agenda to safeguard its position of primacy. But we must advocate persuasion over force, and trust that an appraisal of common interests prevails over the itch to scratch that narcissistic wound.

The anti-war Left in Australia has rightly sounded the alarm over the now very real possibility that we could soon be embroiled in a dangerous and potentially disastrous military confrontation. The challenge is to devise a nonviolent way to avoid or prevent the Taiwanese people’s right to self-determination from being violated. Only then can we put forward a vision of peace with justice. Only then will we enjoy the moral high ground when we denounce preparations for war. If we discount that right, we risk losing the argument against further confrontation.

Originally published in Pearls and Irritations

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