TENSIONS BETWEEN U.S. AND CHINA CONTINUE TO RISE OVER TAIWAN

Taiwan

By Alex Pollock

The State Department has announced that it will make it easier for US officials to meet Taiwanese representatives, defying pressure from China at a time of high tensions, and as the US Congress considers sweeping legislation to counter Beijing’s influence. The United States still considers Beijing to be China’s legitimate government, consistent with its switch of recognition in 1979, but will do away with some of the convoluted rules that restricted dealings with Taiwan, including in-person meetings. (Al Jazeera) 

Current China-US-Taiwan relations

The US State Department has replaced rules that once restricted relationships between US and Taiwanese officials with more liberalised guidelines, in a move that received bipartisan support in Congress. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repealed the guidelines during his last days in office but did not replace them with new measures. The Biden administration has continued with the repeal process and replaced the previous set of guidelines with a more lenient policy. Current State Department spokesman Ned Price said the new guideline “underscores Taiwan is a vibrant democracy and an important security and economic partner that is also a force for good in the international community,” adding that the guidelines “liberalise guidance on contacts with Taiwan, consistent with the unofficial relations.”

The updated policy will allow US officials to invite Taiwanese representatives into government buildings in Washington and will allow working-level meetings at the Taiwanese mission. Both practises were previously prohibited. More open interactions with Taiwanese diplomats began following Pompeo’s decision to end the previous guidelines.

The Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States, Taiwan’s mission in Washington, approved of the new guidelines as a way to welcome the bipartisan consensus for closer US-Taiwan relations. A statement released by the mission included that, “Taiwan and the US share a deep and abiding partnership based on common values and joint interests.”

The US ambassador to Palau – one of the few countries that recognise Taiwan – accompanied the president of the island to Taipei in March. The ambassador was the highest-ranking US diplomat to visit Taipei in 42 years. The US has increasingly raised concern over China’s attempt to tighten control over the island and has warned Beijing over the use of force or coercion against Taiwan. There has been an increase in Chinese military presence in the Taiwan Strait over the past several weeks, a move the US has deemed “potentially destabilising.” Taiwan’s defence ministry said on Monday 12 April, that 25 Chinese aircraft including fighters and nuclear-capable bombers entered its so-called air defence identification zone (ADIZ). The incursion is the largest in a year and comes just days after China blamed the US for the rising military tension as a US warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait.

It is Chinese policy that any move by Taiwan toward independence can be met with force or threat of invasion. This policy has led to two dominant thought camps within Taiwan. The Pan-Blue Coalition is pro-unification, believing that the Republic of China is the sole government of both the mainland and Taiwan. The Pan-Green Coalition takes the opposite stance, seeing Taiwan as a sovereign, independent state, opposing unification with mainland China. China’s one-China policy emphasizes that countries cannot have official ties with both China and Taiwan, causing Taiwan to have a limited number of formal diplomatic relationships.

According to the United Nations, eight criteria determine whether a place is an independent country or state, and includes: having continuous inhabitants, internationally recognised borders, independent economic activity, and having a government. Taiwan only meets five of the eight requirements. Despite this, 15 countries recognise Taiwan as a country – Belize, Eswatini (Swaziland), Guatemala, Haiti, Tuvalu, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Nicaragua, Palau, Paraguay, St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and the Vatican (Holy See). There are currently 57 United Nations countries that maintain unofficial ties with Taiwan.

Historical relations with Taiwan

Before the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the island of Taiwan had little association with mainland China. Taiwan was colonised by the Portuguese and the Dutch in the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the island was forcefully retained as a Chinese protectorate. During the Qing Dynasty, uprisings were common and central control was inconsistent, placing Taiwanese and Chinese relations on a path of inconsistent power struggles.

China has historically viewed Taiwan as being vulnerable to foreign powers’ strategies of “encirclement and containment.” Taiwan’s strategic geographic location – close to US allies Japan, Korea, and the Philippines – amplified China’s concern over the possibility of increased Western influence. Worried that Western powers, predominantly the United States, would use influence in Taiwan to gain more power in Asia, China began its campaign to increase its control over the island. China began to refer to Taiwan as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” to make it known that it would fight for its control over the island. The term was first used by the Japanese during Japan’s occupation of Taiwan and continued throughout the Cold War, during which the United States maintained military bases in Taiwan.

