Taiwan, Trump & future
In two years’ time China will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic. After a protracted and very bloody civil war Mao Zedong could finally declare victory. The Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek had been defeated and forced to quit the mainland and establish their last redoubt on the island of Taiwan. At first many believed that it would only be a question of time before the mighty People’s Liberation Army would occupy the island and reunite the whole of China. But history took a different turn.
Soon after World War II the Cold War started with the bitter rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Particularly the outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula enhanced the fear that a communist alliance between Moscow and Beijing was threatening vital western security interests. Chiang Kai-shek, after the flight from mainland China, continued to claim leadership of the Republic of China, which was to occupy China’s seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
In 1972 things took a dramatic turn, when president Nixon made his historic visit to China. Seven years later the United States switched from recognising Taipei as official China to Beijing. From then on the People’s Republic was permanent member of the UN Security Council and Taiwan was pushed into ever more international isolation. Today some 20 states keep official diplomatic relations with the island, most of them minor states in the Americas. As an insurance against a precipitant Chinese attack on the island, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 commits the United States to intervene militarily in case of a Chinese attack or invasion of Taiwan.

While on the international scene Taiwan became marginalised and even ostracised, the island republic undertook successful political reforms. Today Taiwan can claim to have one of best functioning and vibrant democracies in Asia. The internal political developments in Taiwan deserve particular attention as they provide ample proof that there is no “genetic” or cultural barrier that prevents Chinese from having a liberal democracy as well as the rule of law. In fact after last year’s presidential election Taiwan not only had another peaceful and successful transfer of power it also chose a woman, Tsai Ing-wen, as its new president.
The successful political modernisation of Taiwan is remarkable because the country started out from a very rigid system. Under Chiang Kai-shek the Taiwanese had to endure a harsh dictatorship, which only in the 1980s, long after the death of the Generalissimo in 1975 made place for a step-by-step opening up of the political system. Today the Taiwanese enjoy full freedom and can be proud to have one of the most successful democracies in the world. Repeatedly power on the national and local level has alternated between the Kuomintang (KMT), the party founded by the father of the Republic of China, Dr Sun Yat-sen, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that emerged from a civic movement.
Like the Communist Party of China (CPC), the KMT also has claims on an undivided, united China. The DPP on the other hand is to a significant extent the party of the Taiwanese, who live since several generations on the island and did not come from the mainland. Many of the DPP supporters have no desire to unite with the mainland even in the unlikely event that it evolves into a functioning democracy with the full respect for civil rights and the rule of law.
On the other hand, for the leadership in Beijing the idea of a separate, fully sovereign republic Taiwan is totally unacceptable. The People’s Republic is willing to provide Taiwan a special status, with more autonomy than has been granted to the former British colony of Hong Kong. Beyond that there is no willingness for any concession on the issue of an undivided Chinese sovereignty.
It came, therefore, as a great shock that the newly elected American president Donald Trump accepted a phone conversation with the president of Taiwan. Even more provocative was the announcement that Trump would consider the American attitude towards Taiwan as an issue of completely sovereign American policy decisions. Washington might take into consideration Chinese sensitivities if it gets something in return, especially in the field of trade concessions, Trump told the Chinese leadership in no uncertain terms that the one China policy is not a “holy cow”.

Everybody expects that for the forthcoming years the Sino-US relations will be very difficult and might provide a lot of tension both in Asia and beyond. Washington must, however, be aware of one thing. While on many fronts Chinese leaders might be willing or even obliged to make concessions, the issue of one China is non-negotiable. However powerful president Xi Jinping might be, on this issue he has no leeway. If China should lose face in the Taiwan issue it is either war or the end of Xi. No price is too high to preserve the principle of one China. Not only Trump but also Taiwanese president Tsai will have to tread a cautious course and carefully avoid many pitfalls that could lead to an uncontrollable escalation of tension and eventually even military conflict.
The writer is far east correspondent, Neue Zurcher Zeitung in ­Tokyo
Urs Schoettli