China – Mouthing it again

The eyes of US foreign affairs experts will be fixed firmly on Taiwan during the coming weeks. For this is when nine months of tension between Taiwan and China is expected to come to a head. Taiwan is not fully recognised internationally as an independent state and has no seat at the UN. Many in Taiwan believe this will end during March when the island holds its first all-party elections—elections that could sour Taiwan’s relationship with China to the point of a military strike by the latter should the former opt for independence.

China claims that Taiwan is a Chinese province and has no right to seek independence. Many argue that such a claim ended in 1949, when the Kuomintang took refuge in Taiwan under the protection of the US following defeat by Mao’s forces. Military rule soon followed and was only lifted in 1989, with something resembling liberal democracy appearing during an election held in 1992.

Taiwanese capitalists, many recruited by President Lee Teng Hui, believe Taiwan’s economy is incompatible with that of China and that the years of prosperity they have experienced since the Vietnam war will flounder if the two are re-unified. For Taiwan’s capitalist class, the status quo must be maintained, not least because China is Taiwan’s second biggest export market after the US. Tight import restrictions also mean China in return experiences difficulty exporting to Taiwan. This has resulted in a 1995 trade surplus of $24.20 billion.

China’s sabre-rattling began many months ago and seems to coincide with international calls for Taiwanese independence. In the past six months, China has tested missiles, carried out military manoeuvres and announced that a region of coast feeing Taiwan is a “war zone”. In recent weeks it has announced plans to recommence nuclear missile tests.

Taiwan, though overly “confident” it can hold the People’s Liberation Army at bay during a conventional war, nevertheless takes China’s threats seriously and has appealed to the US for arms.

The US, which established a military base on the island in the 1950s, has been ambiguous in its response to pleas for help from its former “unsinkable aircraft carrier”. When US/Sino relationships soured in 1979, the US withdrew from the island and abandoned a joint defence treaty. However, the US is still, committed under the Taiwan Relations Act, to providing arms of a “defensive nature”.

Chinese sabre-rattling appears to be aimed as much at the US as it does Taiwan. With presidential elections coming up in the US later this year, China is hoping that the US will not risk coming to the aid of Taiwan for fear of upsetting US voters— the desired result being that this realisation will force Taiwan to succumb to Chinese calls for re-unification.

In early January Chas Freeman Jr, the US Assistant Secretary of Defence, returned from a trip to China with news that the PLA was making preparations to launch one missile per day for 30 days at Taiwan. In all probability this is hype, aimed at intimidating Taiwan and forcing the US to re-think its policy on Taiwan.

Freeman went on to relate how one Chinese official pointed out that the US care more about Los Angeles than Taiwan, and how another asked if the US were prepared to sacrifice the “millions of men” and “entire cities” over Taiwan that China would.

Not wishing to have been seen internationally as having turned the other cheek, the US responded by sailing the US Nimitz, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, and five support ships through the Taiwan Straits—the first time a US warship had been near the Chinese coast in 17 years. The upshot has been a slump in share prices in Taiwan, though nothing yet near the 40 percent stock exchange dive when China first began its threats.

All of this might sound familiar—it should. Last March it was the Philippines who were on the receiving end of Chinese threats when China vented its spleen over the disputed Spratley Islands, or rather the oil reserves beneath its reef. Neither is Taiwan alone in trying to extricate itself from China’s territorial claims. The island is in fact one of ten neighbouring states upon which China has irredentist claims.

While the world awaits the outcome of all, this in the Far-East, Socialists remain aware that none of it is to be taken lightly. All, too often small territorial claims—which at the end of the day mean big profits for the real disputants—lead to war. The 20th century is punctuated throughout with such instances, none of which has benefited the working class, the primary casualties in the globo-political search for profit.

The fact that the Chinese capitalists have threatened to expend three million lives over a tiny island, when all China could have a share in a world of abundance and free access with no cost to life, shows that the case for Socialism has never been more pressing.

John Bissett