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GEW Research Paper

by: Dr Hichem Karoui

Contributions of the paper

  •  The paper analyses China’s claims and US policy regarding the reunification of China and the tensions between Beijing and Taipei.
  •  It highlights President Xi Jinping’s belief in the eventual reunification of China and the importance of fostering a shared sense of purpose among Chinese individuals on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
  •  The paper discusses the nationalist narrative in China and the potential popular support for bringing Taiwan to reason.
  •  It raises whether the American people would support sacrificing their children for a foreign island far from their shores, suggesting that the USA would gain more from Realpolitik than from delusions of grandeur.
  •  The paper mentions Taiwan’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections and the increasing tension between Beijing and Taipei.

Introduction

In his annual address to commemorate the new year, President Xi Jinping expressed his firm belief in the eventual reunification of China, emphasising the importance of fostering a shared sense of purpose among all Chinese individuals residing on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

While the president did not address any military threats in his speech, it is important to note that China has not formally renounced the use of force as the last resort to defend China’s territories,  Taiwan – 130 km from the mainland – included. This nationalist narrative is sure to gather popular support in China. Mr Xi Jinping knows that most Chinese will absolutely back him to bring Taiwan to reason. On the other hand, one cannot say that the American people will back any US president if he decides to confront China over Taiwan. Why would they support sacrificing their children for a foreign island 12,240.59 km from their shores? Do they need another Vietnam war? No country sacrifices its people to save another country. The serialised failures of the US wars from Afghanistan to Ukraine are there to testify that the USA would gain more from Realpolitik than from delusions of grandeur.

Taiwan’s presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for 13 January. These elections occurred when the relationship between Beijing and Taipei had become increasingly tense. Beijing views William Lai, the presidential front-runner from the ruling Democratic People’s Party, who currently holds the position of vice president, as a “separatist.” They have accused him and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen of engaging in actions that could potentially incite a military conflict with China. This paper analyses the claims of China and the US policy.

China’s Claims

How was Taiwan related to China?

The historical relationship between Taiwan and China is complex and has evolved over centuries. Taiwan, located off the southeastern coast of China, has been inhabited for thousands of years, with its earliest residents being Austronesian peoples. The island has seen successive waves of Han Chinese migrants over the centuries, particularly since the 17th century when it became a destination for overseas migration from China. “The Taiwanese population comprises three groups of inhabitants. Taiwan Han (TwHan), presently the most numerous group, are descendants mainly of immigrants who came to Taiwan ~400 years ago and include Minnan and Hakka, as well as Han Chinese who immigrated more recently from all over China. The Taiwan mountain tribes Aborigines (TwMtA) include 12 of the 14 officially recognised ethnic groups of the island and represent about 2% of its total population. Finally, a minority group generally described as the Taiwan plain tribe Aborigines (TwPlt) or Pingpu, who are believed to be heavily sinicized and mixed with the Taiwanese Han. This last group represents less than 1% of the population in Taiwan.” [1]

In the 17th century, Taiwan was a Dutch colony until it was conquered by Ming loyalist forces who retreated to the island from China in 1662. These loyalist forces held Taiwan until 1683, when Qing imperial forces from China crossed the Taiwan Strait to quell the insurgents, bringing Taiwan under Qing rule.[2] The Qing Dynasty ruled Taiwan until 1895, when it was ceded to Japan due to the Sino-Japanese War. Taiwan was under Japanese rule until the end of World War II in 1945, after which it was returned to Chinese sovereignty.[3]

The earliest Chinese control over Taiwan began in the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and continued into the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). However, it’s important to note that the control was less direct and comprehensive than today. The Qing Dynasty began to exert more direct control over Taiwan in the late 17th century, primarily as a response to the threat posed by Ming loyalists who had fled to the island. The Qing established Taiwan as a province in 1885, but their control was challenged by various forces, including indigenous tribes and foreign powers, particularly Japan, which colonized Taiwan from 1895 to 1945.[4]

