Updated: Jun 29
In the midst of the aggressive approach of China, Taiwan may need to prepare for a possible crisis. What could be its implications on India, the Indo-Pacific and the international system? Ambassador (retd.) Prabhat Prakash Shukla explains.
Taiwan's president Tsai Ing Wen with the military officers.
The situation in the Taiwan Strait is growing increasingly fraught and dangerous. Mainland China is using more threatening language in recent months, and its actions are moving in step with the verbal threats – amphibious attack exercises, military flights into the Air Defence Identification Zone, and heightened naval activity in the Strait. From the side of the US and Japan, the responses have been similarly tough, with rhetoric, and legislative action matching military manoeuvres from the US side, many times backed up by its Quad partners.
It is time therefore, to anticipate and prepare for a possible crisis. Obviously, the most important aspect of any preparation is to have adequate forces on the ready in order to deter any hostile action, and to defeat such action should it happen in spite of diplomatic and military measures to stave off a crisis.
The emerging and heightening tensions also bring up two issues that have been in discussion for some time: the need for a collective security arrangement, and the issue of non-proliferation. The first was very much on the minds of the leaders in the region at the time they were finalising the Peace Treaty with Japan, and John Foster Dulles, the chief US negotiator, even had a draft ready for discussion. But it was opposed, among others, by the UK, so it made little progress. The US did sign the ANZUS Treaty, and bilateral treaties with Japan, the Philippines, and Thailand. Later on, SEATO [South-East Asia Treaty Organisation] did make some kind of attempt at regional security. But the US-China opening and the US defeat in Vietnam served to end the rationale for SEATO and it was formally ended in 1977.
The matter of non-proliferation is a perennial – the North Korean programme has been under discussion for the best part of four decades, but that country’s nuclear programme continues. The insistence of the NPT-anointed nuclear countries on controlling the spread of such weapons has resulted now in two countries, North Korea and Iran, being close to full-fledged nuclear weapons capability. That leaves other countries in the regions exposed to nuclear intimidation; China’s continuing build-up of its nuclear stockpile is a recent addition to the stresses and strains in the region. This issue needs to be fixed.
This essay takes all those efforts as given, especially the defence perparedness; what it seeks to bring out are the unique features of Taiwan, or the Republic of China. That country is among the few that has continued unchanged since the early years of the 20th century, albeit with a much-diminished geography today. It therefore carries important historical legacies, which need to be understood for their implications for today. These legacies can be utilised to good effect in order to restructure the Indo-Pacific region and thus face down the challenges posed by the aggressive rise of mainland China.
To anticipate the conclusions:
(i) The historical record shows that the Post-Second World War settlement in the Pacific deliberately did not award Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China. The wartime understanding was that it would revert to the “Republic of China”; the US position during the negotiations of the San Francisco Treaty was in favour of self determination for Taiwan.
(ii) The expulsion of the Republic of China from the UN was done by a simple majority in the General Assembly, a clear violation of the Charter, which still lists the Republic of China as a permanent member of the Security Council. This violation needs to be addressed, either diplomatically or through the International Court of Justice.
(iii) The Republic of China was the third party at the Simla Conference in 1913-14, when the India-Tibet boundary was decided, the McMahon Line. The objection of the ROC was to the inner line dividing Tibet from China, and that issue is now moot. It is time, therefore, for the ROC to withdraw its objection to the Simla convention. Other countries have taken similar retrospective actions, and such a move would have a salutary effect on this dispute.
(iv) The current disputes in the South China Sea have their origins in the 11-dash line put forward by the Republic of China in 1947. It was then adopted in slightly modified form by the People’s Republic and became the 9-dash line that is the cause of all the friction in the Sea. There is no basis for that original line, and the Permanent Court of Arbitration has so ruled in 2016, on a plaint from the Philippines; time for Taiwan to acknowledge this reality, and undercut the legitimacy of the 9-dash line.
