In recent days, Lien Chan the current leader of the KMT, the Nationalist Party driven out of Mainland China by the Communists in 1949, and James Soong, the leader of Taiwan’s smaller opposition People First Party, have been making unprecedented official visits to the Mainland of China. In Mr. Lien’s case it is his first return to Mainland China since his family fled to Taiwan 56 years ago. This was followed by the Taiwan president, Chen Shuibian inviting his Chinese counterpart to visit the country and Beijing offering a gift of two pandas to Taiwan as a gesture of good will. But unfortunately all this is not indicative of progress toward reconciliation between the two sides.
The invitation to President Hu Jintao of China was accompanied by a statement from President Chen in which he said: "I hope Hu can come to see for himself whether Taiwan is a sovereign, independent country, and what our 23 million people have in mind." For its part the Chinese Government responded that there would be no official contact between them and the Taiwan authorities until the Taiwanese ruling party drops a clause in its constitution calling for formal independence. President Hu is unlikely to visit Taiwan any time soon.
Tensions over Taiwan have mounted since this past March when China’s National People’s Congress passed a law in giving its military the legal basis to invade Taiwan if it moves towards declaring formal independence. Soon after, the US and Japan completed a treaty pledging to mutually cooperate to defend the sovereignty of Taiwan if China seeks to re-take Taiwan by force.
While 50 years ago the conflict between the Mainland and Taiwan was based on a disagreement over whether China was better off ruled by a Communist Party regime based on Marxist ideology led by Mao Zedong, or better off ruled by the U.S.-backed KMT’s “Free China” under Chiang Kai-Shek. But today the China-Taiwan dynamic is not about competing political ideologies in the context of Cold War rivalry. It has changed to something even more serious --- a conflict of ethnic identities underlying competing national claims for the same island territory. The Mainland sees Taiwan as a renegade Chinese province. The Taiwan independentists claim to the contrary that Taiwan was never a part of China but only a protectorate of China for a brief period in the 19th century before Taiwan became a Japanese colony in 1895. It is this latter version of history that is taught in Taiwan’s schools today.
Taiwan's president has invited China to begin peace talks “under the principles of democracy, peace and parity.” But from the Mainland point of view parity is out of the question and that any talks should be focussed on the terms of Taiwan’s peaceful reversion to Chinese sovereignty. Unfortunately there is no common ground to be found between the two mutually incompatible Chinese and Taiwanese identities for people living in Taiwan. To smooth things along, China has offered to allow more favourable terms for Taiwan export of fruits and vegetables to the Mainland and to allow more Mainland tourists to visit Taiwan, but these measures are likely to be no more effective than Canada’s federal government’s attempts to appease Quebec sovereigntists by devolving authority over manpower training to the provinces. Disputes based on of ethnic identity typically end very badly as they unleash irrational and destructive passions: think Ireland, Yugoslavia, Rwanda.
From a realist perspective because Taiwan has only 1/60 of the population of the Mainland and because China is so important to the U.S. today and increasingly so, chances are if the Mainland decides to re-take Taiwan by force, the U.S. in the final analysis will not see it in U.S. interests to become involved. Let us hope so anyway as the wheels of change are already turning in East Asia and the mood in China is to reassert its authority in the region and certainly the first step is to bring Taiwan “back into the embrace of the Motherland.” China will also surely take measures to encourage the other neighbours, Japan and South Korea, to withdraw from the U.S. orbit of influence in East Asia. Probably the U.S. military garrisons in Japan and South Korea’s days are already numbered. But the question really is will the U.S. withdraw quietly or will China’s challenge to the U.S.’s role in East Asia lead to yet another terrible war in the region.