As for other islands, the control varied greatly depending on the island and the period. For instance, the Zhoushan Islands were under the control of the mainland regime in the early stages of China. The Tang Dynasty abandoned the county-level administrative system of Zhoushan Islands due to an uprising, which led to a subjective marginalisation of the status of Zhoushan Islands. The maritime policy towards Zhoushan Islands in the Song and Yuan Dynasties reflected the ruler’s consciousness and the positive attitude of active openness in policy. However, the maritime embargo and port closure policies in the Ming and Qing Dynasties manifest the rulers’ active periphery of Zhoushan Islands.[5]

It is also worth noting that the control of these islands was often influenced by various factors, including climate change, which could impact agricultural productivity and, thus, the stability of a dynasty.[6] Trade and cultural exchanges, such as exporting Korean clothes to the Jiangnan region in Ming China, also affected the relationships between the mainland and the islands.[7]

Controlling Taiwan

The main reasons for Chinese dynasties to control Taiwan and other islands in ancient history were primarily driven by strategic, economic, and political factors.

Strategically, controlling Taiwan and other islands provided Chinese dynasties with a defensive buffer against potential invasions from the sea. It also allowed them to influence important maritime routes, enhancing their power and prestige.[8]

Economically, these islands often had resources that were valuable to the Chinese mainland. For instance, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands were believed to have significant oil and gas deposits.[9] Additionally, the islands served as hubs for trade and migration, which could bring economic benefits. Southward expansion and migration from China are significant themes in Chinese history, with inhabitants of southern China establishing trading diasporas throughout Southeast Asia and beyond. [10]

Politically, control over Taiwan and other islands could be used to assert sovereignty and national identity. This is evident in the ongoing dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, where the sovereignty claim is not only about potential economic benefits but also closely tied to Chinese and Japanese nationalism.[11]

In some cases, Chinese dynasties also utilised pre-existing control systems in these islands. For example, during the early 20th century, Japanese officials in Taiwan maintained the flogging penalty of China, a method of control that had been administered during the Chosun dynasty.[12]

The main cultural and religious impacts

Chinese dynasties’ control of Taiwan and other islands had significant cultural and religious impacts.

Culturally, the influence of Chinese dynasties led to the integration of Chinese traditions and practices into local cultures. For instance, in Taiwan, the localisation of music education included highlighting traditional Chinese music and artists, such as Taiwanese opera and puppetry shows.[13]

Religiously, the Chinese dynasties also had a profound influence. For example, during the Qing Dynasty, missionaries from the British Presbyterian Church were responsible for the planning and executing religious education in Taiwan. The Bible course was the most emphasised, and this religious education following the Presbyterian practice deeply impacted the students’ faith.[14]

However, it’s important to note that the cultural and religious impacts were not uniform across all islands and periods. The specific impacts could vary greatly depending on the historical period, the particular circumstances of each island, and the policies of the ruling dynasty. For instance, during the Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan, the people were cut off from the mainstream of Chinese culture and compelled to learn the Japanese language and culture. [15]

So, Chinese dynasties’ control of Taiwan and other islands had significant cultural and religious impacts, shaping these regions’ cultural identities and religious practices. However, these impacts were complex and varied, reflecting each period’s diverse influences and historical circumstances.

Economic and Cultural Ties

Economically, Taiwan and China have developed a significant trade relationship, particularly after the formation of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in 2010, which facilitated exports and imports between the two.[16] Despite political tensions, avoiding conflict and agreements between the countries has allowed them to improve their economic performance and competitiveness mutually.[17]

Culturally, there have been efforts to construct and contest master narratives of national history by both mainland China and Taiwan, with mainland China promoting a narrative of pluralist unity and Taiwan emphasising multiculturalism.[18] This reflects the ongoing tension and differing perspectives on national identity and the historical relationship between the two.

During the Chinese dynasties’ control, significant cultural exchanges existed between China and Taiwan, particularly in ideology, architecture, and medicine.

