Geopolitical Notes From India
M D Nalapat
TAIWAN is a very valuable geopolitical partner. Although relatively small in size, the island hosts a hi- tech sector that is among the world’s biggest and best. Its location makes hostile possession a severe disadvantage to either (Mainland) China or Japan. More than being a floating aircraft carrier (hyper-expensive platforms that are vulnerable to missile attack from afar), Taiwan could be a frontline entity in the cyber dimension of conflict, especially given its domestic pool of highly competent Information Technology professionals. Close to its shores is almost the entire eastern seaboard of the Peoples Republic of China, the sliver of land which is home to nearly two-thirds of the PRC’s economic heft. While the government in Beijing certainly has the potential to degrade or otherwise destroy much of the island’s territory, doing so would risk retaliation on a scale that would set back the Chinese economy for decades. This is the reason why it is unlikely that Beijing would resort to military force to absorb the island, for doing so would throw into penury tens of millions of families across both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Of course, should any future government in Taipei move away from ambiguity and declare the island independent, there would be no choice left to the Chinese leadership but to resort to force in order to maintain its prestige within its own 1.3 billion population. Doing nothing after a declaration of independence by Taiwan, such as what is openly the preference of Prime Minister William Lai in Taipei, would affect the “Mandate of Heaven”, otherwise known as public sentiment towards the government of the day. Given his firm style of leadership, it is certain that Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping would resort to force in order to “persuade” the Taiwanese authorities to roll back any declaration of independence, such as through a referendum on the subject.
Of course, given the certainty of war with Mainland China in the event of a “Yes” vote in a referendum on formal independence, it is almost certain that the pragmatic people on the island would reject such a proposition. Very recently, they even rejected a proposal to rename the international sporting delegation from the island as coming from Taiwan, rather than the more anodyne (to Beijing) “Chinese Taipei” Had the name been changed, Taiwanese athletes would have been able to watch almost all international tournaments by television rather than participate, and this was reason enough for Taiwanese voters to reject any change of name, despite the fact that only a diminishing number of citizens on the island presently favour unification with Mainland China.
President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan has faced down pressure from more adventurous members of her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to maintain the status quo. She has publicly stood by the Constitution, which indeed is unitary in nature by assuming that both sides of the Strait are united. She has also signalled that she will not roll back the numerous linkages with Mainland China that were instituted by her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou. However, Beijing has insisted that Tsai publicly affirm her commitment to “One China” ie a construct that includes Taiwan. Should this be done, there would be a revolt against Tsai within the DPP, a Party that functions as a collection of NGOs, often battling against and belittling the views of others openly, as indeed is not uncommon in a democracy, which Taiwan is.
Given the ire of the PRC against her Party and her leadership of Taiwan, President Tsai has been left with little option but to move closer to the US and Japan, the two countries (other than the Chinese mainland) in the vicinity of Taiwan that have substantial military assets which could discourage an attack by China on Taiwan. Especially since Donald J Trump became President of the United States, relations between Taiwan and the US have become strong and acquired a more overt security dimension. Apart from the US under Trump, another very large country situated close to the US has elected a leader who is close to Taipei but unfriendly to Beijing, whose name is Jair Bolsonaro. Of course, given the importance of China to the Brazilian economy, it is unlikely that Bolsonaro would damage relations between Buenos Aires and Washington, especially commercial ties. Brazil and China are after all both members of the 5-nation BRICS group. As for Japan, there was considerable disappointment amongst the usually Japan-friendly DPP cadres when Tokyo blocked the entry of Taiwan into a trading pact because the government in Taipei had refused to permit the import of foodstocks from the area around the Fukushima reactor.
This had come close to a meltdown as a consequence of the fury of nature, and the Shinzo Abe government was arguing for Taipei to lift its restrictions on import because of the success of the cleanup operation undertaken after the plant malfunctioned. Of course,the Tsai government could simply permit the import of such foodstuffs (the way almost every other country is doing) and leave it to individual importers and to consumers whether to purchase foodstuffs from the Fukushima area. It is next to certain that almost no importer would touch such stocks, but the responsibility for such a boycott would then fall upon private traders and consumers rather than the government in Taipei.
General Secretary Xi Jinping will need to maintain a delicate balance between the demand of his own military that a strong warning be sent to Taipei about Beijing’s determination to unify the two sides of the Strait by force if necessary. However, should such a warning be too strident, that would add to the popularity of Tsai Ing-wen, as in the past, warnings by Mainland China of a possible military confrontation have had the effect of raising the popularity of the DPP at the expense of the pro-Beijing KMT. Given the determination of Tsai Ing-wen to assert the reality of Taiwan functioning in an independent manner, it is likely that the coming period will continue to witness tension-filled periods. However, there is a very low probability that a hardline pro-”declaration of independence” would be able from within the DPP to replace Tsai as the Party candidate and win the 2020 Presidential election and follow up such a victory with a declaration of independence. Such a risky move would be contrary to the peace-loving nature of the Taiwanese people, a fact understood by President Tsai as she negotiates between a hostile Beijing and the hardline “ deep green” faction in her own Party that is unhappy with President Tsai for not provoking China beyond a safe zone of peace. Both sides of the Taiwan Strait benefit from peace and would be devastated by war.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.