Since the new Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen took office this May, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has not changed its Taiwan policy in any substantial way. China still keeps pressuring Tsai to accept the so-called “92 Consensus” — that Taiwan is part of China.
For policymakers, this is not surprising because unifying with Taiwan has long been the core of China’s policy towards Taiwan since 1949. Such policy consistency however, is intriguing for academic researchers because one key assumption on international relations widely held by scholars is that the change of power structure of the international system would change states’ interests, which in turn would change the states’ behaviour.
Change, rather than consistency, is the norm for international relations from a long-term perspective. However, it seems China’s sovereignty claim over Taiwan does not fit this norm. China’s sovereignty claim over Taiwan has not changed from 1949.
This is due to China’s growing rivalry with the United States. After receiving Taiwan from Japan in 1945, the Republic of China government with the help of the Americans and Japanese used Taiwan as a logistical base to support the Chinese civil war. This made China realise the possible US threat from the island.
March 15, 1949, was the very first date China officially gave Taiwan geopolitical value. The People’s Daily indicated, “US imperialism’s colonisation rule, which was through its lackey the Kuomintang reactionaries in China, is about to extinct so the US is eager to directly take a piece of territory from China — Taiwan — as its future military springboard to invade mainland China.”
It implied this offshore island is an important geopolitical buffer shielding China’s coastal provinces from potential US military threat in terms of defending the Chinese mainland. In other words, bringing Taiwan into China’s control means cutting off the future possible route of US threat.
As a result of this geopolitical imperative, China’s policy on Taiwan changed from “Taiwan should be independent” to “Taiwan has been part of China since ancient time.” (Note: Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai supported Taiwan independence before 1942).
More importantly, a pattern keeps repeating is: whenever China’s rivalry with the US heats up, China’s sense of losing Taiwan as a buffer against the US would be intensified, and this geopolitical worry then would push China to take military action towards Taiwan to secure this buffer in advance. This buffer thinking towards Taiwan triggered three military actions by China in 1954, 1958, and 1996 respectively.
Certainly, with regard to China’s long-held sovereignty, there are other explanations out there.
One is history determinism — the Chinese government has a strong belief that the past of a piece of land determines the future of the piece of land. The Qing Empire ceded Taiwan to the Japanese Empire under the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. To China, taking this lost island back symbolises the end of a century of humiliation.
The problem with this argument, however, is that China has given up many territories owned by the Qing Empire, such as Manchuria, Outer Mongolia, Tuva, McMahon Line, Nankan, Guogan, Jiangxinpo, and even a group of islands in the South China Sea called Natuna. The size of Taiwan is less than one percent of the territories PRC China has given up in total. Besides, Taiwan is not Jerusalem or Paektu Mountain that has sacred religious meaning attached on it.
The other explanation is Chinese nationalism — the Chinese people constrains the liberty of the Chinese government on this issue. Because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have long educated the Chinese people that one of its historical missions the Party would complete is unifying with Taiwan; the Chinese people would question the legitimacy of the CCP regime greatly if it gives up this promise.
In truth, the majority of ordinary Chinese people care more about social issues than complex sovereignty issues. The quality of living conditions and corruption problems were issues that drew the Chinese to the streets. The expected angry, disappointed crowds did not appear when China gave up above-mentioned territories.
And on what basis can we assume the Chinese government would sit idly if that happens? In fact, in April 2016, the CCP’s Office of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs harshly criticised an online survey about militarily unifying with Taiwan – conducted by the Global Times and Shanghai Academy of Social Science – as seriously violating the discipline.
Here is not to argue the two explanations are both wrong but to provide a new thinking on an old question. If the key reason to explain China’s long-held sovereignty claim over Taiwan lie more in where and less in what Taiwan is, then maybe it is time to use buffer thinking to rethink China’s relations with other geopolitical buffer states around its periphery.
Yu-Hua Chen is a PhD Candidate at the School of Culture, History and Language. His research is on China’s foreign and security policy.