Xi and Ma in Historic Summit: Status Quo on Taiwan Persists…for Now

Last Saturday saw an unprecedented meeting between the respective leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC – Mainland China) and the Republic of China (ROC- Taiwan). Presidents Xi Jinping of the PRC and Ma Ying-jeou of the ROC shook hands and smiled for the cameras before their brief summit in Singapore, an historic but largely symbolic dialogue.

An historic handshake

Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) won the Civil War in 1949 and forced Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang (KMT) comrades to flee to Taiwan, there has existed a very tense cross-Strait relationship between Beijing and Taipei whose rulers both claim their governments to be the true and sole representatives of all China.

Three serious ‘crises’ have broken out between the mainland and Taiwan since 1949. The first crisis occurred during 1954-5 when the PRC seized several islands from the ROC and conducted heavy shelling of KMT defensive positions. The US administration was so concerned by the aggression of the communists that the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended dropping a nuclear bomb on the Chinese mainland, a suggestion fortunately dismissed by President Eisenhower.

In 1958, the PRC again resorted to heavy shelling of KMT positions on several disputed islands in the Tawain Strait. The ROC responded with their own artillery with the end result being 2,500 dead on the Taiwanese side, compared with 200 PRC troops killed. America intervened on the side of the ROC by providing them with howitzers and air-to-air missiles, honouring an agreement of mutual defence that had been signed after the first crisis four years earlier. The Soviets, too, put diplomatic pressure on Mao Zedong to halt his assault, fearing the American response should the conflict intensify.

Beijing did not react well to US involvement in the 2nd Taiwan Strait Crisis
Beijing did not react well to US involvement in the 2nd Taiwan Strait Crisis

For the next four decades an uneasy peace existed across the Taiwan Strait, with both the PRC and ROC largely concerned with ensuring domestic stability and (after Mao’s death at least) economic development. In 1992, a Consensus was reached between Beijing and Taipei that unequivocally stated that there was only one sovereign state encompassing all of China, the disagreement remaining over which government was the legitimate ruler.

This seemed set to cement the peace but its impact was almost immediately undermined. In 1995-6, trouble flared up again as the PRC embarked on a series of provocative missile tests in the coastal waters off Taiwan. A response to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s supposed agitation for independence – which of course went against the 1992 Consensus – Beijing’s actions prompted the Clinton administration to send two aircraft carrier groups into the Taiwan Strait, the biggest American military deployment in Asia since the Vietnam War. The PRC responded by undertaking live firing training drills in the build-up to Taiwan’s 1996 presidential election. The attempts to intimidate Taipei and the Taiwanese electorate failed, however, with Lee’s popularity receiving a boost in the aftermath of the scare.

Since 1996 the relationship has remained relatively stable, improving significantly during Ma’s tenure, with a renewed focus on economic engagement. This has led many Taiwanese to become increasingly wary about Ma’s intentions and his decision to meet with Xi in Singapore met with widespread disapproval back home. With only a few months remaining in office and no possibility of a further term given constitutional constraints, Ma’s gesture appears one of egotism designed to secure his place in history. For many Taiwanese, however, his diplomacy has simply led to a strengthening of the PRC’s hand and given the impression that Taipei’s resolve to oppose pressure from Beijing is failing.

Protesters took to streets across Taiwan in opposition to Ma's China diplomacy
Protesters took to streets across Taiwan in opposition to Ma’s China diplomacy

There was never any likelihood that the Xi-Ma summit would lead to significant policy change. In this respect, it is similar to the meeting that took place between Mao and Chiang Kai-shek at Chongqing in 1945. With the Japanese enemy defeated and World War Two ended, the US hoped that they could broker a peace deal between Mao’s communists and the Nationalist KMT government, which had been sporadically fighting a civil war for the best part of two decades.

The Double Tenth Agreement that arose from the three-month negotiations included the CCP concession that the KMT was the legitimate government of China and a declaration by the Nationalists that they recognised Mao’s group as an official opposition party.

Mao and Chiang raise a toast at their August 1945 meeting in Chongqing
Mao and Chiang raise a toast at their August 1945 meeting in Chongqing

Of course in reality neither party had any intention of stopping short of outright victory and the internal conflict would rage brutally for a further four years before Chiang eventually realised that his days were numbered and he escaped across the Strait where he would rule until his death in 1975.

There will come a time when the historical enmity between the PRC and ROC will explode again and it is likely to involve America when it does. At the moment the relationship is as strong as it is ever going to be, Ma’s efforts over the course of his presidency ensuring temporary peace even if it is at the expense of his people’s honour.

Make no mistake, though. The PRC views Taiwan as part of its territory and will ultimately be prepared to use force to secure this economically-vibrant island. When its leaders choose their moment, America will have a choice whether to enforce its traditional commitment to Taiwanese territorial integrity or allow a scenario similar to the one that resulted in Russia annexing Crimea from Ukraine last year.