The United States’ interest in Taiwan began in the 19th century during the Chinese rule of Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang was married to Soong Mei-ling, a Christian woman educated in the United States. US-China relations grew during the rule of Chiang, as many Americans saw his and his wife’s openness towards the West as a way to “culminate decades of US hopes to remake China in the Western image.” However, Chiang’s rule was less stable than first perceived, and when his forces fell to Mao Zedong’s communist regime, many from Chiang’s Kuomintang party fled to Taiwan in 1949. This led to the United States becoming more concerned with Taiwan, as the US administration sought to fight against the rise of communism in Asia. From this point, the United States maintained military bases in Taiwan and deepened other aspects of the relationship as well. The Taipei government gave economic and technical support to the United States in Vietnam but kept the support minimal enough not to anger China. During this time, Taiwan’s economy grew substantially, and the island became one of Asia’s top economic hubs. In 1979, the United States passed the Taiwan Relations Act, establishing a “quasi-formal defence commitment to Taiwan.” The act deliberately left the details of what the “defence commitment” would entail vague, but it allowed the US to continue in a relationship with Taiwan. The Taiwan Relations Act was passed shortly after the US and China reached a deal for normalisation. The US recognised the People’s Republic of China as the one government, establishing full diplomatic relations, along with affirming that Taiwan was a part of China.

FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

Christianity is thought to have been first introduced in Taiwan by the Dutch colonisers in the 17th century. The Netherlands Reformed Dutch Church began missionary work, thus starting a long history of foreign missionaries working on the island. Taiwan also benefitted indirectly from one of the great Chinese missionaries, Watchman Nee, through one of his church elders, Witness Lee (1905–97), who lead the mission in Taiwan. Under Lee’s direction the Taiwanese Church flourished and spread to neighbouring countries, eventually also impacting the United States where it attracted members from Chinese American communities and later from the general population. The American arm of their ministry still publishes Watchman Nee’s teaching today under Living Stream Ministry.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has taken a strong stand in support of Taiwan’s foreign missionary population, praising them for their efforts in helping the marginalised and disadvantaged communities on the island. In October 2019, she held a meeting with several members of the Catholic church, including priests, foreign missionaries, and representatives of local churches, thanking them for their work and assuring them that Taiwan would take care of them. Taiwan’s Nationality Act provides a channel for long-term missionaries to become Taiwanese citizens, and over 170 members of senior clergy in Taiwan have received benefits, long-term care services, and allowances for their service. Missionaries are also credited with founding schools, hospitals, and social welfare programmes throughout the island. Although the Christian population in Taiwan is only around 7%, Christian missionaries are highly regarded within Taiwanese communities.

In January 2021, Tsai Ing-wen wrote a letter to the Pope expressing her concern over China’s crackdown on both Hong Kong and Taiwan. She said that China’s actions “constitute abuses of power, including persecution of believers seeking to follow their faith.” The letter, sent after the Pope’s address in commemoration of the 54th World Day of Peace, cited concern that China would try to assert the same power over Taiwan that it has over Hong Kong. The unfolding situation between China and Hong Kong can be used as an example for the Church in Taiwan, allowing the Taiwanese to forge the most Kingdom-honouring response to these deepening tensions. While many believe it would take a war before Taiwan would give in to China’s control, the Church in Taiwan can learn from watching how the Church in Hong Kong has responded to China.

With tensions continuing to rise between Beijing and Taipei, the Taiwanese Church has the opportunity to be a voice of peace, dialogue, and reconciliation, rather than taking political sides and spurring on cries for war. If the Taiwanese Church can remain focussed on promoting God’s Kingdom, rather than a political or social agenda, the long history of the spread of the Gospel in Taiwan could continue, no matter the outcome of Taiwan’s conflict with China.

Please pray with us:

  • For a de-escalation of the tensions between the United States, China, and Taiwan
  • For the Church in Taiwan to remain Kingdom focussed, acting as an agent of peace amid political turmoil and uncertainty
  • For the political tension to lead to a greater openness among Taiwanese towards the Gospel, leading to Kingdom growth

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File photo: Taiwan News (AP photo)

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