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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Decoding China: Taiwan election must preserve status quo

  • Taiwan is largely isolated internationally
  • Beijing considers Taiwan to be part of China and has not ruled out using force to achieve its goal
Update : 08 Jan 2024, 03:02 PM

"Are you committed to the Constitution of the Republic of China?"

A journalist posed this question during a live television debate between three candidates contesting Taiwan's upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for January 13.

It's a tough question, as it deals with the tricky and tense relationship between Taiwan, officially called the Republic of China (ROC), and the People's Republic of China (PRC).

In a worst-case scenario, the deterioration of the legal balance of relations between Taiwan and Beijing has the potential to trigger a world war in the 21st century.

Beijing considers Taiwan to be part of China and has not ruled out using force to achieve its goal of bringing the self-ruled democratic island under its control.

Taiwan is largely isolated internationally. The United Nations and most countries in the world recognize the People's Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China. And they don't maintain diplomatic ties with Taipei.

At present only 13 countries, most of them in Latin America and the Pacific, officially recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.

Over the past four years China has stepped up military activity around Taiwan and Chinese fighter jets and warships now regularly operate in the Taiwan Strait.

The Chinese People's Liberation Army has also stationed numerous missiles targeting strategic assets in Taiwan.

Taiwan's tricky status

In its preamble, the constitution of the People's Republic of China states: "Taiwan is part of the sacred territory of the People's Republic of China."

That's why on the mainland, the upcoming vote in Taiwan is called "regional elections," and not "presidential elections."

Beijing even considers the usage of the name "Taiwan" a provocation.

In some international organizations, like for instance the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Taiwan is therefore referred to as "Chinese Taipei."

In the World Trade Organization (WTO), it is called the "Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu," in reference to Taiwan and the three other islands that are under Taipei's control.

On the basis of the constitution of the People's Republic, the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp legislature, approved the "anti-secession law" in 2005, which authorizes armed force for the conquest of Taiwan should the island declare independence.

The constitution of the Republic of China dates back to 1947. After the end of World War II in 1945, the Kuomintang (KMT), the party that ruled mainland China at the time, waged a civil war against the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong.

After losing the war in 1949, the KMT retreated to Taiwan. The ROC constitution did not define national borders.

Article 4 of the constitution, which is still in force in Taiwan, states: "The territory of the Republic of China according to its existing national boundaries shall not be altered except by resolution of the National Assembly."

Since 1947, the National Assembly of the Republic of China (Taiwan) has not passed a resolution on national boundaries.

This means that, theoretically, mainland China is also still a part of the Republic of China, according to the current constitution. And any move by Taiwan to declare independence would not be in line with its own constitution.

Taiwan counts on US military might

When the US established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China in 1979, the US Congress passed the "Taiwan Relations Act," which created the basis for Washington's ties to the government in Taipei.

The act also requires the US government to "provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character and shall maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan."

If China should launch a military invasion of Taiwan, the US would not necessarily be obliged to defend the territory militarily. However, calls are growing for the US to make a much more explicit commitment to the defense of Taiwan.

These calls come against the backdrop of "widespread perception in Washington that the military balance of power in Asia is shifting in favor of China," writes Marco Overhaus, an expert on US defense policy at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

"Taiwan's military advantages based on its technological edge and its geographical isolation as an island are shrinking," he pointed out.

"In addition, China has been investing for years in so-called anti-access/area-denial capabilities such as ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. These capabilities make it particularly difficult for the US to come to Taiwan's aid in the event of a conflict," he added.

The anti-access/area denial strategy, also known as A2AD, makes it either difficult or impossible for the enemy's military forces to access an operational area and restricts their freedom of movement. In practice, if executed according to plan, an entire country could be cut off from the outside world.

Discussing a question that has no answer?

Circling back to the journalist's question to Taiwanese presidential contenders about commitment to the Republic of China constitution, it's clear that the current complicated legal situation in Taiwan makes it nearly impossible for the island to declare independence.

Such a declaration would be a clear violation of its own constitution. Nevertheless, according to public opinion surveys, it's clear that the majority of the Taiwanese population reject reunification with the mainland as envisaged by the government in Beijing.

Against this backdrop, the legal relationship between Taiwan and mainland China remains a purely theoretical question and an election campaign issue. And the candidates' answers to the controversial question were noticeably nuanced.

William Lai Ching-te, of the ruling DPP, is considered the frontrunner in the polls. He gave an evasive answer and only spoke about the civil rights guaranteed by the state and the democratic form of government.

As early as 2017, Lai was sharply criticized by China after he declared, "I am a political worker for Taiwan independence."

Since Taiwan became democratic in the 1990s, the ROC constitution has been amended seven times. Some sections of the constitution have been repealed or amended. But there have been no changes to the article concerning national territory. 

Only a new term, "Free Area," was added. The "Free Area of the Republic of China" refers to Taiwan, in contrast to the Chinese mainland, which is under the control of the Chinese Communist Party.

This term is used by various laws and regulations that govern elections in Taiwan as well as cross-Strait relations.

Hou Yu-ih, the opposition KMT's candidate for president, said he's deeply committed to the constitution. According to him, the "Free Area" and the mainland could only peacefully co-exist if they "neither recognize sovereignty nor deny the other's government."

The third candidate, Ko Wen-je, replied rhetorically: "The three of us are not running for the office of governor of a US state, nor for the office of governor of a Chinese province, but for the presidency of the Republic of China. Why are we even standing here if we are not committed to the constitution?"

As head of a new political party, the Taiwan People's Party (TPP), Ko, who most recently served as mayor of the capital Taipei for eight years, then put it: "Why are we discussing a question that has no answer? That would be a waste of our time and energy. At the moment, neither reunification nor independence is a real political option. All that remains is the status quo."

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