Xi and Ma posed for the cameras, as Mao and Chiang did back in 1945. As with their predecessors, today’s leaders know that the status quo will not last forever.


Korean Nuclear Crisis vs Taiwan Missile Crisis: the greater threat to East Asian security?

North Korea’s decision to restart its Yongbyon nuclear reactor is the latest development in a seemingly escalating crisis in Northeast Asia which has led to grave words of warning from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Mr Ban has tried to avoid direct interference in the North Korean nuclear crisis, given that his South Korean nationality would likely lead to calls of impartiality from the North and its allies. Therefore, for Mr Ban to speak out is testament to the growing concern felt by the international community regarding events on the Korean Peninsula.

Similar concerns were felt during the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-6, also known as the Taiwan Missile Crisis.

After the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) overthrew the Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, Chiang’s Nationalists fled to the island of Taiwan where they re-established their government. The CCP has viewed Taiwan as a renegade Chinese province ever since, despite the island’s separate development and well-entrenched democratic political system. After normalising relations with China in 1972, the Americans had implicitly accepted the CCP as the rightful representatives of China, not the Kuomintang of Taiwan.

Nevertheless, the American government of Bill Clinton infuriated the Chinese by accepting a visit from Taiwan’s head of state, Lee Teng-hui, in 1995. Allowing the visit of Lee, an outspoken leader who called for greater moves towards outright independence, was adjudged by the CCP as an American statement of support for an independent, democratic Taiwan.

Lee Teng-Hui's visit to Cornell University in 1995 severely strained Sino-American relations
Lee Teng-Hui’s visit to Cornell University in 1995 severely strained Sino-American relations

The Chinese responded by conducting a series of missile tests and live firing exercises in the Taiwan Strait, less than a hundred miles from the Taiwanese mainland. Not only was this a signal that China would resist any efforts by a Taiwanese leader to break the “one-China policy” the CCP holds so dear, but it was an attempt to call America’s bluff. The latter failed and in the Spring of 1996, Bill Clinton authorised the sending of two US Carrier Groups to international waters off Taiwan.

The deployment of the USS Nimitz during the Taiwan Strait Crisis was a clear warning against Chinese aggression
The deployment of the USS Nimitz during the Taiwan Strait Crisis was a clear warning against Chinese aggression

America had shown itself willing to counter any potential Chinese aggression, although the Clinton administration refrained from throwing its full support behind an independent Taiwan. Whilst Chinese military capabilities were far inferior in 1996 than they are today, there was nonetheless global concern that a Sino-American war might erupt, dragging in to any conflict the other states of East Asia.

North Korea’s current belligerence is concerning but the fact that the country’s aggressive rhetoric regarding nuclearisation is not linked to any specific policy makes it little more than scaremongering. Possibly an attempt by Kim Jong-un to prove himself as a strong military leader, possibly part of an internal power struggle within the upper echelons of the People’s Army, possibly an attempt by the North Koreans to draw significant aid concessions in return for de-nuclearisation, the current bluster is unlikely to lead to war. Only a gross miscalculation by one of North Korea’s enemies or a sudden collapse of the Kim dynasty could force this eventuality. Quite simply, for North Korea to engage in a “first strike” scenario (which it may not even be capable of) would be tantamount to state suicide. Realistically, Kim and his generals will know this and are likely to avoid all-out-war at any cost.

American military drills off the Korean Peninsula are helping prompt North Korea rhetoric
American military drills off the Korean Peninsula are helping prompt North Korea rhetoric

The Taiwan Strait Crisis was slightly different. China has been consistent in pursuing the “one-China policy” which determines Taiwan as part of the mainland. This will not change and had Lee Teng-hui not calmed his own rhetoric regarding Taiwanese independence – largely forced upon him by US influence and a dramatic fall in Taiwanese stocks – it is conceivable that China would have conducted military strikes against Taiwan. This in turn could have prompted a response by a resolute US and such a scenario could be repeated in the future.

The US retains strong arms ties with Taiwan as a means to hedge against the rising military might of China in the region. The current Taiwanese administration of Ma Ying-jeou is pro-Chinese and will not upset Taiwan’s relationship with the mainland. Should a future administration adopt Lee’s pro-independence stance, however, or nationalist elements within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) agitate for a takeover of Taiwan, the potential for a Chinese attack on the island is not inconceivable. The subsequent possibility of a Sino-American war, either fought directly or through opposing allies, would therefore greatly increase.

With the Chinese always able to act as a final check on North Korean aggression, and the North’s leaders not stupid enough to risk the destruction of their own country, the potential for the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula to escalate into conflict is low. It is the potential consequences of increasing Chinese confidence and aggression, coupled with American desire for regional superiority, that offer a greater long-term security threat for the East Asian region.