Playing the Taiwan Card

Sun Tzu was a Chinese legendary military General, who lived in ancient China. He is widely recognized even today for his military strategies and thoughts on statesmanship and diplomacy. In one of his writings, he explains in-depth, what exactly is diplomacy and why it is so important and in some cases, a substitute to armed invasion and rebellion. He believed that the superior form of winning was by refraining from fighting. In his own words, “…The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” (From the book ‘The Art of War’) The recent developments in the East Asian region point to the fact that Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) knows and follows exactly what Sun Tzu said several centuries ago. China has been fighting a ‘war’ with Taiwan for nearly 70 years and it still continues. Separated in 1949 following the Communist victory in the Chinese mainland and the end of the civil war, Taiwan has been an area of contention between China and various other nations. While both Taiwan and China recognize each other as a part of a ‘single nation’, the dispute arises over who can claim the legitimacy and tradition of China. While Taiwan believes that it has the right to remain as the one and only China owing to the historical reasons, the mainland China or Communist China wants to be the legitimate torchbearer of the Chinese tradition. With both countries claiming for the Chinese identity, the tensions between the mainland and the island seems to continue in the coming years as well.

According to the ‘One China Principle’ maintained by China, Beijing does not maintain a diplomatic relations with countries that recognizes Taiwan as an independent nation. This means that, if a nation wants to open an embassy or consulate in Taiwan that would come at the cost of the relationship that they have with China. Considering the economic opportunities that Beijing can offer in today’s world scenario, only a few countries across the world recognises Taiwan as an independent nation; to be precise, with the recent development, 19 countries. While most of these countries are too small in terms of geography as well as trade to be a significant partner for Taiwan, they still give legitimacy to the claims made by Taiwan for a long period of time. Out of those 19, none of the countries are from Asia. While the majority of them are Latin American island nations, there is also the Vatican in the list. Considering the political charisma that the Holy See or the Vatican wields in the global polity, Vatican is the only powerful ally that Taiwan can boast of. However, even the support extended by the Vatican is trembling in the recent times. As the papacy is in favour of maintaining better relations with Beijing, Taiwan may lose the support of Vatican in the coming years. So is the case with the remaining 19 countries as well. Many of them are said to be in talks with China and are expected to shift their embassies from Taiwan to China in return of economic benefits and aids that China may offer.

Though the matter seems to be an internal issue of China, it has wider implications as one closely observe the matter. For China, Taiwan is not a mere ‘geographical trouble’ but a larger ‘ideological’ and ‘political’ question, which can even threaten the current one-party system and topple the government. Accepting the independence of Taiwan would be suicidal for mainland China, which is already facing difficult times owing to the secessionist movements in many parts of the country. A free Taiwan may inspire many Chinese to stand-up against the political oppression that they experience in their own polity. Beyond this political issue, Taiwan is also important for China as the island nation can easily block a large chunk of energy supplies (both oil and natural gas) that China imports from the Middle East for its domestic requirements. A majority of Chinese vessels makes use of the sea routes, in and around the sea adjacent to Taiwan, to facilitate its exports and imports.

One of the key takeaways for other countries, especially India, is that the Sino-Taiwan tension opens up a lot of diplomatic and strategic opportunities for India. Though this wouldn’t mean that India must directly engage with Taiwan, there are many ways through which the country can put China under pressure through Taiwan. For instance, the country may engage in talks to encourage trade so as to make the Chinese side more sensitive on an issue emerging from their own backyard. This would mean that the Chinese aggression across the Indo-China border will never ever happen as China would be more careful regarding its actions. This will send a strong message to the Beijing that, in the event of further Chinese aggression, India also do have a trump card in its pocket. It is for the same reason why the United States is often found to be wooing Taiwan; to protect its interests in the South China Sea. As a former diplomat once commented, “Diplomacy is the velvet glove that cloaks the fist of power.” Well, when Beijing ignores India’s repeated requests for peace and cooperation, Delhi needs some ‘velvet gloves’ like Taiwan to stop the Chinese aggression.

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