THE END OF ‘ONE CHINA’?

Wall Street Journal on November 13, 2015, commented on the historic surprise meeting between Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou and the present communist leader of China, Xi Jinping. Excerpts below:

The unification of China and Taiwan has been the sacred mission of every Communist leader since Mao, including the current president, Xi Jinping. And though the idea of “One China” today commands virtually no popular support on Taiwan, which prizes its fledgling democracy, it nevertheless clings to life as a legacy within the Kuomintang, the party of the country’s current president, Ma Ying-jeou.

Not for much longer, though. As the political heirs of China’s wartime foes reached out for a historic handshake in a five-star Singapore tourist hotel, both men surely understood that “One China” as a common goal is now as good as dead.

Mr. Ma is a lame duck, nearing the end of two terms in office. His signature policy of economic opening to China has been spurned by angry young Taiwanese who stormed the legislature last year to block a trade bill.

Mr. Xi is impatient. The Taiwan question, he has said, “cannot be passed from generation to generation.” China had hoped that closer economic integration would hasten a political deal, but it hasn’t. Rather, it has made Taiwan’s 23 million people even more wary of falling under China’s authoritarian sway.

The U.S., Taiwan’s main military backer, is watching anxiously; China’s coastline bristles with rockets pointed at the island. Taiwan is the one festering problem that could realistically bring the U.S. and Chinese superpowers to war. Such a clash would be, as a recent Rand Corp. study noted, a “short, sharp and probably desperate affair.” Nuclear escalation couldn’t be ruled out, which is why, in part, the U.S. doesn’t explicitly guarantee Taiwan’s security. Would an American president ever risk Los Angeles for Taipei? Washington maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity.”

Mr. Xi [might have been] polishing his credentials as a global statesman with a final flourish after being feted by President Barack Obama in the White House, dining with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace and patching up ties with old foe Vietnam.

But there is another possible explanation. Maybe—just maybe—Mr. Xi designed his meeting with Mr. Ma as an icebreaker, a way to start regularizing top-level contacts…That would be a game-changer.

Such a shift might also reverberate among the Chinese population. Taiwan, after all, provides a democratic alternative for the Chinese-speaking world.

By agreeing to engage with Taiwanese leaders without the principle of “One China,” Mr. Xi would be acknowledging the values that Taiwan holds dear: its political pluralism, cultural diversity and everyday civility. These are qualities that millions of Chinese tourists who flock to Taiwan each year often remark upon—the qualities of a prosperous postindustrial society that is largely at peace with itself, if not with its giant neighbor.

Democracy has handcuffed the ability of any Taiwan leader to bargain with Beijing, although the Taiwanese certainly want friendly relations.

No less important, while most of the island’s residents are Han Chinese descendants of immigrants from the mainland, they have come to identify with Taiwan as their home. They have grown immune to ethnic appeals for national unity of the sort used by Mr. Xi in Singapore, where he said: “We are brothers still connected by our flesh even if our bones are broken.”

…the date that matters most to many Taiwanese isn’t 1949, when the Kuomintang began its exile, but 1945. That is the year that the Kuomintang, then the governing power in China, took over the island of Taiwan from Japan at the end of World War II.

The Japanese had ruled Taiwan as a colony for 50 years—and, by and large, had ruled it well.

The people of Taiwan, writes the China scholar Donald Rodgers, a professor at Austin College, “have no desire to unify with China—ever.” For them, relations with the mainland have reached a turning point. Increasingly, they reject the assumption that the “Taiwan question” is a family squabble among the Chinese. Instead, they see it as a political tug of war between two sovereign equals.

For the Taiwanese, it is unthinkable that they would allow soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army to be stationed on the island, as they now are in downtown Hong Kong. The alternative way that Chinese troops could get to Taiwan—an amphibious military landing, backed by air and missile strikes—is almost equally unimaginable, at least for now.

…to avoid any suggestion that the Singapore meeting was a state-to-state encounter, the two men addressed each other as plain “mister” rather than as “president.” And when Chinese state TV broadcast Mr. Ma’s news conference before he left for Singapore, it blacked out the tiny Taiwan flag he was wearing as a lapel pin.

The turbulent history of relations between the Communists and the Kuomintang suggests that we should expect wrenching twists and turns as China and Taiwan try to figure out a way to resolve the impasse. Consider the moment back in 1936 when one of Chiang’s own generals kidnapped him in the city of Xi’an and held him captive until he agreed to end civil-war hostilities against the Communists and collaborate with Mao’s forces against the Japanese invaders.

The so-called Xi’an incident altered Asia’s destiny: The Kuomintang’s armies fought most of the big battles against the Japanese, pinning down more than a million enemy troops who might otherwise have been deployed elsewhere, and hastening the end of the Pacific War. Meanwhile, the Communists husbanded their forces to be ready to renew the civil war.

Comment: Naturally ‘One China’ is an option. It is the possibility that democracy will come to all of China. Totalitarian regimes like the one on mainland China are prone to collapse. Most likely that collapse will come in the future. That will open the road to Chinese democracy.

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