The wisdom of the U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to visit Taiwan has been questioned by commentators and politicians all over the world, not only by Beijing’s supporters but also by some friends of Taiwan and people in Taiwan. This is easy to understand. Many of us worried that her visit would increase the tension between China and the U.S. and also the risk of war. In their conversation on July 28, the Chinese President Xi Jinping warned American President Biden saying, “Those who play with fire will perish by it. It is hoped that the U.S. will be clear-eyed about this.”
It is still too early to gauge the overall and long-term effects of Pelosi’s visit. When writing this, China is conducting military drills on an unprecedented scale around Taiwan, and there are reports that China even sent missiles over the island. These drills are extremely dangerous and might at worst lead to violent military confrontation. Thus, we can see that a few days after Pelosi’s visit, tension has indeed increased. But we should not forget that the pressure from China on Taiwan has been increasing for years. The military drills that are now taking place must have been planned for a long time and can be seen as the culmination of this increasing pressure. Does Nancy Pelosi really carry the responsibility for this?
In an article in the Washington Post on August 2 explaining the purpose of her visit, Pelosi said, “We cannot stand by as the CCP proceeds to threaten Taiwan – and democracy itself”. Referring to the Taiwan Relations Act adopted by the Carter administration in 1979, she pointed out that the U.S. had made a solemn vow “to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means … a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” But she also emphasized that in her view, this visit “in no way contradicts the long-standing one-China policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the U.S.-China Joint Communiques and the Six Assurances. The United States continues to oppose unilateral efforts to change the status quo.”
These views are completely at odds with the way the leaders in Beijing see the Taiwan question, and in an article in the Washington Post the following day, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., Qin Gang, briefly explained his government’s position: “Taiwan has been an inseparable part of China’s territory for 1,800 years … the government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government of China” and Pelosi’s visit “has openly broken America’s commitment not to develop official relations with Taiwan. These are extremely irresponsible, provocative and dangerous moves.” Ambassador Qin referred to “the one-China principle” which he described as “part of the postwar international order” and claimed that it had gained “international consensus”.
China and the U.S. have all along since the normalization process between the two countries began in the early 1970s interpreted their relationship differently. Their differences with regard to Taiwan were explicitly mentioned in the important Shanghai Communique of 1972. The two governments agreed to openly recognize their differences while focusing on what united them. This was in accordance with the ancient Chinese principle of “seeking common ground while shelving differences” (qiutongcunyi求同存异), which especially Premier Zhou Enlai liked to invoke. From the very beginning, it was thus clear that the two sides did not interpret the one-China principle in exactly the same way. But they agreed that their differences should not stand in the way of the normalization of their relations.
Playing with the Foundations?
In connection with cancelling the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, which had been signed in 1950, and establishing full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, the U.S. government in 1979 enacted The Taiwan Relations Act, where the U.S. makes the commitment to Taiwan that Nancy Pelosi referred to in her article in the Washington Post on August 2 and which has from the beginning annoyed Beijing.
The Taiwan Relations Act has remained an important policy guideline for the U.S.. It states, among other things, that it is the policy of the U.S.:
to make clear that the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means;
to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States;
to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.
It is, therefore, misleading to describe, as the Chinese leaders do, the one-China principle as a clear-cut concept about which there is international consensus. An additional crucial factor in this context is that Taiwan’s democratization has drastically changed the context of the one-China principle. Throughout the Chiang Kai-shek era, the governments in Beijing and Taipei were in complete agreement that Mainland China and Taiwan were and must be one single country, both governments claiming to be its sole legitimate government. This was also the context in which most countries in the world made their commitments to the one-China principle.
However, in the wake of Taiwan’s democratization, the one-China principle no longer remains as self-evident as it seemed earlier. The reason why it is not the subject of more discussion has mainly to do with power politics: Governments and individuals hesitate to discuss it since they know that it is a red line for the Chinese government. This is unreasonable; the interpretation and validity of the one-China principle should be open to uninhibited discussion.
The unprecedented military drills that China is now conducting outside and over Taiwan as a kind of punishment for Pelosi’s visit pose a serious threat to peace and must therefore be condemned. It is difficult to see how in the long run they can be in the interest of the Chinese government. Pelosi says that she does not want to change the status quo but that she wants to protect the right of the people of Taiwan to decide what form of government they want to have and that, in particular, she wants to protect Taiwan from any attempt by Beijing to use violent means to incorporate Taiwan as part of the People’s Republic of China. Of course, the Beijing government as everybody else has the right to contest her ideas and her actions. But as far as one can see, her statements are in accord with the promises that the U.S. has made to Taiwan and also in accord with the basic values of freedom of democracy that the U.S. government often invokes but too often fails to live up to.
Therefore, it seems unreasonable to respond to her recent visit to Taipei in the way that Beijing is now doing and to hold her responsible for the present crisis in Sino-U.S. relations. At the same time, against the background of the serious threat about “playing with fire” and “perishing” that President Xi made in his talk with President Biden, we should recognize that the response of the Beijing government could have been more violent. We can at least hope that this indicates that the leaders in Beijing will find it important to show restraint and abstain from further aggravating the already dangerous situation.
People at the Core?
It is easy to understand that many people both in Mainland China and in Taiwan think that ideally Taiwan and Mainland China should be one country. But it is also easy to understand that others would prefer to see Taiwan recognized as the independent and autonomous state that it has de facto already been for a long time. At present only a small minority of the Taiwanese would like to see Taiwan become a part of the People’s Republic of China. According to a poll conducted last year, only 7.4 percent of the population wanted unification.
The more oppressive and aggressive the regime in Beijing has become, the smaller has the number of people in favor of unification also become. Not least Beijing’s crackdown on the democracy movement in Hong Kong and the enactment of the Hong Kong national security law, which in fact put an end to the relative autonomy that Hong Kong was promised under the formula “one country two systems”, has had a strong impact on public opinion in Taiwan. Now after the ongoing threatening military drills, in Taiwan very few people indeed will want to see unification.
If China were an open society with a democratic political system, this might well be different. How the difficult question about the relationship between China and Taiwan should be resolved is not for the outside world to decide. But it is the responsibility of the international community not to accept any attempt on the part of the Beijing government to achieve unification by means of military coercion and isolation. To accept this would be to accept that might is right. Any decision to incorporate Taiwan as both a de jure and a de facto province of the People’s Republic of China must be based on the consent of the people of Taiwan expressed in a free and legally binding referendum.