The Two Chinas

Will Taiwan prove to be the Alsace-Lorraine of the 21st century?

January 11, 2008

Will Taiwan prove to be the Alsace-Lorraine of the 21st century?

Taiwan is the Alsace-Lorraine of the 21st century. Indeed, Beijing has itself often drawn this parallel, especially when trying to charm French interlocutors. One of the great strengths of the Chinese is the very clever way in which they court the elites of countries in their sights, particularly diplomats.

Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai already invoked the comparison with Alsace-Lorraine back in the 1960s. Instead of touching a displaced national sentimentalism, China’s parallel of Taiwan with Alsace-Lorraine should be frightening. Better than anyone, the French can imagine the blind fury such a national cause could justify.

Chinese officials, even ones who are moderate on other subjects, are convinced that the recovery of Taiwan could justify anything, including jeopardizing decades of economic growth and risking a new world war.

Westerners listen in disbelief. They reject the possibility that such folly could be committed for an island that already has all the attributes of independence: president, parliament, army, political parties, among many others. But those bystanders fail to take into account a historical truth iterated down through the centuries: Conflicts seldom begin for rational causes.

Admittedly, the parallel is stretched. Taiwan is not occupied by a foreign power, and a large majority of the Taiwanese do not want to return to a continental embrace that would crush them.

Most importantly, Taiwan has its own historical roots. Europeans were the first to take an interest in the island. The Dutch East India Company was followed by the Spaniards, and Japan intervened only at the end of the 19th century. For four centuries, Taiwan has been populated by Chinese fleeing the arbitrary rule of empire. It was governed by continental China only between 1945 and 1949.

The real similarity between Taiwan and Alsace-Lorraine is that Taiwan is no more an internal question than those provinces were in 1914. It is an international question that must be treated as such.

The defense agreement between Taiwan and the United States would transform any confrontation between the two Chinas into a worldwide conflict, with an awareness on both sides from the very beginning of hostilities that they both possess nuclear weapons. In fact, the risk that nuclear weapons could be used in a conflict is greatest precisely in this area of the world. Recognition of that fact should be enough to heighten awareness and encourage caution in dealing with the issue of Taiwan.

Caution, however, does not mean leaving China to be master of the situation, selling weapons, or refusing to sell them to Taiwan. On the contrary, the more China has the feeling that it can attack the island with impunity, the greater the temptation for it to do just that. Beijing has never renounced the use of force against Taiwan.

If it decided to attack, Beijing would hope that the rest of the world could treat the decision as an internal affair, as it has treated Russian intervention in Chechnya. The two countries, which have good reason to mistrust one another, understand each other perfectly on that point.

Since Beijing replaced Taiwan at the UN in 1971, the rhetoric to which all Western countries have submitted has introduced a major ambiguity: If Taiwan is recognized as part of China, how is it possible to challenge the claim that any aggression against the island is a purely internal matter?

That is why Beijing has always considered recognition of the “one China” concept crucial and it asks all foreign dignitaries to perform a ritual: Not to prostrate themselves before the emperor as in bygone days — but to mutter, if possible, as soon as they get off the plane, some sentence about the unity of China.

Even though the “one China” assertion bears less and less relation to reality as time goes on, everyone mouths it willingly. It is not certain that peace is helped by the process, for a gulf between diplomatic declarations and reality is dangerous. If Taiwan were recognized as a sovereign state, any offensive action would be identified as an attack and so condemned by the UN — which would give the international community superior resources to prevent such attacks.

In 1966, Italy introduced the idea that China could have dual representation at the UN through both Beijing and Taipei. Unfortunately, a resolution by pro-Communist Albania proposing that Beijing replace Taipei won out, and it became a fait accompli in 1971, with China being given a Security Council seat the following year.

Since 1977, Taipei has sought the same status as the two Germanys or the two Koreas — indeed, why not — but no one now wants to reconsider the 1972 Shanghai Agreement signed by Nixon that laid out the “one China policy.”

Chinese patience is often praised, but the most distinctive characteristic of China over the last few years has been, in fact, its impatience — the feeling that it must soon reach its goal and the arrogance that goes along with it. Some observers expect a crisis in 2008, during the last stretch before the Olympic Games and at the end of Chen Shui-bian’s presidency. Chen has promised greater autonomy for Taiwan before he leaves office.

The approach of the Olympics in Beijing may lead Taipei to believe that a declaration or a change in Taiwan’s constitution — for example, the sovereignty clause — could be made, with Beijing in a sense paralyzed by the spotlight. China is already doing everything possible to isolate Taipei and to win symbolic or legal victories.

There might also be another crisis later on, comparable to the one in the Taiwan Strait in 1996, which led the United States to send an aircraft carrier to the area. That incident was the only real show of force that President Clinton risked during his two terms. In fact, the period from 2008 to 2010, when the United States will have a new president that China may attempt to test, seems more dangerous, particularly if the Chinese economy, often criticized for over heating, experiences difficulties that increase the current social unrest.

That unrest is greatly underestimated in the West, where it is not understood that the poverty of peasants and workers is increasingly hard to bear. Facing internal tension, China might embark on dangerous initiatives abroad.

Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from Savage Century: Back to Barbarism by Thérèse Delpech (Copyright 2007, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Takeaways

Beijing would hope — if it decided to attack — that the rest of the world would treat the decision as an internal affair.

The defense agreement between Taiwan and the United States would transform any confrontation between the two Chinas into a worldwide conflict.

Beijing would hope — if it decided to attack — that the rest of the world would treat the decision as an internal affair.

Chinese patience is often praised, but the most distinctive characteristic of China over the last few years has been, in fact, its impatience.

Some bystanders fail to take into account a historical truth iterated down through the centuries: Conflicts seldom begin for rational reasons.