Regarding ideology, during the rule of Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo in Taiwan, there was a consensus on “Chinese identity”. However, this “consensus” began to waver, and the idea of “Taiwan identity” gradually emerged around the 1980s.[19]

Architecturally, a notable example of cultural exchange is the brick-vault roofed bathroom design, which originated in West Asia, entered China during the Yuan dynasty (1271‒1368) and became popular in the Jiangnan region during the Ming (1368‒1644) and Qing (1644‒1911) dynasties.[20]

There was a firm social tie between Fujian and Taiwan in Chinese medicine culture. However, in the late Qing dynasty, changes in the historical environment affected the foundation of traditional Chinese medicine culture, leading to new developments in the cultural interaction between Fujian and Taiwan.[21]

It is important to note that while these exchanges occurred, Taiwan and mainland China developed two different systems after the Civil War of 1945–1949: a British-American liberal capitalist system in Taiwan and a socialist system with one leading party in mainland China.[22]

These cultural exchanges between China and Taiwan during the Chinese dynasties’ control reflect their complex and intertwined history. They also highlight the influence of external factors, such as political changes and foreign influences, on the development and transformation of cultural practices and identities.

Following the Chinese Civil War, the Republic of China (ROC) government retreated to Taiwan in 1949, while the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established on the mainland. Since then, both the PRC and ROC have claimed to be the legitimate representatives of China, leading to a complex and often tense relationship.[23]

USA and China

Before Henry Kissinger’s Realpolitik policy was implemented, the relationship between the United States and China was characterised by significant tension and limited direct interaction. This was largely due to the ideological differences between the two nations, with the US being a capitalist liberal regime and China a communist state. The US had not recognised the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the legitimate government of China since its establishment in 1949; instead, it recognised the Republic of China (Taiwan) as the legitimate Chinese government.

The Cold War period further strained relations, with the US viewing China alongside the Soviet Union as part of a monolithic communist bloc. This led to a policy of containment and isolation towards China. The US also imposed trade embargoes and travel restrictions on China, further limiting interaction between the two countries.

However, the geopolitical landscape shifted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Sino-Soviet split had led to a deterioration of relations between China and the Soviet Union, creating an opportunity for the US to engage with China as a potential counterweight to Soviet power. This was the context in which Kissinger’s Realpolitik policy emerged, leading to a significant shift in US-China relations.[24]

In summary, before Kissinger’s Realpolitik policy, U.S.-China relations were characterized by ideological conflict, limited interaction, and mutual isolation. However, changing geopolitical dynamics created a significant shift in these relations, paving the way for the Realpolitik approach.

Kissinger’s Realpolitik Approach

As a practitioner of realpolitik, Henry Kissinger understood the importance of maintaining peace with China through diplomatic engagement. His approach was based on recognising China’s growing influence and the strategic necessity of establishing a balance of power during the Cold War.[25]

In the early 1970s, the growing tensions between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), culminating in large-scale armed clashes in 1969, prompted Mao Zedong to reassess key aspects of Chinese foreign policy, including relations with the PRC’s erstwhile “number one enemy,” the United States.[26] Mao found a receptive audience in Washington, DC, where President Richard Nixon and his chief assistant on national security affairs, Henry Kissinger, believed that Chinese mediation with the North Vietnamese would greatly facilitate the task of achieving a settlement.[27]

Kissinger managed to bring a conservative like Richard Nixon to talk friendly with a communist like Mao by leveraging the geopolitical realities of the time. Nixon, who had come to office in 1969 pledging to end US involvement in Vietnam on acceptable terms, saw the potential benefits of engaging with China. Kissinger facilitated this process through a series of public signals and secret contacts that led to the resumption of US-Chinese ambassadorial talks and the advent of “ping-pong diplomacy”. [28]

These back-channel negotiations eventually resulted in Kissinger’s secret visit to the PRC in July 1971 and his public visit three months later, paving the way for Nixon’s own highly celebrated trip to China in February 1972. The signing of the Shanghai Communiqué at the end of Nixon’s visit symbolized the breakthrough in Sino-American relations. [29]

In summary, Kissinger’s realpolitik approach, combined with the geopolitical realities of the time, allowed him to convince Nixon of the strategic necessity of engaging with China. This led to a significant shift in US foreign policy and marked a new era in Sino-American relations.

Renewing with Realpolitik

From a Realpolitik perspective, it could indeed be argued that it would be more beneficial for the US to maintain friendly relations with China rather than adopting an aggressive stance. This perspective, which emphasizes practical considerations over ideological ones, suggests that fostering cooperation and mutual benefits could lead to more stable international relations.

