The island nation of Taiwan, the Asian Tiger once an economic powerhouse, has been consigned to a state of limbo within the international community for nearly four decades. The US's recognition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) saw the state lose not only its seat in the UN, but its position as a sovereign state by much of the wider international community. In the late 1970s, when Taiwanese citizens still lived under the authoritarian rule of Jiang Jing-guo, son of Jiang Jie-shi, who fled from China to Taiwan after suffering defeat in the Chinese Civil War. The island nation has since become a flourishing, progressive democracy in East Asia, enabling same-sex marriage and electing the Chinese-speaking world’s first female President Tsai Ing-wen. Her election has seen cross-strait ties deteriorate mainly due to Chinese fears President Tsai will declare independence, a move Beijing says will result in the use of military force to resolve the issue it sees as its most sensitive.
Despite its claims to Taiwan, China is unable to exercise any control over the island. Taiwan uses its own currency, issues its own passports, maintains an independent military, an independent economy , and importantly, Taiwan votes for its leaders. Chinese soft power has failed to entice Taiwanese citizens and since coming to power Xi Jin-ping has reaffirmed his country’s position on Taiwan as being an integral and inseparable part of China’s territory. Jin-ping has taken a more hardline approach toward the island nation than his predecessors, while maintaining that China has the will, confidence and ability to defeat any Taiwanese separatists. Xi previously claimed he would unify Taiwan while he still led China, leading many to speculate that an invasion of the island could take place by 2020, although since scrapping the limits of presidential terms an imminent invasion seems less likely. However, this hasn’t deterred the Chinese leadership from attempting to harm Taiwan’s interest in other ways.
Recent months have seen an increase in China using what some have described as 'dollar diplomacy' in a clear attempt to steal away Taiwan’s remaining allies and further isolate the island from the rest of international community. Taiwan now has only 18 diplomatic allies left globally, losing four in the past two years. China is also applying pressure on companies abroad, with China sending a letter to 36 airlines around the globe in which they demanded the companies stop listing Taiwan as a country. Australian airline Qantas is one of many which has already kowtowed to Chinese demands, drawing a response of concern from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Even Australian children have not been spared from China’s growing influence overseas, with one student of Taiwanese descent having her artistic depiction of Taiwan’s flag removed from a mural by the Rockhampton council.
Recent weeks have also seen the Chinese state attempt to intimidate the Taiwanese population directly, with the Chinese flying H-6 bombers around the island, an attempt to warn Taiwanese citizens not to engage in moves towards independence. Recent bullying of Taiwan by the Chinese has actually led to an improvement in Taiwan-US relations, with the US passing Marco Rubio’s Taiwan Travel Act earlier this year, paving the way for official visits between high-level officials from Washington and Taipei. There has been further speculation that the US will soon announce a massive arms sale to Taiwan, drawing condemnation from China. The US has also recently opened its new de-facto embassy known as the American Institute in Taiwan in Taipei, signalling a strengthening of ties between the two countries to levels not seen in decades and further angering China.
Australia must support the US stance of maintaining the status quo in the region by continuing to join the US in undertaking 'freedom of navigation' exercises (both naval and air) in the South China Sea, not only to assist the US in supporting Taiwan but to ensure China behaves in accordance with international norms. Furthermore, Australia must minimise Chinese influence in Australian politics, to avoid undermining Australian democracy. Chinese claims that Taiwan is attempting to alter the status-quo don’t carry much weight when it continues its aggressive actions across the Taiwan Strait. The Taiwan Travel Act is a great achievement for the US and Taiwan and perhaps it is time, as US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher recently suggested, to recognise Taiwan as a 'sovereign and independent' country.
Michael Leyson is a Melbourne based writer with a degree in international relations.