China Deconstructs: The "One China" Dilemma

April 17, 2010
Hong Kong Economic Journal


The "One China" Dilemma
Edited by Peter C.Y. Chow
Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, 336 pages, US$95.00

Reviewed by John J. Tkacik

When China ruled the seas 600 years ago, between 1407 and 1433, the "treasure fleets" (baochuan 寶船) of the Ming emperor Yongle (永樂) transited the Taiwan Strait fourteen times.

These massive flotillas each included sixty of the biggest oceanic transport ships (haiyunchuan 海運船) the world had ever seen and would see for the next four centuries and each was attended by two hundred or so smaller support and trading vessels. On each of his seven voyages, Yongle's most trusted eunuch, the Moslem admiral Zheng He (鄭和), commanded about 27,000 soldiers, seamen, diplomats and merchants on missions through the Straits of Malacca, past India and Arabia and on unto the farthest reaches of Africa's Indian Ocean shores. The travels of the Treasure Fleets were minutely documented in the Ming histories as well as on 15th century stone inscriptions left behind at Admiral Zheng's bases at Liujiagang on the Yangtze River and the Fujian seaport of Changle, opposite Taiwan.

From the waters of the Taiwan Strait, Treasure Fleet captains certainly could see snowcapped mountain ranges high in the east on clear, breezy sailing days in the smog-free centuries before industrialization. Yet, "Taiwan" (also known as "Beigang" [北港] or "Jilong" [雞籠] in Ming times) was never mentioned with Zheng He's missions. This is odd. For a quarter century, Zheng He's armies made embassies to kingdoms in the southern ocean, battled rebels in Indonesia, lent imperial legitimacy to Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia's islands. "All nations under heaven," it was recorded, sent tribute to Yongle. The Ming Shi (明史) asserts "there was no one who did not present precious objects."

The late Edward L. Dreyer wrote the definitive biography of Admiral Zheng (Zheng He, China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty 1405-1433; Pearson-Longman 2007). Dr. Dreyer puzzled over Taiwan's absence from Zheng He's records, and he wrote about it in the first essay of Peter C.Y. Chow's (周鉅原) edition of The "One China" Dilemma, the latest indispensible volume on the subject in the China Hand's library. To get Professor Dreyer's essay (and another by Monash University professor Bruce Jacobs), I actually paid the ridiculous list price for The "One China" Dilemma when the book came out 18 months ago. The essays by Dreyer and Jacobs were well worth the investment. Several other superb chapters were gravy. Others, not so much . . .more of that later.

From thoughtful experts with widely differing predispositions on China, Peter Chow has collected fifteen separate perspectives on the "one China Dilemma," that is, about the foundation of Beijing's teleological claim to "one China" and its impact on East Asian security.

Dr. Chow of the City University of New York placed Chinese classicist Dr. Dreyer's deconstruction of Beijing's "one China" paradigm first, not because Dreyer's is the most exciting chapter (which it is) but because it sets the chronological context for the book. Dreyer observed that after 1,363 years of China's written history, the Song dynasty historian Sima Guang (司馬光) had chronicled only about 570 years during which what we now call "China" had truly been "one." Shortly after Sima Guang's death, China fractioned into three independent kingdoms, Xixia, Jin and Southern Song; and two centuries later, China was "unified" into a vast Mongol empire. Then, at the collapse of Mongolian hegemony, China became the independent "Da Ming" nation -- the "Great Ming." When the last Ming armies were defeated by the Manchus, China was once again subsumed into an alien dynasty, together with Tibet, eastern Turkestan and the banner territories of Manchuria's Mongol cousins.

Yet, as Dr. Dreyer points out, there is no record or other evidence that Chinese emperors cared about Taiwan prior to the end of the Ming. The modern basis for China's claim to Taiwan begins with the Manchu occupation of Taiwan's western plains in 1684 and ends with the Manchus' cession of Taiwan to Japan in 1895, sixteen years before the Manchu empire itself disintegrated. If one needs to look for a geographic and political "One China", Edward Dreyer demonstrates convincingly that the fifteen provinces of "the Ming administrative map would be a generous starting point." Generous, maybe, but they included neither Taiwan – nor Tibet, nor Manchuria nor Mongolia nor what we now know as Xinjiang.

