The mini-storm in a tea cup over the telephone exchange of pleasantries between US President-Elect Donald Trump and Taiwan’s pro-independence party head of its government, TsaiIng-wen, is worth trying to unpack. This is not so much for this episode itself in terms of what it may portend for U.S.-China relations under the incoming new administration as much as may tell us about Beijing’s ‘One China’ conundrum. This pertains not just to Taiwan but to Hong Kong and Tibet as well. It may also carry wider implications for other BRICS countries and emerging powers on integrationist ‘national questions’ and those pertaining to regional integration.
Now, to be sure, what started out as a rattling of the tea cup between Taipei and Washington to the displeasure of Beijing could very well mutate into a more substantial conflict between China and the Trump administration. The Donald’s hardlinism on China is well known. Yet, in a very real sense, China’s Han ethno-imperialist compulsions concerning the ‘One China’ status of Hong Kong and Tibet as well as Taiwan lies at the root of its recurring controversies involving its perennially unresolved issues of these three Chinese entities.
As such, Beijing has only itself to blame for the contretemps occasionally arising over these contested ‘provinces’ either due to their respective political dynamics of tension with it or due to external developments like that involving Trump. But by the same token, blame must be shared by respective opposition leaderships on Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong for equal lack of vision in how to negotiate ‘One China’ accommodations with China’s ruling communist party. The problem between Beijing and these three revolves around the issue of ‘autonomy’ and how Chinese leaders and the oppositional leaders in these three ‘provinces’ continue talking past each other on the issue of ‘autonomy,’ how it is defined and proposed as a means of reconciling this with ‘One China.’
Assuming, especially in Taiwan’s case, that the last thing China wants to do is invade the island and engage it militarily in settling its status through military means, especially during the Trump presidency, the standoff between Beijing and Taipei will continue unabated indefinitely into the future. This is likely irrespective of who rules Taiwan. Uppermost in China’s calculus is stability under pain that any destabilizing occurrences in and around its periphery could portend an existential threat to China’s internal stability. Of course, in the case of Tibet and Hong Kong, Beijing’s resort to outright repression fits the bill against what it perceives as ‘splittist’ threats to China’s stability and territorial integrity from these two. Not so with Taiwan which enjoys full political and military territorial control over the island.
Beijing seems resigned to respecting this reality in spite of its overwhelming military preponderance enabling it to do a Goa on the island as India did in bringing an end to Portuguese colonialism in 1961 or as when it detached Bangladesh from Pakistan. In spite of Trump’s rhetorical belligerence regarding China, it is not a forgone conclusion that Washington would risk outright war with China over Taiwan, irrespective of US guarantees making Taiwan an American protectorate. Indeed, Beijing’s preferred strategy seems to involve a long game of cross-strait economic integration and demographic encroachment.
Still, Beijing and Taipei could politically end the standoff over-night were there to be a mutual understanding on ‘cultural’ as opposed to territorial or regional autonomy as the basis of cross-strait political integration into a ‘One China’ solution. Territory would not come into it. Beijing could recognize the geographically separated autonomous political culture of Taiwan as the basis of a ‘One China two systems’ federation underpinned by a cross-strait non-aggression pact: One China-Taiwan Democracy.
In other words, room may ultimately have to be made for incorporating Taiwanese nationalism and its democratic character within an economically integrated ‘One China.’ Otherwise, only through combined military force and subversive coercion would China overturn Taiwan’s entrenched political system. Not sure Beijing wants this though it will hold out the threat.
If Beijing and Taipei could come to such an understanding, the same pacification formula could stabilize the Beijing-Hong Kong relationship and possibly serve as a basis for revisiting the status of Tibet. Variations along this democratic cultural pluralist theme of internal and regional integration applies to other members of BRICS. In South Africa’s case, the political integration of the Southern African Customs Union into a federated Southern African Community Union.