Taiwan struggles on wrong side of history

Relations between the ‘two Chinas’ are reaching the point where Taipei is gradually reclaiming its international status

The compromises necessary to overcome political difficulties in the Far East have a habit of being reduced to slogans that have about them a strange familiarity.

"One China, two systems" was the neat mantra devised in the early 1980s to allow Beijing and London proceed towards the UK's departure from Hong Kong while seeming to assuage the anxieties of all others along the way.

There would be, and could only be, only one China, with Beijing as its capital and communism its guiding ideology (in name at least). But Hong Kong after the departure of the British would also continue along its freewheeling, free-market capitalist path and have a measure of democratic self-government, whose operatives would be mindful, however, not to push matters so far as to create jitters in Beijing.

A similar slogan today guides the burgeoning relationship between the People's Republic of China and its erstwhile namesake, the Republic of China (Taiwan). The two have been opponents since the former beat the latter in a civil war that ended when nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek and up to half a million soldiers and followers decamped in 1949/1950 to the offshore Chinese island of Taiwan, leaving the Red Army in control of the Marxist-Leninist Mao Zedong-led mainland.

'Two interpretations'
The current slogan much in vogue is: "One China, two interpretations". The "one China" part articulates Beijing's long-standing policy that there is only "one China"; and the "two interpretations" element allows both it and Taipei to go about their business in a pragmatic way, leaving larger political questions to one side possibly to atrophy in irrelevance.

Taiwan has since 1971 found itself irretrievably on the wrong side of history, washed up on the shore of an argument from which everyone else had long since moved on. In October of that year the world forced itself to come to terms with reality by acknowledging that the vast territory and population ruled from Beijing was in fact China and that the seat at the United Nations occupied by the government in Taiwan should henceforth be taken by a representative of Chairman Mao.

As a consequence, Taiwan lost its place as one of the Security Council’s permanent big five and was also expelled from the UN General Assembly and, crucially, from every other UN body.

The change left Taiwan friendless in the world (save for relations with the United States, which continues to guarantee its sovereignty and security) and was deeply psychologically wounding to its politicians and people, now numbering 23 million. From 1971 to 2008, Taiwan acted as though nothing had happened, continuing to insist, in foreign policy terms at least, that it and not Beijing was the real China, and applying regularly to rejoin the UN.

On the ground in Taiwan, people went about quietly revolutionising their economy from an essentially agrarian one to an industrial one.

Another quiet revolution has been taking place since the 2008 presidential election of Ma Ying-jeou, a former Taiwanese government minister. Reaching for another slogan, Ma told his inauguration that on relations with China he would pursue a policy of “no reunification, no independence and no war”.

'Cross-strait agreements'
Since then, the two Chinas have concluded no fewer than 18 "cross-strait agreements", a reference to the 180km stretch of ocean separating them. The agreements relate to a range of practical matters of mutual interest, including transport, tourism, fishing, intellectual property rights, trade and customs, financial co-operation and fighting crime.

Taiwan today is thriving, its economy dominated by service industries and companies within the digital world. The elephant-in-the-room political question is simply ignored, unasked save by a minority, and unpushed by either Taipei or Beijing.

Now, however, Taipei's confidence growing from the rapprochement with Beijing has prompted it to seek a renewed role internationally. In 2009, calling itself "Chinese Taipei", the country tiptoed back into the World Health Organisation with Beijing's blessing and the support of the US and EU. Building on this, Taipei hopes later this month to achieve observer status at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) when it meets in Montreal. Government officials and academics put the case to a delegation of invited foreign journalists last week.

"[Our exclusion] is not fair," said aviation specialist Prof Joel Shon. "We've got 23 million people here. We have an aviation industry and we want it to grow. I want somewhere for my students to get jobs. Everything [at ICAO] is decided without us and we can only follow, we can't contribute. This is a human rights issue."

Monday: Taiwan's case for ICAO observer status; world news pages