The US, China, and Taiwan: a New Great Game?

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Monday March 15, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

There are games and then there are games; some games are serious while others are just for fun. However, the real ones can be deadly, especially if they involve nations.

One such example served as backdrop for English author Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim; there he used “the Great Game” to describe the struggle between Great Britain and Russia over influence in central Asia. As this game played out, central Asia became a graveyard for many.

Today, another such game is developing, but this game is in East Asia and it could be called the Taiwan Game, or perhaps Great Game II. Its origin is questionable especially as the players have changed, but its implications remain vast. How and when did this geopolitical game start?

Some would say that the Taiwan game started when Japanese king Toyotomi Hideyoshi considered transitioning through Taiwan to invade China; he sent an ambassador to Taiwan’s “high mountain people” to seek safe passage in 1593. Unfortunately he found no single indigenous ruler to deal with on the island and so chose to go through Korea.

Others might say that it began when the Chinese Ming Emperor did not want Dutch traders in Penghu on China’s doorstep, and so in 1624 he suggested that the Dutch settle in nearby Taiwan and trade from there. That agreement began Taiwan’s experience with colonizers: Dutch, Spanish, fleeing Ming loyalists, pursuing Manchu Qing, the French etc.

However, I will suggest 1895 as the starting point of the Taiwan Game. That year, the Japanese took not only the Manchus controlled part of the island but also all of Taiwan as a prize in their war with the Manchus. Japan, thus became the first nation to control and rule the whole island of Taiwan. It was to be their “model colony.”

In the 1920s, the Taiwanese players expressed wishes for self-determination by seeking to elect their own representatives to the Japanese Diet; that wish would be granted in the early 1940s.

In 1935, Chiang Kai-shek sent representatives from China to partake in Japan’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of its model colony. However, in China, rebel Mao Zedong later told Edward Snow that he preferred Taiwan to be independent of Japan.

World War II followed with the Taiwanese fighting for Japan, and that began the modern era of the Taiwan Game. The US entered this game and in 1945 became the primary victor in the Pacific War; also entering were the Republic of China (ROC) with its new 1947 Constitution and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with its Constitution in 1949. In addition the UN was formed in 1945 giving many colonial people the right to self-determination.

In the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1952, Japan formally gave up its colony of Taiwan but the treaty never specified to whom it was to be given. The ROC with the approval of the US had been occupying it and unfortunately stripped Japan’s model colony of most of its resources to bolster its losing battle in China.

The PRC decided it wanted Taiwan since Chiang had fled there upon losing the Chinese Civil War. On the other hand, many Taiwanese wanted self-determination under the UN charter, especially after the ROC imposed a one-party state, White Terror and Martial Law on them.

In January 1950, the US, frustrated with the corruption of Chiang’s ROC, was ready to give up on it and him but then in June, the Korean War broke out and Mao and the PRC helped Communist North Korea. That changed everything.

And so while the US continued its support of the ROC in exile on Taiwan, its official position on Taiwan remained “undetermined”—a position that it still holds today. This position has led some groups like the Taiwan Civil Government to try and bring a case before the US Supreme Court to prove that Taiwan remains a protectorate of the US military.

In 1979, the US officially recognized that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) won the Chinese Civil War with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and was the legitimate ruler of China. It moved its embassy from Taipei to Beijing but it did not change its “undecided” position on Taiwan. However, in all future dealings it now used the name Taiwan for the island instead of ROC.

Throughout these years, the Taiwanese continued working constantly for their democratic freedom and finally achieved that goal in 1996 when with a multi-party system the people elected not only their legislators but also their president. The one-party state of the KMT was history.

What the Taiwanese failed to do, however, was to change the name of their nation and its constitution and that is what continues to muddy the waters. Ironically, by that leftover ROC Constitution, Taiwan technically can lay claim to all of China even if the Taiwanese people do not want it.

As a result, the Taiwan game took on a new level with multiple nuances of interpretation for the players. For many it now became a game of “let’s pretend” as well as “make believe” replete with accompanying convenient memes.

The PRC, whose flag has never flown over Taiwan, has remained most consistent in its game position; it insists that it will only play the game if everyone pretends to accept its “one China” principle, namely that Taiwan belongs to it at the end of the game. It has also threatened to declare war if Taiwan states the existing reality of its de facto independence.

It uses hackneyed memes like Taiwan is an “inalienable part of China” or “has been a part of China from time immemorial.” This PRC position is one that anyone with a sense of history scoffs at.

For Beijing, the advantages remain that this game playing allows it to mask its hegemony under the patriotic claim of “restoring the motherland” while at the same time it distracts its citizens from internal problems.

Anomalies of course exist in abundance. The greatest is Mongolia, which by PRC rules had qualified as an “inalienable part of the motherland” for centuries longer than Taiwan did. Ironically, however, the CCP passed on Mongolia in the 1950s.

Taiwan has its own set of game players in its die-hard KMT members bent on preserving their belief that they never really lost the Chinese Civil war. This allows them to keep a hand in the game along with status and privilege. To serve this end, the fake “1992 consensus” was created.

However, most Taiwanese prefer to just get on with life and be spared having to parse this KMT verbiage. Yet, to end the game, they must face the realistic and painstaking ordeal of changing the “ROC’s name, flag and constitution. This is their challenge.

The US, of course, bears its share in keeping the game going. Its “strategic ambiguity” gambit served it well in past Cold War games but after 75 years, that gambit is frayed and has pretty well out-lived its usefulness.

Hence the blunt statement by former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo that Taiwan is not part of China, and the recent bill introduced by US representatives Scott Perry and Thomas Tiffany aims to reshape if not end the game. By that bill, the US would officially recognize Taiwan as the independent democracy that it is and finally deal with it at a higher level.

Most other nations would be open to this as they already must play the game in one form or another. They seek lucrative trade benefits with China while indirectly keeping ties with Taiwan. This forces them to choose between the “one China” principle and the “one China” policy not really knowing the vast difference between those two positions. For the unknowing, the “one China” policy spelled out means acknowledging the fact that while the PRC in its wildest dreams might believe that Taiwan is a part of China, that is not what that particular nation believes.

However, other nations exist with more skin in the game like Japan, India, Australia, and Vietnam. They are directly affected by China’s hegemony and are realizing the need for alliances to counter the PRC.

So the game plays out replete with many dangers. China does not need any lebensraum and death has already shown its face. A case in point is the recent bullied WHO team, which has had to whitewash the cause of the COVID-19 (aka “Wuhan”) virus.

The world community remains at risk and the only way to alleviate it is for all nations to finally bite the bullet and see the Taiwan game for what it is. Only in this way can the game be brought to a satisfactory end. It will not be easy.