Several factors have influenced US policy shifting towards China from friendly to aggressive. The US-China relationship has been strained by issues such as trade imbalances, allegations of intellectual property theft, and differing views on human rights and democracy.[30] The Trump administration’s approach was characterised by a trade war and increased scrutiny of Chinese involvement in the US technology and education sectors. [31]The Biden administration has not significantly reversed these policies, indicating a bipartisan consensus on the need for a tougher stance on China.[32]

However, the aggressive approach has its drawbacks. The deterioration of US-China relations has had global implications, affecting the two countries and the rest of the world.[33] The ongoing decoupling in technology and education between the US and China could disrupt commercial and scientific bonds built over the years.[34]

From a Realpolitik perspective, it could be more beneficial to engage China in areas of mutual interest, such as climate change, global health, and nuclear non-proliferation, while managing disagreements to prevent escalation. This approach could help to maintain global stability and promote cooperation on shared challenges.

Moreover, the rise of China as a global power suggests that it could be more advantageous for the US to engage with China rather than attempt to contain it. As the case of Myanmar shows, countries that maintain friendly relations with China can benefit from its economic development projects and strategic location.[35] Similarly, the US could benefit from China’s abundant water resources, which are strategically important in the 21st century.[36]

Key Findings and Practical Implications

  • The paper highlighted the importance of understanding the nationalist narrative in China and the potential popular support for reunification with Taiwan, which has practical implications for foreign policy decisions involving China.
  • It raised the question of whether the American people would support sacrificing their children for a foreign island far from their shores, suggesting that any US president considering confrontation with China over Taiwan may face challenges in garnering domestic support. This has practical implications for US policymakers in assessing such actions’ potential costs and benefits.
  • The paper argued that the USA would gain more from adopting a Realpolitik approach rather than pursuing delusions of grandeur, drawing on the failures of US wars in recent history. This implies that a pragmatic and realistic foreign policy approach could benefit the US in its relations with China.
  • Analysing China’s claims and US policy provides insights into the ongoing tensions between Beijing and Taipei, particularly in Taiwan’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. This has practical implications for policymakers in both China and the US in managing and navigating these tensions.

In conclusion, while valid concerns drive the US’s more aggressive stance towards China, a Realpolitik perspective suggests that a more cooperative approach could yield better results for both countries and the global community. This approach would require careful management of disagreements and focusing on areas of mutual interest.

References

[1] Trejaut JA, Poloni ES, Yen JC, Lai YH, Loo JH, Lee CL, He CL, Lin M. Taiwan Y-chromosomal DNA variation and its relationship with Island Southeast Asia. BMC Genet. 2014 Jun 26;15:77. doi: 10.1186/1471-2156-15-77. PMID: 24965575; PMCID: PMC4083334.

[2] Teng, Emma J.. “Taiwan and Modern China.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History (2019).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Guodong, Xu and Xu Guodong. “AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STRUCTURES OF THREE MAJOR CIVIL CODE PROJECTS IN NOWADAYS CHINA.” (2006).

[5] Feng, Dingxiong and Binbin Li. “Periphery and Forefront: The Evolution of the Status of Coastal Areas and Territorial Seas in Ancient Zhoushan Islands.” Journal of Marine and Island Cultures (2022).

[6] Zhang, Rongxuan. “Impact of Climate Change on Ancient Chinese Dynasties.” Highlights in Science, Engineering and Technology (2023).

[7] Koo, Do-young. ““Petticoat Fever” Driven by Chosŏn Korea Garments: Exploring a “fad” in Early Ming China and Its Implications for Regional Interactions between the Chosŏn and Ming Dynasties.” International Journal of Korean History (2022).

[8] Berg, Victor. “Sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.” (2014).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Skeldon, Ronald. “Migration from China.” Journal of International Affairs 49 (1996): 434.

[11] Berg. (2014), op. Cit.

[12] 염복규. “[논문] 1910년대 일제의 태형제도 시행과 운용.” (2004): {https://api.semanticscholar.org/CorpusID:143054075}

[13] Wai-Chung, Ho. “The Politics of Implementing Local Cultures in Music Education in Taiwan.” (2008).