Four issues relating to Taiwan are examined in this essay. The first is the issue of its sovereignty, and whether there is indeed a valid claim by the People’s Republic of China [PRC] to the island. The second is the manner of the unseating of Taiwan from the UN in 1971. The third is the question of the India-China boundary, particularly the McMahon Line and its alleged rejection by the then Republic of China. Finally, the 11-dash line put forward by the Republic of China in 1947 in the South China Sea will be examined for its current significance.
Status of Taiwan
The PRC’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan is based on history, dating from the Qing dynasty, but like much of their claims – to Tibet or the South China Sea – there are doubts and counters to these claims. In modern times, the claim is based on the Cairo Declaration issued by the three wartime leaders in 1943, to wit, Chiang Kai-shek, US President Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Churchill. Calling themselves, with fetching modesty, the Three Great Allies, these men issued a declaration on the post-War settlement, whose operative part reads as follows:
The Three Great Allies are fighting this war to restrain and punish the aggression of Japan. They covet no gain for themselves and have no thought of territorial expansion. It is their purpose that Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the first World War in 1914, and that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and The Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China.
This is the basis of the PRC’s claim to Taiwan/Formosa. But it is complicated by the fact that the Republic of China [ROC] still exists and it rules over Taiwan/Formosa. So, in a sense, the requirement of the Cairo Declaration has indeed been fulfilled.
The next phase of the development of this issue arose at the time of the San Francisco Treaty, 1951-52, the treaty that made peace with Japan. Here the arguments were protracted and bitter, between the US and the UK. The UK had recognised the People’s Republic of China in 1950 itself, which the US described as a “fiction” on the grounds that PRC had rejected at the time, and had not recognised the UK – a point the British conceded during the visit of Churchill to the US in January 1952. The US recognised the Republic of China [then referred to as Formosa] and was determined that Japan should also recognise it too. The commitment to Formosa represented a change in the American stance after the outbreak of the Korean War, a subject of some recrimination by Zhou Enlai during the secret visit of Kissinger to Peking in July 1971.
As a result, the US position on the draft of the Japanese Peace Treaty changed between 1950 and 1951. The original draft had provided for a final settlement of the fate of Formosa by agreement between the US, UK, USSR and China; but after the Korean War, the draft was changed to leave the disposition of Formosa hanging. This was thus a deliberate act to obviate the possibility of Formosa becoming part of PRC.
The Americans explained this change by admitting that until then, they also held the view of the British that they could keep the PRC and the USSR separate. The Korean War made it clear that that was not to be. There were differences at the top in the US on the issue of Formosa, and Secretary of State Acheson remained unconvinced till the Treaty was finalised that Formosa’s fate should be left dangling. Perhaps this was why President Truman charges Dulles with negotiating the Treaty – John Foster Dulles, later to be Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, was then the Consultant to the Secretary of State.
The upshot then was that the fate of Formosa was left open. Dulles even made the point to the British that the Cairo Declaration actually referred to the Republic of China as the recipient of Formosa, not the People’s Republic. In addition, he told the British Ambassador, Sir Oliver Franks, that it would be wrong to hand over Formosa to the Communists [the British were making this demand] without ascertaining the desires of the people of Formosa. His exact words were:
Mr. Dulles then reviewed at some length the United States general position with regard to Formosa and the undesirability of turning over to a Communist regime the island and people of Formosa without some attempt being made to determine the desires of the people of that island.
Thus, the US position evolved towards ascertaining the wishes of the people of Formosa as regards their final status. The British went along with this, but several other countries did not. India did not agree to these changes, and conveyed its decision to the US in August 1951, weeks before the actual signing in San Francisco. The reasoning behind the Indian decision was that the Treaty did not contain explicit references to the final disposition of Formosa as well as the Kuriles, respectively to the PRC and the USSR; India also had reservations over the provision allowing US trusteeship over the Ryukus and Bonin islands.
The US anger at this decision was reflected in a hand-written noting in the margins of the message from New Delhi: “Evidently the ‘Gov’t of India has consulted Uncle Joe and Mousie Dung of China!”
The Soviet Union also did not sign, although Andrei Gromyko, then Deputy Foreign Minister of the USSR, attended the San Francisco conference. He voiced his objections to the Treaty in its final version, for similar reasons, especially regarding Formosa and the Kuriles. The Americans professed to find the statement he made quite moderate.
