Two questions you should ask before discussing Taiwan-China relations

On Taiwanese sovereignty and war, part I: Taiwan Strait politics is an intricate and complex subject, it is important to get the facts straight

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Taiwanese national flag (left), Chinese national flag (right)

Taiwanese national flag (left), Chinese national flag (right) (Wikimedia Commons photo)

Shih Ming-teh (施明德), a renowned political activist in Taiwan and a former political prisoner for 25 and a half years, recently published a research paper entitled "On Taiwan's sovereignty and war". At the beginning of his argument, he emphasized the importance of looking at the grand context of Taiwan-China relations and knowing the complexities that are embedded in cross-strait issues and Taiwan Strait politics.


Before discussing cross-strait issues, we must consider two major questions:

1) Will Taiwan become just like Hong Kong?

2) Will China attack Taiwan?

To these questions, my answer is “No!”

Hong Kong and Taiwan are Incomparable

Comparing Hong Kong and Taiwan is like comparing a rooster with a duck. In terms of ethnic origins, geographical location, status of international law, and actual political situation, Hong Kong and Taiwan are almost completely different.

No matter which document one follows—the Sino-British Joint Declaration or Hong Kong Basic Law—Hong Kong’s sovereignty belongs to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The status of this legal fact is already in place and recognized by the international community, which pays attention to Hong Kong’s freedom, democracy, and its deterioration of human rights—not sovereignty.

As for Taiwan, since the founding of the PRC in 1949, the Chinese government has never held jurisdiction over Taiwan for one day, one minute or even one second.

No matter which name you choose to call it, be it the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan, or ROC on Taiwan, the island nation has existed as an independent entity and has never been in the PRC’s possession. This is a fact—an indisputable fact.

The only right the PRC has, regarding Taiwan, is freedom of speech—the right to drone endlessly on how ‘Taiwan is an integral part of China’ and ‘Taiwan is China’s’. This type of freedom of speech is exercised daily even by patients in a psychiatric ward.

Hong Kong is like a piece of food already inside China’s mouth. Whether it is to be chewed up and swallowed or enjoyed at a leisurely pace, it is totally for China to decide.

Of course, the political awakening of Hongkongers will impact their level of freedom to a certain extent. What about Taiwan?

Not only is Taiwan far away from China’s mouth, but for the past seventy years, it has merely been an object of desire for China that is seemingly within its grasp but ultimately unattainable—so close yet so far.

Independence movement aside, Hong Kong’s future is in the hands of its people. In the past, Hongkongers were viewed as economic animals, who had no other desires but to work and make money.

During Sino-British negotiations, Hongkongers only debated whether to stay or emigrate; they never fought for a guarantee of their basic rights. Instead, they left themselves at the mercy of Chinese and British leadership.

This is very much like the post-WWII generation of Taiwanese elite, who did not fight for independence as other former colonies did. Instead, they welcomed the military occupation by Chinese Nationalist (KMT) troops, only to have the 228 massacre occur not long after.

Today’s generation of young Hongkongers is unafraid to sacrifice; their courage, insight, and wisdom are quite admirable.

In the past half-year, I also believed in President Xi Jingping’s intelligence to not engage in a manner reminiscent of the Tiananmen massacre or Tibetan invasion when dealing with the 2019 Hong Kong protests. To China, Hong Kong is like the Monkey King entrapped in the palm of Buddha’s hand.

If China foolishly decided to pursue a Tiananmen-esque style of control, the ‘one country, two systems’ framework it so badly wants to promote would collapse completely and China would have to face certain sanctions from the rest of the world. Upon seeing through this, the people of Hong Kong would courageously rise up…

In the case China’s leader really loses all signs of rationality and terrorizes and suppresses the people of Hong Kong like the way Tibet was treated back then, Taiwan would still be Taiwan! Chinese military police can simply walk across a bridge and easily drive their vehicles into Hong Kong for immediate occupation, but they cannot just swim the strait to conquer Taiwan.

