FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Beijing treats Taiwan the same way it treats its own citizens: without a shred of respect.

Over the last few days, Beijing has been conducting what is likely its largest war exercise around the self-governing island. People’s Liberation Army forces crossed with impunity the line of delineation between the two countries along the Taiwan Strait, swept up the Bashi Channel (between Taiwan and Luzon) and took positions all along the island’s eastern coast facing the Pacific.

In response to the massive exercises wantonly trampling on their boundaries, Taiwan scrambled military aircraft and put its defense forces on alert. Otherwise, the hardy Taiwanese tried getting on with their lives with as much normality as they could muster.

Beijing justifies the massive exercises as a “punishment” for the Taiwanese people’s decision to elect William Lai as president in a fully democratic exercise. Lai, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party, took his oath of office this week. He is the least desirable leader from Beijing’s point of view. He represents the aspiration for full self-determination for an island that Beijing considers as its province.

Wang Wenbin, spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, minced no words: “Taiwan independence forces will be left with their heads broken and blood flowing.” That is hardly diplomatic language used against a self-determining territory with a different view of its future.

Beijing would much rather have the opposition Kuomintang party in power. Although this is the party that fought the communists during the Chinese civil war and retreated to Taiwan after military defeat in 1949, it has lately proven to be more open to cooperation with Beijing.

But the people of Taiwan chose otherwise. They would rather conserve their autonomy than submit to the harsh rule of the Chinese Communist Party. This is why a majority supported the Democratic Progressive Party in recent elections. They choose not to be intimidated by Beijing’s constant threat to use force to reclaim an island China never really governed over.

The Taiwan Question remains a mind-boggling one for many nations.

When China began to reemerge from isolation in the 70s, Beijing insisted on a One-China policy as a non-negotiable condition for formal diplomatic relations. This meant the establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing meant the withdrawal of diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Most countries, falsely believing they could reshape the course of history through cooperation with Beijing, accepted the strict One-China policy. They thought cooperation would entice China into the mainstream of global trade and investments.

Taiwan, for its part, thrived despite the diplomatic isolation. The island is now a superpower in cutting edge digital technologies. She achieved a level of prosperity for her people that the countries of Southeast Asia still aspire for. This gives her people the confidence they could forge their own future without submitting to Beijing’s dictatorship. They are not about to abandon their democratic way of life.

This presents the world’s democracies with a dilemma. While most of them cut formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, they prefer the Taiwan Question be settled through consultation and consensus.

This is not Beijing’s way. They are not about to deal on equal terms with a mere “province.”

Beijing’s way is to threaten and coerce. This is why they describe the military exercises around Taiwan as a “punishment” for the people of this island refusing to bow to Beijing’s whim.

Nationalism is the last pillar on which the Communist Party of China builds some semblance of legitimacy. The crap about “socialism with Chinese characteristics” no longer seduces. The Party needs to justify its repressive rule somehow. The reclamation of Taiwan as a “province” of China is the last thread supporting Beijing’s nationalist rhetoric.

This is why Beijing’s nationalist rhetoric escalates along with the rise of serious economic difficulties in China. It is not only Taiwan affected by this cynical use of nationalism to provide a brutal regime some credence. China’s claim over the entire South China Sea is part of this nationalist chorus.

This is why Taiwan’s problem is also our problem.

China claims large swathes of our sea on the basis of some fictional “historic right.” This is also their basis for claiming Taiwan as theirs.

All of China’s massive investment in its military is intended to take over Taiwan (and the South China Sea) by force. There is little doubt Beijing intends an invasion once this becomes politically and economically feasible.

At the moment, China is daunted by the Russian misadventure in Ukraine. Beijing fears the scrappy Taiwanese armed forces could make invasion a costly proposition for her as Ukraine has made it a costly proposition for Moscow.

It seems Beijing will use endless intimidation on Taiwan until she gets her way. To do that, she will have to make war a feasible option. Inertia could carry things to make war a certainty.

Apologists for Beijing say the country was never expansionist nor imperialist. That is not true. It is the remnant of an empire, one that now rules over Tibet and Xinjiang. One that has helped itself carving out pieces of Bhutan. One that has had many skirmishes with India over disputed territory.

There are Chinese hardliners today ready to remind Russia that Vladivostok once belonged to the Chinese empire. There are nationalists presenting the world with broken ancient pottery to prove Chinese ownership of distant lands, as if whatever they touched was theirs.

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