As to the question of which China should be invited to sign the Treaty, here the differences between the US and the UK proved unbridgeable. The UK insisted it had to be the PRC; this was clearly unacceptable to the US. In the end, neither was invited to sign in San Francisco, and it was left to Japan to sign a bilateral treaty with Nationalist China after the ratification of the San Francisco Treaty in 1952.
All this was overturned by the Nixon Administration in 1971. The root was the “One China” principle, which even Chiang Kai-shek insisted upon. This reached its culmination in the 1978 communiqué [the second of the Three Communiqués, which mainland China insists define the relationship], which was agreed in December 1978, but is formally dated 1 January 1979. Article 2 of this document recognises that, according to the US:
the Government of the People’s Republic of China [is] the sole legal Government of China. Within this context, the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.
But in 1971, there was another play between the US and the PRC, centred on the UN and the representation of China. The issue was that of the representation of China in the UN; every year, since 1960, the Albanians [backed by an increasing number of developing countries, as they obtained their independence from the erstwhile colonial rulers] would propose a Resolution in the General Assembly on the expulsion of the Republic of China and the admission of the People’s Republic in its place. This would be opposed by the US and its allies, with the result that it would be defeated.
However, the 1971 visit to Peking by the US National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, changed the dynamic. With all the action taking place in the General Assembly, where no country had a veto, it was becoming clear that the majority would support the admission of the PRC. The Albanian-led Resolution also called upon the General Assembly to
expel forthwith the representatives the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the United Nations and all the organisations affiliated to it.
The US did try to mitigate things for the Republic of China, by two methods. First, they tabled a draft resolution calling for the question of China’s representation to be recognised as an important question under Article 18 of the Charter, which would require a two-thirds majority for the change to be effected. This was defeated. They then tabled another draft calling for both the PRC and the ROC to be members, the latter remaining as an ordinary member, but this was also defeated by a close vote of 61-51.
Thereafter, the Albanian resolution was voted on, and was carried by 76 votes in favour to 52 against, with 17 abstentions. Among others, India voted in favour of the Albanian resolution. The UK and the USSR also supported the resolution; their argument was that the question was simply one of recognition of credentials of two competing entities, and since both the UK and the USSR recognised the PRC, they would support the seating of that country in all the organs of the UN. The final document stands on the records of the UN as General Assembly 2758 of 25 October 1971.
The flaw in this argument is clear: the UN Charter clearly refers to the “Republic of China” as the member and the veto-wielding member of the UN. This Republic of China continues to exist, and is still recognised by the Charter. Therefore, a Charter amendment is required before this arrangement can be changed. In this regard, the situation is different from the case of the USSR: that country ceased to exist, and Russia could claim to be the sole successor, even though this itself is a grey zone, because the Charter continues to refer to the USSR as a permanent member of the Security Council.
But in the case of the Republic of China, there is no ambiguity. The seating of the PRC is an unequivocal violation of the Charter, no matter that it makes political sense.
The entire development of the Taiwan question is riddled with this kind of skirting the law. The US, after it shifted diplomatic recognition to the PRC from 1 January 1979, also denounced its Mutual Defence Treaty with Taiwan, although Nixon had assured Chiang Kai-shek in a formal letter that this would not happen. This was done by executive action by President Carter, and was challenged up to the Supreme Court by a group of Congress members, including the likes of Senators Barry Goldwater and Orrin Hatch. The court declined to rule on the issue, but instructed the appeal court to dismiss the petition. The question still remains open.
A related issue came up in 2007, when Taiwan applied for membership of the UN as a separate country. This was the fifteenth attempt, the previous ones having been in the name of the Republic of China; this time the country applied in the name of Taiwan. The request was turned down by the UN Legal Affairs Office, citing the 1971 Resolution recognising the PRC as the sole legal representative of China. At that time, the US officially re-stated its bland position that it did not support an independent Taiwan, but that its sovereignty was yet to be determined.