The Taiwanese people’s concerns for the situation in Hong Kong is based on the universal value of human rights, and not because of the fear of a common threat. There is no such relationship between Taiwan and Hong Kong. Taiwanese politicians should not use Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protests as a tool to prop themselves up with their own political motives.

This type of mentality is immoral. A few days ago, I saw in the media that Chen Qi-Mai (陳其邁), the spokesperson for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), had said, “Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan” to scare the Taiwanese people.

I told an old DPP friend of mine to tell Mr. Chen, “Don’t assume you know more just because of your higher rank! Don’t talk rubbish just to get us riled up!” Not long after, President Tsai Ing-wen also exclaimed, “Today Taiwan, Tomorrow Hong Kong”, which was a positive message meant to encourage the Hong Kong people—even though it had a tinge of exploitation.

China dares not to attack Taiwan

Ever since I was in elementary school, the PRC has exclaimed “Purge Taiwan! Liberate Taiwan!” Seventy years later, I am an old and dying man, and the same old rhetoric is still going strong.

This rhetoric remains nothing but never-ending threats. The leaders since the founding of the PRC know that the nature of the Taiwan issue is completely different from those of Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang.

The differences lie in geographical location, historic fact, and most importantly, international status and international geopolitics. As China lacks the ability, will, and legitimacy to attack Taiwan, it could only engage in propaganda campaigns and military intimidation for the past seventy years in order to maintain a threatening posture.

Having been asked multiple times on this issue, I can only reply, “Threats are cries of sorrow from the aggressor!” China cannot and does not dare attack.

It can only continue to threaten and intimidate. It’s been like that for seventy years. It’s actually quite sad!

If China fails to realize how useless intimidation is, and that threats just make Taiwanese even more averse to Beijing, then even establishing an equal brotherly relationship will be a monumental challenge. Taiwanese know that the recent preferential policies proposed by China are nothing but an ill-intentioned façade.

Leaders and scholars of Taiwan’s KMT just don’t seem to understand these facts. In fact, the KMT is playing right into China’s hands, joining Beijing to threaten the Taiwanese populace.

The party’s complicit actions have distanced itself from the hearts of Taiwanese and may have cost them the election.

Seventy years ago, KMT party members proudly declared, “Retake the mainland, exterminate communist bandits!” Today their slogan could be phrased as, “Charm the communists in all respects, use the communists to threaten Taiwan.”

If KMT party leaders don’t wake up now, the end of the party looms closer. This is because pro-China has become its core stance.

Many pro-China people often say, “Today China has become a formidable nation. Taiwan is just an insignificant, small piece of land. It can never defeat China.” If this type of rhetoric were feasible and believable, China would have already conquered Taiwan long ago.

Just because a nation is larger and more powerful does not give it the right to bully a smaller country at will. During the 1960s, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US did not dare to annex the Communist island nation for this very reason.

If we forget about the American factor and forget about Taiwan’s status as a major part of the first island chain, and solely focus on military strategy, would China really dare to conduct this type of naval warfare?

If you examine the history of the Normandy landings, you will realize just how complicated this type of warfare can be. The English Channel is only about 20.7 miles wide at its narrowest point (Strait of Dover).

The allied forces deployed a tremendous number of troops, spent vast amounts of time, engaged in widespread psychological warfare, and yet deception was the only way to achieve a successful landing. Nowadays, the transparency brought on by technological advancements has made deception an impossible task.

Furthermore, there is American intelligence and aloof Taiwanese businessmen in China to consider. Do you think Taiwanese intelligence units are all goofing off and sleeping?

How is China going to carry out a successful sneak attack on Taiwan? Some people would say that just a few missiles from China would utterly destroy Taiwan and force Taipei to surrender.

This type of thinking and pomposity is too naïve. Do they really think Taiwanese are that cowardly?

