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Common Cents

Different drummers

Ralph Murphy

(7/2015) The Republic of China (ROC) or the island nation of Taiwan shares an ethnic and historical background with the People's Republic of China (PRC), a short 80 miles "cross-strait" to the mainland. However, despite improved relations in the early 21st century it appears the two states are vastly different in world view relative to alliances. Domestically each march to a "different drummer" or social mandate. The bridges of engagement are likely to continue, but sources of friction should be assessed in light of national purpose and resolve.

The ROC is believed to have been inhabited as early as 6000 BC by regional peoples, but wasn't discovered by the west until Spanish and Dutch explorers established settlements in the early 1600's. The Dutch East India Company was forced to deal with a large influx of mainland Han Chinese about 1662. Various Chinese dynasties traded rule to include the Great Qing or Manchu dynasties (17th - 19th century), but were violently subjugated to the Japanese expansionism of 1895.

A defiant group calling themselves Formosans attempted insurrection, but the Japanese unofficially remained in power even after their defeat in World War II. The ROC which then incorporated mainland China and Taiwan island held a United Nations Security Council seat from 1945. Civil war on the mainland witnessed the emergence of the communist People's Republic of China and the defeated leadership of the ROC called Kuomintang redeployed to Taiwan and its neighboring islets. The British wanted to recognize Peking (Beijing) as the rightful successor to the UN seat given overwhelming demographic dominance but the Americans supported Taiwan for the post given their capitalist ideology.

Taiwan was one of the five most powerful nations in the international community and given its UN position, was able to veto or sponsor substantive legislation. In 1971, however then President Richard Nixon effectively adopted the British post war view and recognized Beijing for UN membership and the Security Council seat. The nation retains both to this day.

Taiwan is at present time a virtual non-state recognized by only 21 mostly island nations and the Holy See. None of these are of major economic weight. It continues to have strong economic ties to America and is a voracious consumer of US defense materiel permitted under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.

The Kuomintang grouping constitutes about 10% of the island’s demographics. While almost all are Han Chinese by broad ethnic ascription- subunits include the Hokkein of South East China origin and 70% of the population. Also, the Hakka from east central and northern China make up 14% of the population. Both the Hokkein and Haka were "muscled out" of politics by the Kuomintang and now want inclusion.

While domestic concerns have accelerated to include a seizure of Parliament last year in Taipei, cross-strait economic ties with the PRC given a 2010 "Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement and 2013 "Cross Straight Service Trade Assessment" helped generate import/export trade between the two Chinas. Taiwan lent foreign direct investment of over $150 billion to the mainland. Foreign reserves are among the world’s highest at $418 billion, and trade with the PRC is over 36% if Hong Kong is included.

In December 2008 President Ma Ying-Jeou and then PRC President Xi Jintao announced "military building confidence measures". The subsequent economic successes don't appear to have effectively altered the political misgivings and Taiwan appears ready for most conventional attacks with their main focus being China for now.

Defense spending by Taiwan is routinely 3% of income or $10.5 billion in 2008, but suppliers including France and the Netherlands were forced out either by American suppliers or as reported by the PRC with larger investments to the mainland. Russia also has a history of arms sales there. The US does little in the way of defense sales to the PRC since it is viewed as an emerging power and potential adversary.

The problem with Taiwan's current non-nation status to the UN and most bilateral dealings is they are not bound by international agreements such as the Non Proliferation Treaty which controls nuclear weapons. In the late 1980's the nation may have even tested a nuclear device in response to PRC's weapons program and do have a missile delivery capability.

With 300,000 active-duty servicemen in 2009 and 3.6 million reserves the island nation is ready for an assault the PRC could currently launch by land and sea. Four US provided naval destroyers, additional conventional weapons and air defense strike capacity could likely counter an initial thrust by China. Japan might be a backdoor problem in the future given the recent arms buildup and legal travel of the security force, but Taiwan's strategy is to hold off any attack until help arrives- probably from the Americans. The problem is no clear treaty spells out that type of aid although broad alliances such as RIMPAC and ANZUS could usher it in.

Taiwan is a World Trade Organization as well as Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation member where it is seated as Chinese Taipei. It seeks membership in the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership and also joined UN-linked IAEA in 2012. Its nuclear program of three active plants and eight reactors can now be monitored. They have elaborate, foreign de facto diplomatic representation overseas, but just aren't a nation yet.

Taiwan and China share a common ethnic strain, but Han Chinese are found in various oriental states such as Mongolia that are now independent. A close look at Taiwan reveals a vastly different social orientation than that adopted by the Communist Party that rules on the mainland.

Social and geographic divisions are large and the mainland poor live at the periphery. The communist government is also arbitrary when dealing with such issues as pollution, banking or even conventional politics and law. A coupling would probably tie Taiwan to degradation that exists on the mainland and would be opposed. They need social and political inclusion especially for the demographic majorities that are now marginalized. They are not likely to go back to living under PRC rule.

Ralph Murphy is a former member of the CIA Headquarters Staff in Langley, VA.

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