Since then, though, a lot has changed, especially with the Presidency of Donald Trump. It began with the President-elect taking a phone call in December 2016 from the President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, the first such official contact since 1979. Since that time, although Trump hosted a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, and reaffirmed the One China stance, the movement in the US has been towards a separate policy towards Taiwan, aimed at easing the restrictions placed since 1979.
The US Congress has played an active role too. It passed three important pieces of legislation during the Trump Administration. In February 2018, Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act, which became law in March 2018 (PL 115-135), which lifted the ban on US official contacts with Taiwan. Later, in December 2018, it passed the Asia Reassurance Initiative (ARIA), which contained commitments on arms sales and defence capabilities and became law on 31 December 2018 (PL 115-409). This was followed in March 2020 by the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement initiative Act [TAIPEI Act], aimed at promoting the island’s diplomatic standing and recognition. And finally, the Taiwan Assurance Act was attached to the $2.3 trillion spending bill for 2021, its purpose being to ensure adequate defence capability for Taiwan, in addition to promoting its participation in international organisations.
A noteworthy aspect of all this legislation is that they were all passed with overwhelming majorities, several with unanimous consent of both Houses of Congress.
The Biden team appears to be set on continuing this trend, though there are different voices within his team. For a start, the Taiwanese representative was present at the inauguration of the President. Earlier, during the campaign, the Democratic Party removed a reference to One China from its manifesto. And in more recent weeks, two groups of officials and Senators have visited Taiwan. One group visited in a military aircraft, which prompted more acrimony from the mainland.
Meanwhile, there is growing polarisation across the Taiwan Strait. The PRC set the pace by enacting a law in 2005, pre-authorising the use of force if Taiwan were to move towards independence; specifically, any change in the Constitution of the ROC would trigger such a military response. This was a response to President Chen Shui-bian’s plans to amend the Constitution during his second term in office.
The real change began from the mainland’s moves to exert tighter control over Hong Kong in 2014. The idea of “One Country Two Systems” was never acceptable to Taiwan, but the harsh tightening of mainland control over Hong Kong – in spite of explicit treaty assurances to the contrary – destroyed whatever limited appeal it may have had in Taiwan. The results are apparent in public opinion surveys: by July 2021, 63.3 percent identified as solely Taiwanese, 31.4 percent as both Chinese and Taiwanese, and just 2.7 percent as only Chinese – a record low.
China has expectedly responded to this growing trend with the only way it does: imprecation, and hostile military gestures. In recent months, it has increased the flights of its military aircraft in the Air Defence Identification Zone of Taiwan; it has fired missiles around the island; and it has conducted exercises, including practising amphibian landings. There should really be no doubt: China will use force to prevent formal separation between the mainland and Taiwan. They may well use force even without that provocation if domestic politics demand some such action, as President Xi enters the run-up to a difficult Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party, due in late 2022. The PLA is also out of effective control, and feels an overweening sense of power. Reports in the US media to the effect that China would prevail against the US if it came to war, are likely to spur the PLA on in its increasingly reckless show of force in the Indo-Pacific region.
The upshot of all these factors is that there is an unstable balance across the Taiwan Strait for the present; the Republic of China is likely to linger for some time, and can play a helpful role due to its history of being the only China between 1912 and 1949. Chief among these, from the Indian perspective, is the role of ROC in the Simla Conference in 1913-14, which settled the border with India.
The India-Tibet boundary and the Simla Convention (aka Shimla Convention)
The details of the Simla negotiations between representatives of British India [Arthur Henry McMahon], the Tibetan Government of the 13th Dalai Lama [Lonchen Shatra Pal-jor Dorje] and the Republic of China [Chen I-fan] are well known and bear no repetition. But there were parallel and subsequent developments which will provide useful insights into the events.
