By Duncan Williams
BBC News, Taipei
Taiwan is plagued by animosity towards the mainland and Beijing
Across the Strait from Taiwan, Chinese President Xi Jinping was on a whirlwind tour of North Korea and Russia on Friday. He is due to visit South Korea next week. For the moment, however, Mr Xi’s latest visit – among a spate of such trips this year – is all about the future of the country that has – in China’s view – irretrievably separated itself from the mainland. And while Mr Xi is doing his ‘extended tour’, in the northern Taiwanese city of Taichung I am checking out the new headquarters of Taiwan’s military. Newly appointed Commander Major General Wu Jing-tsong has declared that the 2nd Brigade – recently established as an elite, highly trained force – is ready for action against China, should the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) ever launch a full-scale invasion. Checking out the facility against the backdrop of a nearby restaurant shows me the discipline and good training standards that define Taiwan’s armed forces. Officers move around quietly, while ordinary soldiers do their business at a rear entrance. Ironically, and perhaps fortuitously, some of those soldiers I spoke to were wearing Chinese military uniforms. However, the realities of Taiwan’s tight border with China mean it is already on guard. The crossing at Liaoning Pass is occasionally blocked by a security team. Several young soldiers I spoke to said the real threat to Taiwan is from its dependency on China – its economic dependence – rather than any imminent threat from Beijing. Territorial dispute Historical ties Taiwan and China have been ruled separately since the 19th Century, when they were both part of the Qing dynasty. Following a series of civil wars, including in the 1920s when the Communists came to power in China, the PLA occupied Taiwan in 1949. China claims Taiwan as its own The island was formally reunited with the mainland during the Cultural Revolution but is still regarded by Beijing as the ‘rebellion’ in the south, and is effectively ruled by an “army of exile”. In 1961, Taiwan unilaterally elected its own president and has been exploring the possibility of statehood since then. While many Taiwanese today believe independence is not the most likely outcome of any conflict, there is still a deep-seated split in the public psyche. Many Taiwanese now view the line to the north as their real front against the mainland, not the one to the south. The fledgling Taiwanese Armed Forces – rather than China – has the dubious honour of leading the island at its most vulnerable. Breaking the narrative Many Taiwanese point to their economic dependence on China, and agree that their legal rights – as signatories to the Paris Peace accord – do not automatically apply should the PLA gain control of Taiwan. However, even now, many Taiwanese are still bitter about the United States’ diplomatic support to Taiwan in the face of Chinese opposition during the first Sino-US summit in December 2000. At the same time, the 2000 summit took place as the two sides enjoyed booming trade. With global trade – and Taiwan’s economic dependency on it – rising with it, there is less of a demand for a military response on Taiwan’s part. The result is a mixed picture, with Taiwanese still clearly conscious of their historical relations with the mainland, but increasingly unconvinced that China’s military threat to the island is real. Perhaps it is this frustration with China’s disputed territorial claims that helps explain the large turnout of civilians to form a human chain to form an obstacle against China’s construction of its artificial island base in the South China Sea. One day it will emerge as a military-strategic resort, likely to be manned by Chinese forces. And while a human chain does not give the same headline-grabbing effect as military troops on the ground, it is telling of the awareness and patriotism of many Taiwanese. The biggest challenge of all will be to maintain this sense of pride and to prevent others overplaying the perceived PLA threat. The military can rely on natural characteristics, such as air defence batteries, and if it is careful, it can limit Chinese military power and any invasion. However, from the sound of things, neither the Taiwanese nor Chinese public are overly confident about military expansionism on the mainland.
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