Bruce Jacobs takes over the "one China" historical review at Taiwan's Japanese colonial period. Even the Manchu emperor's Chinese officials, Dr. Jacobs notes, considered Taiwan to be "land beyond civilization" (化外之地 huawai zhi di), a sentiment which continued to animate them as they prepared to deliver the island to Japan in 1895 as partial payment for peace after China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War. Dr. Jacobs quotes a Japanese diplomat recalling that the Manchu emperor's top negotiator, Li Hongzhang (李鴻章), "surrendered nothing which he was not prepared and glad to get rid of, except the indemnity. He always considered Formosa a curse to China and was exceedingly pleased to hand it over to Japan, and he shrewdly guessed that Japan would find it a great deal more trouble than it was worth." As late as 1936, even Mao Zedong (毛澤東) himself told Edgar Snow that his Chinese Communist Party would "extend our enthusiastic help" to Formosans "in their struggle for independence."

Alas, for the benighted Taiwanese people, Japanese colonization was immediately replaced by the rule of the Chinese Nationalists who were just like Japanese only considerably more repressive. Yet in the crucible of repression, a new Taiwanese identity – separate from China – emerged and crystallized yielding the Taiwan we have today.

An essay by Huang-Chih Chiang (姜皇池) and Jau-Yuan Hwang (黃昭元) of National Taiwan University rounds out The "One China" Dilemma's first section on the "Historical Legacies of Taiwan's Statehood" with a valuable review of the legal, diplomatic and treaty contexts of Taiwan's international personality. It judges that Taiwan is indeed a sovereign state in international law – a conclusion that will come as no surprise to the 90+ countries that already treat it as such including 23 that recognize the Taipei regime, still, as the legal government of all China.

Auburn University's Cal Clark's contribution injects a perceptive and profound complication into the Taiwan equation: domestic political conflicts over Taiwan's international identity obstruct broad popular consensus on Taiwan's future. Dr. Clark doesn't say so, but his conclusion, too, is that "One Taiwan" may be a myth.

Other essays in Section Two on Taiwan's ethnic and civic nationalisms are less useful to the general reader. The chapter by Shiau-Chi Shen (沈筱綺) of Columbia University and Nai-teh Wu (吳乃德) of the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica seems flawed by confusing tables, the apparent conflation of Holo and Hakka Taiwanese into one ethnic identity for the purposes of assaying their political dispositions, and a questionable assertion that a "significant segment of mainlanders can accept the idea of an independent Taiwan without giving up their Chinese identity."

In Section Three on the foreign policy approaches to "one China," China historians Edward Friedman of the University of Wisconsin and Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania provide contrasting histories of how Europe and the U.S. have addressed the "one China" issue. Dr. Waldron's chronicle of Henry Kissinger's attitudes toward Taiwan is enjoyable reading though I tend to think he minimizes the genuine alarm that Kissinger and Nixon both felt about Soviet plans for preemptive nuclear strikes on China in 1969-1970. "National Intelligence Estimate (13-7-70)" of November 1970 pinpoints the moment of highest Sino-Soviet nuclear tensions at August 1969, and as late as October 1973, the U.S. Air Force still believed the Soviet military saw "desirable repercussions" from a USSR nuclear attack on China. When Kissinger brought up the threat with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) on February 18, 1973, the poker-faced Chinese leader "looked at his watch."

Dr. Waldron interprets Zhou's sudden horological fixation as evidence that the Chinese found the idea of a Soviet preemptive strike "implausible." But perhaps Zhou simply hoped to avoid signaling that he might be open to any concessions on Taiwan just because the Americans had the strategic force to persuade the Soviets not to nuke China's missile sites.