The first was the parallel development in Mongolia. When the Qing Empire fell, both Tibet and Mongolia declared themselves independent, having owed fealty to the Qing Emperor only. Russia stepped into the fray in Mongolia and signed agreements with both that country and with the new Republic of China in the period 1912-13. And finally, to clear up the overall relations, it also called for a tripartite conference in its border town of Kyakhta, in 1914-15. The result was a tripartite agreement, the Treaty of Kyakhta, with almost identical provisions to those of the Simla Convention:
A division of Mongolia into Inner and Outer Mongolia
Autonomy for Outer Mongolia;
Chinese suzerainty over Outer Mongolia;
No Mongolian representation in the Chinese parliament;
No Chinese military presence in Outer Mongolia, except for a small guard for the Chinese Representative [called “Dignitary” in the Treaty], not exceeding 200. In the case of Tibet, the number was 300.
There was one other important difference: the Kyakhta Treaty expressly denied Outer Mongolia the right to enter into any treaties with foreign countries except those of a commercial or industrial nature. There was no similar provision in the Simla Convention. This was clearly the result of Tibet having signed an agreement with British India on its own.
The main point to note is that the Chinese Government was willing to sign agreements similar to the one on offer at Simla in 1914; this lends added credence to the Eden Memorandum, forwarded by then Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden to the Foreign Minister of the Republic of China, TV Soong, to the effect that China had no objection to either the boundary between India and Tibet or to autonomy for Outer Tibet, but only to the inner boundary between China and Tibet. In the words of the Memorandum:
The rock on which the [Simla] convention and subsequent attempts to reach an understanding were wrecked was not the question of autonomy (which was expressly admitted by China) but was the question of the boundary between China and Tibet, since the Chinese Government claimed sovereignty over areas which the Tibetan Government claimed belonged to their autonomous jurisdiction.
All of this serves to reinforce two important conclusions. The first is that the Chinese had no difficulty with accepting the McMahon Line as the boundary between Tibet and India. Sure enough, there was a good bit of skulduggery involved in the negotiations over this Line; the British Government in London had even expressly forbidden McMahon to sign the Convention with Tibet alone. But the histories of most of the Empires of the day are replete with examples of field officers exceeding their orders – and their gains to be subsequently endorsed higher up the chain of command. This, indeed, is what happened with the McMahon Line.
The second conclusion is that there was no objection on the part of the Chinese to the question of autonomy for Outer Tibet, while recognising its suzerainty. Not only is this clear from the negotiating record as set out in the Eden memorandum, it also is confirmed by the parallel development concerning Mongolia, described above.
But there is still more, specific to Taiwan: this is a statement made by President Chiang Kai-shek, in 1959, after the escape of the Dalai Lama from Tibet to India. In his own words:
Today I wish to affirm emphatically that regarding Tibet's future political institutions and status as soon as the puppet Communist regime on the mainland is overthrown and the people of Tibet are once again free to express their will, the Government will assist the Tibetan people to realize their own aspirations in accordance with the principle of self-determination.
There has been some argument in Taiwan to the effect that this statement contradicted the ROC Constitution, which provides for Tibetan representation in the ROC parliament. This is true, but real life has its own ineluctable logic: there have been no Tibetan representatives in the ROC parliament since the very beginning. And one must believe that President Chiang was familiar with the Constitution when he made the statement quoted in part above.
Finally, it is worth recalling that Nehru had recognised the independence of Tibet in the brief period between 1947 and 1949, when the Republic of China was still ruling the mainland. Nehru had organised the Asian Relations Conference and had invited Tibet as a separate country. He had also invited the Soviet Central Asian states, but those were with the concurrence of the Soviet Union. As for Tibet, they had travelled on Tibetan passports, and their own flag was on display at the conference. The delegate of the ROC objected to their presence, and to the display of the flag and map. A compromise was reached, but Nehru’s welcome speech recognised Tibet as a neighbouring country, along with Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan. All through the period 1947-49, he continued to treat Tibet as an independent country, even when that latter raised boundary issues with India, claiming areas lying south of the McMahon Line.
Nehru turned around his stance on Tibetan independence once the Communists took power, and accepted the PRC’s sovereignty from the very beginning of the invasion in 1950. He went to the extent of allowing the PRC Government Representative in Tibet, General Chang Ching-wu, to travel to Tibet through Calcutta; and he [Nehru] effectively prevented UN Security Council consideration of the Tibet question. Why this change in his stance came about, remains inexplicable.
