China’s arguments against Taiwanese self-determination are not particularly legal or ethical. They boil down to the fact that Beijing has over a billion people, a huge economy, and over 900 missiles pointing at the nearby island.
The latter figure, growing by 50 rockets a year, should give a clue to the weakness of Beijing’s arguments. In the modern world, few governments can pledge with a straight face to “liberate” an island full of people it pretends are compatriots by blowing them off the map. Equally, while China’s “one nation—two systems” transition period for Hong Kong has not been a total failure, Beijing’s clumsy interference in Hong Kong’s politics and refusal to allow democratic reforms have not done much to reassure the Taiwanese.
There is scope for wrangling on historical and legal claims. But the real question is what status the people of the territory themselves want. Do the people of Taiwan and their democratically elected government have a right to decide their own fate? And will they use that right to get politically closer or more distant from the mainland?
According to modern international practice and the principles of democracy, the Taiwanese do indeed have the right to “declare” what is manifestly already true: that they are an independent, sovereign state. It is also clear that the Taiwanese, on the political level, do not want to be ruled by Beijing. If the threat to the island’s (and the islanders’) existence were removed, a very strong majority would support outright independence.
This is not just romantic nationalism. The Taiwanese pragmatically believe that falling under Beijing’s thumb would be a major step backward for a prosperous democracy of 23 million people, with its developed economy, developed social democracy, and amenities such as a national health system.
Taiwan at the UN
Taiwan has long been trying to shore up its global position by joining international bodies, notably the UN. For the first decade or so of the UN’s existence, the “universality” of membership was not at all evident. But now UN membership is generally regarded as a sort of certificate of sovereign statehood. Indeed, after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, every last microstate came rushing for membership precisely to get anti-annexation insurance. Some members barely qualify for sovereignty. For instance, the former U.S. trust territories in the Pacific, such as Palau, the Marshal Islands, and Micronesia, have constitutions that entrust the United States with their defense and with consultation over foreign policy. Such contingent sovereignty is reflected in their lonely UN votes supporting Washington over Israel. Indeed, at the time of their admission to the UN, British diplomats, for the record, queried the degree of the islands’ sovereignty.
Add economic autonomy, and Taiwan clearly has more attributes of sovereignty than many UN members. If not for the continuing threat from the PRC, Taiwan’s leaders might realistically accept their anomalous status. One only has to think of avian flu to realize that it is not in the global interest for Taiwan to be outside the World Health Organization or any of the other institutions of international standard-setting.
By blocking Taiwan’s entry to the UN, China is ignoring the same right to self-determination it proclaimed in its more revolutionary days of anti-colonial struggle. This hypocrisy explains in part why the nagging consciences of the non-aligned at the UN impel them to ensure that the admission of Taiwan is not even on the agenda for discussion, despite clear rules to the contrary. In any debate they would have to acknowledge that Beijing’s obdurate stand contravenes not only of the right to self-determination but also of the inviolability of colonial boundaries that most African countries accept.
It is worth considering why the Chinese are so unbendable on this issue. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the Communist Party of China has all but abandoned any social agenda other than the maintenance of power, and that leaves only nationalism as a ruling ideology. The “reunification” with Taiwan is a token over which the cadres in Beijing can jostle for leadership by out-shouting each other.
However, Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over the island is not well founded at all, unless you accept it as the successor state to the Middle Kingdom that claimed to rule the world. In historical terms, the mainland’s one unquestioned period of control over Taiwan lasted between the end of the Second World War and the ouster of Chiang Kai-shek from the mainland. The islanders were never consulted, and Chiang’s Kuo Min Tang (KMT) made sure that their views went unheard by massacring some 30,000 of them beginning February 28, 1947. Even when driven from the mainland in 1949, Chiang’s regime maintained its increasingly tenuous claim to be the legitimate government of China, which included Mongolia as well.
Only after Chiang’s death did the island move toward democracy and into the real world, by dissolving the all-China shadow government structures maintained by the KMT. Strangely, the comrades in Beijing were happier with an island claiming to represent the whole of China than they are with one that currently purports only to represent itself.
Definitions of Imperialism
In the modern world, with a few notable and messy exceptions such as in the Balfour declaration, irredentist claims based on ancient history have been unsuccessful in the face of popular sovereignty. There is more to a nation state than a shared language, common ethnicity, or certainly former imperial sovereignty.
According to its arguments based on former control, Beijing could seize Vietnam or parts of Korea. Indeed, if reunification of the former Chinese empire is the issue, then China should really consider the examples of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Luckily, there has been no British call for reunification. Austria and a large part of Switzerland speak German, but Germany has not revived calls for anschluss. Spain has learned to live with the absence of most of Latin America.
Historical claims are essentially worthless. In a modern, civilized world, the views of the people themselves matter most. For example, no British government, not even one as control-minded as Tony Blair’s, could force Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom if a clear majority of its people wished otherwise. The Chinese leadership, on the other hand, often confuses “terrorism” with “secessionist activities,” which includes simple advocacy of autonomy and independence. As such, the Chinese equivalent of the Scottish Nationalist Party in Beijing would serve time in jail, not in parliament.
Although it is not helpful in the adjudication of modern sovereignty claims, history does offer some examples of pragmatic solutions that could produce a degree of mutual satisfaction. For example, if the PRC had demonstrated more trustworthiness over Hong Kong, then something like the “compacts of association” between the Pacific trust territories and the United States would have been conceivable. But it would be a foolhardy Taiwanese leader who would accept even a token garrison from the People’s Liberation Army in view of Beijing’s recent threats.
Perhaps a more exiguous form of association could be developed on the model of the dominions of the British Commonwealth, where the British head of state is also head of state of Australia, Jamaica, Canada, and New Zealand. For the last half century at least, this arrangement didn’t imply any degree of British control and left the various parties harmoniously linked but independent.
However, for all these imaginative solutions, the Taiwanese need reassurance that some powerful members of the global community have the spine to argue with Beijing, to educate its leaders that their eccentrically Sinocentric view of the world is wrong, and to persuade those same leaders that threats of military action are completely counterproductive as well as unacceptable.
Why should the rest of the world care? Last year, the “Responsibility to Protect” accepted by the UN heads of state codified the instinctive feelings of many. The world should not stand by and watch military action crush a vibrant, successful democracy. And in terms of self-interest, Taiwan has wisely and morally eschewed the nuclear option. Faced with a United States in economic thrall to China and increasingly unlikely to back up its security guarantee against China’s developing military capacity, Taiwan certainly has a case for pursuing such a deterrent. But the world is dealing with enough threats to the current arms control regimes and does not need another nuclear power.
Taiwan should take the initiative and propose some such pragmatic solutions to the mainland. Although rejected, such proposals would at least have the effect of putting the onus on Beijing. In fact Taiwan could learn some lessons from Cyprus, where the leaders have for years suggested reasonable-sounding solutions they know are, for some obscure reason often barely discernible to outsiders, completely unacceptable to the other side. At the same time, Taiwan should abandon some of the more ritualistic restrictions on trade and travel across the Strait. And Taipei should make plain that it does not hold a “Two China” policy but rather a “one China, one Taiwan” policy. Like Austria and Germany, or Australia and Britain, Taiwan is close to China—but separate.