One must remember that in a war, the attacker is required to ultimately physically occupy the land. If China fires a few missiles, tens of missiles, even a few hundred missiles, do these people think Taiwanese casualties won’t be reported by international media?

That people of the world would just let China get away from extreme bullying and ignore this bloodshed in Taiwan? Furthermore, in order for the attacker to successfully occupy a place, military strength must be tenfold the amount of defending troops.

Taiwanese soldiers at the very least, number around one hundred thousand. What type of vessels would China use to transport its millions of soldiers to Taiwan?

Of course, it can only depend on military ships and aircraft. Swimming is not an option. China must first assemble its army forces at harbors and airports.

Would the world really not pay close attention to such large scale gatherings? How would China mount a sneak attack?

Moreover, when push comes to shove, it’s not like Taiwan doesn’t have trump cards it can utilize in times of dire situations. What kind of trump cards, you ask? I won’t be discussing them at this time.

China’s attempt to attack Taiwan would not be like the invasions of Dacheng island and Yijiangshan island; nor would it be similar to taking Kinmen island or Matsu island. This is why, twenty or so years ago, when I was the DPP party leader, I suggested the demilitarization of Kinmen and Matsu island, which called for the complete withdrawal of troops, leaving only security police.

This would make the two islands a peaceful cross-strait buffer zone.

Anyways, if China could attack, and dares attack, it would have done so long ago. Why would it drag its feet for seventy years and only continue to intimidate non-stop?

Admittedly, warfare can be used as distractions by those in power to divert attention from domestic issues and conflicts. But even one little mishap would backfire big time.

Beijing’s leaders are not foolish enough to dance to the tune of militant hawks, who could cause the demise of the Communist Party and the country. When there is a slight glitch in the progress of China’s attack on Taiwan, how would Xinjiang and Tibet react?

Furthermore, how would those Chinese people with differing opinions from the Chinese Communist Party’s seventy year, one-party dictatorship react?

If there was a US-Sino military conflict, America could easily attack China’s vital coastal regions. China would find it extremely difficult to break through American and Japanese missile defenses and attack Hawaii, much less strike the American mainland.

Here, I would like to add something obvious: One cannot depend on a military that has never actually engaged in war. It doesn’t matter how many aircraft, missiles, military vessels, aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons, etc. a nation manufactures or purchases—if the country does not have any actual warfare experience, it would be extremely hard to foresee what could happen during a real conflict.

In these past 70 years, only the US has had a wealth of experience fighting wars. It has experienced the thunderous sounds of battle drums, momentous shaking of heaven and earth, and gruesome deaths. This is way beyond practicing military drills and routine lock-step training.

It doesn’t matter how great one’s combat readiness is or how high a quality one’s military weapons are. When two armies are squared up against each other, the contrast between rookie and veteran soldiers can immediately turn the tide of the battle.

An army that has not been battle-proven is only good for ostentatious National Day ceremonies. With such immense uncertainty in war, who amongst China’s leaders would act in such a rash manner?

Of course, Taiwanese also need the determination and courage to safeguard their own freedom. They must have a feeling of gratitude towards the armed forces.

How can a military that does not command respect be willing to sacrifice lives for the country and its people? Taiwanese people should observe how Israel has held its own while being surrounded by enemies, particularly those young self-proclaimed Taiwanese independence extremists.

They should not just yell out catchy slogans and then be unwilling to enlist in the military to defend the country. That is a shameful mentality to have, essentially making them sheep in wolves’ clothing.

One must defend his own country. This is an obvious, constant principle.

If one cannot understand this simple concept and does not practice what he preaches, then that person can forget about discussing grandiose ideals of independence and nation-building.

Blood will always be the color of a nation’s soul. However, eager younger generations of Taiwan must be ambitious and spare no effort to carry out the responsibility of defending their homes and safeguarding the nation.

They must not let others look down on them. I was only in my teens when I understood this truth and decided to enroll in military school. Such was the path I took in this life…