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The criticisms of Beijing’s alleged island-grabbing activities in the South China Sea overlook what some would see as the biggest island-grab of them all — the United States’ move in June 1950 to put the Chinese island of Taiwan under its wing.

On Jan. 5, 1950, shortly after the Republic of China (ROC) government under Chiang Kai-shek, had fled to Taiwan following its defeat by communist forces on the Chinese mainland, U.S. President Truman issued the following statement: “The United States government will not pursue a course which will lead to involvement in the civil conflict in China.”

In other words, the U.S. would not oppose Beijing’s effort to conclude its civil war with the ROC by attacking and taking over Taiwan, then seen as belonging to China.

But then just five months later, on June 27, 1950, Truman reversed himself: “I have ordered the 7th Fleet to prevent any attack on Formosa (Taiwan).”

Taiwan has remained a U.S. semi-protectorate ever since, even though the U.S., like all other nations recognizing Beijing, has had to state that it sees Taiwan as part of China.

Washington’s policy switch over Taiwan was remarkable, even if understandable. June 25, 1950, marks the outbreak of the Korean War. In the context of the Cold War a move to keep Taiwan out of communist hands was probably inevitable.

But Beijing would not want to see things in that light. It had done nothing to create the Cold War. One result of the U.S. move was that the regime had to abruptly stop its efforts to move troops into southern China for the attack on Taiwan that Truman had indirectly approved only five months earlier.

True, thanks to this policy switch Taiwan was to enjoy the spectacular economic development denied to mainland Chinese for the next four decades. It was to be spared the insanity of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution policies that Beijing was to impose on its own citizens during many of those years.

But it was also to lead to the instability that has dogged East Asia for more than half a century. Beijing’s initial hope for normal relations with the U.S. disappeared when it found it had no choice but to enter the Korean War to keep U.S. troops away from it borders. U.S. encouragement through the ’50s for ROC guerrilla attacks in mainland China led Beijing twice, in 1954 and 1958, to attack ROC-held islands close to the mainland coast. These attacks led to U.S. threats of nuclear retaliation which, my research says, led Moscow in 1959 to cancel its promise of nuclear development aid to Beijing. This in turn led to Beijing’s protracted ideological dispute with Moscow, which in turn led many in the West to see the Chinese as the “bad communists” and the Vietnam civil war of the 1960s as Chinese aggression that had to be stopped by U.S. intervention (in 1964 I was sole witness to a bizarre top-level Kremlin meeting where an Australian foreign minister, acting on behalf of the U.S., tried to persuade the “good communists” in Moscow to join the West in Vietnam to stop that Chinese “aggression.” One wonders what they say in Canberra today.)

Throughout all this period the existence of a Taiwan government claiming the right to represent China internationally remained a top foreign policy obsession for Beijing.

Today, thanks to the pingpong diplomacy initiatives by former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in the early ’70s (in which as a correspondent for an Australian newspaper I played a small role, over Canberra’s opposition), China has finally opened to the West, the U.S. has finally accepted that the ROC should not attack China, and talk of Taiwan independence from China has finally died down. Beijing in turn goes out of its way to be nice to Taiwan, threatening the use of force only when a Taiwan leader talks of independence from China. At all mainland ports of entrance Taiwanese are treated on the same basis as arrivals from Hong Kong and Macau. There are now around 1 million Taiwanese living, working and studying in China, and some 4 million mainland Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan annually. If these policies continue, Taiwan could serve as a model for how to end most civil wars, including Iraq and Syria: forced separation of the warring factions, followed by gradual reconciliation if and when the factions realize they are better off cooperating than fighting.

This is especially so in the case of Taiwan, where what unites is much less than what divides. Indeed, but for some rude and rapid moves by the U.S. in the early 1980s it is quite likely that under the rule of Chiang Kai-shek’s Soviet-educated son, Chiang Ching-kuo (1978-1988), some political reconciliation would have gone ahead long ago.

Contrary to much “black” anti-Beijing propaganda by the usual Western suspects (you can spot the guilty when a writer tells us that Beijing regards Taiwan as a “renegade” province — a term nonexistent in Chinese let alone in criticisms of Taiwan; see foreignpolicy.com), the Taiwanese population is almost as ethnically Han Chinese as is the mainland population. Many still speak the dialects of southern China; the so-called Taiwanese language is in fact the dialect of Fujian province, using the same ideographs and sometimes even the same pronunciations as standard Chinese. In any case successive regimes in Taiwan have gone out of their way to make sure all the younger generations are educated in Mandarin Chinese; you will hear better Mandarin in the streets of Taipei than in Beijing.

But that does not mean the younger generation is pro-Beijing. As time passes the cultural divide between the two widens. The older generation of refugees from the 1949 pro-communist revolution hankering for a return to the mainland is dying out. Younger Taiwanese like their separate identity and Western-style freedoms even if they miss out on the dynamism of today’s mainland China.

Japan now seems about to join the Taiwan-Mainland China imbroglio. The ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party in the ROC government that Taiwan inherited from civil war days, and which in recent years has moved from being violently anti-Beiing to passively pro-Beijing, has now lost power to the more independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party under Tsai Ing-wen. So far Tsai has declined to confirm the so-called 1992 consensus under which the KMT recognized that there was only one China and both sides should move to reconciliation. Beijing has reacted angrily by saying it will cut off communications channels. A return to an earlier era of confrontation is possible. The appointment of senior Japanese-speaking officials to handle relations with Japan and its moves to ease territorial tensions with Tokyo is also significant.

Pro-Taiwan independence people often point to the U.S.-brokered wording of the 1952 ROC peace treaty with Tokyo — that Japan did no more than give up its territorial rights to Taiwan (and the Spratly and Paracel islands also now in ownership dispute). As with Japan’s Kuril Islands renunciation clause in the 1952 San Francisco peace treaty with the Allies, there was no mention of to whom Japan was supposed to pass on the territory it was giving up. If Tokyo was to repeat its Northern Territories performance and begin, like the Taiwan pro-independence people, to insist that ownership of Taiwan has yet to be decided, Tokyo-Beijing hostility would enter a new phase. Already there are some in Japan who like to think along those lines.

Gregory Clark is a Chinese-speaking former Australian diplomat who has visited Taiwan frequently. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net .

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