[14] 楊玉媚. “長榮女子中學發展史-從1879-1979.” (2009): {https://api.semanticscholar.org/CorpusID:209157013}

[15] Ho, Wai Chung. “The Politics of Implementing Local Cultures in Music Education in Taiwan.” (2006).

[16] Suwandy, Dhanico, Triesanto Romulo Simanjuntak and Roberto Octavianus Cornelis Seba. “HUBUNGAN LINTAS SELAT TAIWAN DAN TIONGKOK TERKAIT KETERGANTUNGAN DAGANG PADA PEMERINTAHAN TSAI ING-WEN.” BHUVANA: Journal of Global Studies (2023).

[17] Fadeeva, Inna A.. “Peculiarities of Relations between China and Taiwan: History of the Issue and Modern Traditions (Economic Aspect).” Теория и практика общественного развития (2023).

[18] Lyu, Zhaojin and Haiyan Zhou. “Contesting Master Narratives: Renderings of National History by Mainland China and Taiwan.” The China Quarterly 255 (2023): 768 – 784.

[19] Huang, Max Ko-wu. “The Dilemmas of Becoming Chinese in Taiwan.” China Review 23 (2023): 149 – 164.

[20] Bai, Ying and Tao Chen. “A Look at the Architectural Cultural Exchange Between East and West During the Yuan and Ming Dynasties from the Brick-Vaulted Bathroom Outside Nanjing’s Zhonghua Gate – A Secondary Publication.” Journal of Chinese Architecture and Urbanism (2021).

[21] Yun, Chen. “Chinese Medicine Cultural Exchanges between Fujian and Taiwan in the Late Qing Dynasty.” Journal of Yichun College (2012).

[22] Huang, Max Ko-wu. “The Dilemmas of Becoming Chinese in Taiwan.” China Review 23 (2023): 149 – 164.

[23] Chiu, Hung-Ju, Ping Chao Lee and Ren-Shiang Jiang. “Should it be “Chinese Taipei” or “Taiwan”? A strategic relations analysis of name rectification referendum for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.” Sport in Society 24 (2021): 2159 – 2183. Equally important is the Russian version about the Taiwan question: Belchenko, A S, Бельченко Андрей Станиславович, Maya G. Novoselova and Новоселова Майя Георгиевна. “The reaction of the Chinese Government to Soviet Diplomatic Efforts to Resolve the Taiwan Question, 1949-1985.” RUDN Journal of Russian History 19 (2020): 418-437.

[24] Wang, Yutong. “A Moment in the History of Realpolitik Diplomacy in the Light of the 1972 Shanghai Communique.” BCP Education & Psychology (2022).

[25] Kislenko, A. S.. “Book Review: China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy.” China Information 19 (2005): 339 – 342. See also: Min, Kyung‐tae. “Navigating Geopolitical Change in Northeast Asia: A Realist Approach to Analyze the Matrix Scenario of US‐China Conflict and US–North Korea Relations.” Pacific Focus (2023).

[26] Tomkins, Alan J.. “Editor’s Note.” Journal of Cold War Studies 8 (2006): 1-2.

[27] Kramer, Mark A.. “Editor’s Note.” Journal of Cold War Studies 8 (2006): 1 – 2.

[28] Tomkin, Kramer (2006), op.Cit.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Lee, Pei May and Nina Nurasyekin Zulkefli. “US-CHINA RELATIONS: TRADE WAR AND THE QUEST FOR GLOBAL HEGEMONY.” Journal of International Studies (2021).

[31] Tang, Li, Cong Cao, Zheng Wang and Zhuo Zhou. “Decoupling in science and education: A collateral damage beyond deteriorating US–China relations.” Science and Public Policy (2021).

[32] Ibid.

[33] Tang, et Al (2021), op.Cit.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ahamed, Akkas, M. Jahangir Alam Chowdhury and Sayedur Rahman. “Bangladesh-Myanmar Border Relations: A Study of Some Geopolitical and Economic Issues.” European Scientific Journal ESJ (2020).

[36] Jun-yu, Han. “An Economical,Strategic Reflection on the Exploitation of Water Resources in Tibet——The Problem and Solution of China’s Water Resources in the 21st Century.” Journal of Shanghai University (2011).

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