The chapter by Lowell Dittmer of the University of California at Berkeley is unsettling, primarily because it starts off with the assertion that one of the "most striking features" of the U.S.- China-Taiwan triangular relationship is "the relative irrelevance of changing economic variables in the strategic balance." It goes downhill from there, studded with factual errors (Deng Xiaoping's [鄧小平] "Southern Journey" was in 1992, not 2002; President Bush said the United States would "do whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend herself" not "whatever it takes to defend Taiwan"; Taiwan's significant constitutional reforms came in 1991-92, not in the wake of the 1996 Missile Crisis, to name a few).

The chapter on the Chinese Nationalism and the Anti-Secession Law, by Zhao Suisheng (趙穗生) of the University of Denver, seemed tendentious and overly indulgent of Beijing's hyperbolic threat diplomacy. Somehow China's nationalist pride is only sparked by territorial humiliations from the West and Japan (what? territorial predations of Russia don't count?); and "it is a testimony to Beijing's preference" for "peace" that China "refrained from using force" after Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) 2000 election as Taiwan's president. Dr. Zhao's essay, too, is riddled with misstatements. For example, the U.S. never "acknowledged" that Taiwan is part of China, rather it acknowledged "the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China." (It is a distinction that still sends Chinese officials into frenzies.)

Dr. Zhao also declares that there is a difference between a policy statement that "Taiwan is a part of China" and another that says "Taiwan and the mainland are both parts of China." He quotes former Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen (錢其琛) that the new formulation "shows that Beijing is pragmatic and accommodating." How accommodating? Hu Jintao's (胡錦濤) new "pragmatic and accommodating" guidelines for Taiwan policy are: "strive for negotiation, prepare for war."

The "One China" Dilemma's concluding section on national security and defense strategy is very strong. For at least a few more years, Richard Fisher's analysis of the military balance in the Taiwan Strait will be a standard reference for figures on military strength despite its 2007 statistics. Mr. Fisher offers a clear look at capabilities, intentions and doctrines on both sides, and concludes that Taiwan is in big trouble.

Alexander Huang (黃介正) of the National Taiwan University and York Chen (陳文政) of Tamkang University review Taiwan defense strategies under Chen Shui-bian's DPP government, but their contributions are a bit dated in the second year of Ma Ying-jeou's (馬英九) administration. What is missing is a look at United States military options in the Taiwan Strait – the participation (or lack) of U.S. forces, after all, will be the determining factor in any cross-strait confrontation.

The final chapter "Japan and the Security of the Taiwan Strait" by University of Miami Professor June Teufel Dreyer, illuminates a little-noticed but essential factor in the "one China" equation: Japan's interests. In lucid prose and informative sourcing, Dr. Dreyer delivers an intriguing history of Japan's crucial post-war stake in Taiwan and its continuing strategic interests in Taiwan's future. She concludes with the assessment that Japan would certainly support American military operations in a future Taiwan-China confrontation. But things have changed in the past year – will an Obama Administration resist China's absorption of Taiwan? Will the new Hatoyama government in Tokyo?

Ask twenty Chinese officials what "China" is and you're likely to discern at least one common element – "Taiwan is an integral part of China." Anything beyond that – Japan's Senkaku Islands, India's Arunachal Pradesh, or Vietnam's Paracel Islands, for example -- is subject to the daily talking points of the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Given how determined the Chinese foreign ministry is to convince the world of the "incontrovertible" proof that parts of India, Japan, Vietnam and other neighboring states are unalienable parts of "China," one can understand the sporadic anxieties in Mongolia or North Korea (ancient "Gaogouli" 高句麗) that their nations, too, are now parts of some bygone historical "China."

Peter Chow's excellent introduction makes the case that how "one China" resolves the Taiwan dilemma will tell us a great deal about how China will resolve its other territorial claims. Dr. Chow has done a service to policy-makers in the U.S. and across Asia by pulling together this volume illuminating The "One China" Dilemma.


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