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Facing the test of history in the Taiwan Strait
RECENT Chinese actions, such as heightening Taiwan's diplomatic isolation by luring away allies such as Panama, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador, and its insistence that companies - including airlines such as United, hotel chains like Marriott and fashion retailers like Zara - declare on their websites that Taiwan is a part of China, show that Beijing is actively creating a situation where there is universal acknowledgment that Taiwan is part of China.
As Wang Yi, Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor, told Carlos Castaneda, the El Salvadoran foreign minister, "the one-China principle is a universally recognised norm for international relations, a general consensus of the international community".
The sense of inevitability was echoed by Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who said in his televised announcement on breaking relations with Taiwan to establish ties with Beijing: "El Salvador can't turn its back on international reality."
El Salvador's defection seems to have finally galvanised the United States into action.
The White House issued a statement saying the decision to end relations with Taiwan was made "in a non-transparent fashion" and that it would affect "the economic health and security of the entire Americas region". It warned that El Salvador's "receptiveness to China's apparent interference in the domestic politics of a Western Hemisphere country is of grave concern to the United States" and would result in a re-evaluation of its relationship with El Salvador.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese government pointed out that the United States itself had established diplomatic ties with China in 1979 and severed relations with Taiwan but now "it is threatening another sovereign country not to recognise the one-China principle and develop normal relations with China".
Actually, since the United States recognised Beijing nearly 40 years ago, 67 other countries have followed in its footsteps, recognising China and breaking relations with Taiwan. El Salvador was only the most recent.
But now, it seems the United States no longer favours other countries doing what it did four decades ago. Instead, it is putting pressure on the 17 countries that still have diplomatic relations with Taiwan to keep those ties and not to establish formal relations with China.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman also denied "interference" in El Salvador's domestic politics and instead advised the United States "to show respect for other countries' independent right to determine their domestic and foreign affairs".
The Trump administration is treading on very sensitive ground. In 1979, the United States had, in a joint communiqué, recognised the People's Republic of China as the "sole legal government of China". In addition, it declared that it "acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China".
Now, the United States is in effect challenging the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China.
There is no excuse for China's bullying tactics in blackmailing governments and companies to endorse its position on Taiwan. But, no doubt, China will argue that what it is doing is laying the groundwork for eventual peaceful reunification with Taiwan.
However, China has not been averse to using force as well. China has conducted naval exercises in the Taiwan Strait and Chinese bombers have flown around the island in a threatening show of force. Chinese missiles have also splashed down in waters adjacent to Taiwanese ports.
Moreover, the threat to use force is there for all to see in the Anti-Secession Law, passed by China in 2005 to give itself the right to use force if "possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted". In those circumstances, "the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity".
In the Taiwan Relations Act, which was passed by the US Congress in 1979, the United States asserts that the establishment of diplomatic relations with "the People's Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means".
The Taiwan Relations Act includes procedures by which the White House must notify Congress in case of a threat to Taiwan.
Throughout the last four decades, such procedures have never been invoked. In 1996, when China conducted military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, the Clinton administration sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the vicinity of Taiwan. Outgunned, the Chinese backed down.
The situation is different now, even on the military front. But if China continues to pressure Taiwan on every front, the Trump administration may well be justified in notifying Congress of a threat to Taiwan, for a threat there certainly is.
The question then becomes: what can and will the US Congress do?
- The writer is a Hong Kong-based commentator. He can be reached at Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @FrankChing1