The 11-dash line in the South China Sea
There is one final aspect of the historical legacy of the ROC that is worth detailing: the 11-dash Line in the South China Sea put forward in 1947. This line was later converted to a 9-dash line by the People’s Republic of China, removing two dashes from the Vietnam seafront. But even in their Position Paper of December 2014, the PRC provided very sparse evidence or justification for their claim to virtually the entire Sea. There was a reference to some exploration two thousand years ago, and then to the claims put forward by the Republic of China, though without using that name, in the late 1940’s.
The paper was an indirect response to the Philippines’ move to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, because the PRC did not participate in the Arbitration proceedings. But what does strike the reader is that the alleged legendary exploits of the great maritime captain, Zheng He, are totally absent from the Chinese recounting of its naval history. This author has always been a sceptic about the grandiose claims, and this absence is probably as close as one can come to finding justification for that scepticism.
The upshot of the Arbitration was a complete refutation of the Chinese claims to the entirety of the South China Sea, and a vindication of the plaint of the Philippines. The finding was accepted and supported by the vast majority of the countries that adhered to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS]. But China rejected it and some of its close partners – Russia, Pakistan, Laos, Cambodia and some others – backed China. As for UNCLOS, Chinese White Papers on Defence in subsequent years ceased to mention it, though China continues to adhere to it.
The operational aspect is that the Chinese do accept that the origin of their claims in the South China Sea derives from the ROC. As it happens, the ROC also disagreed, and very strongly, with the Arbitration award, even though it had formally suspended its own claims to the waters in 2005. Its concern was mainly with Taiping Island, the largest island in the Spratlys, which had been dismissed as conferring any EEZ rights under UNCLOS by the Arbitration. But it did reveal that the suspension of claims was at an end, because the statement repeated the ROC claim to all islands and their relevant waters in the South China Sea.
This completes the narrative relevant to the Republic of China. The conclusions that flow from this, and their policy implications follow.
The first is that there is every reason to recognise that the status of the island is legally undetermined. The preparatory work on the post-Second World War peace arrangements deliberately left the final disposition in this limbo; the understanding, at least on the part of the US, the UK and other signatories of the San Francisco Treaty in 1951, was that the inhabitants of the island would be allowed to determine their status on their own. The claim of the People’s Republic is neither borne out by the post-War documents, nor by the practice of the early years thereafter. It was only the Nixon-Kissinger team that pushed the One China concept; this itself is now under some strain, not least because public opinion in Taiwan is itself turning against the idea.
Obviously, any formal move in the direction of self-determination will trigger a military response from the mainland, but the endgame needs to be clear; the heart of the matter is the One China policy.
Secondly, the manner in which the ROC was removed from the UN was illegal, and is a continuing violation of the UN Charter itself. This is a matter that needs to be taken up legally and internationally. At the appropriate time, the ROC could seek the opinion of the International Court. If the Court is free from political pressure, there can be no doubt what the outcome will be: the 1971 process was a violation of the UN Charter.
Thirdly, the position taken by the ROC on Tibet also needs to be reviewed. The reason for rejecting the Simla convention in 1914 is now moot, since the ROC has no border with Tibet. And Chiang Kai-shek had himself offered self-determination to the people of Tibet. This offer has been buttressed by similar UN General Assembly Resolutions in 1961, and 1965. The ROC would earn goodwill and political support for its other aims, described above, if it were to make this change.
And fourthly, and finally, a change in the ROC position on the 11-dash line in the South China Sea would not only make legal and historical sense, it would also betoken a major change in the strategic power-play in the region. The ROC had come close to making this change in 2005, but has switched back after the Arbitration award, out of concern for its position on Taiping Island. This does not follow, and it is already in possession in Taiping, so that fear is unjustified. Whether Taiping is a rock [as the Arbitration says] or an island [as Taiwan claims] can be settled without tying it to the bigger issue of the 11-dash line.
The domestic politics of these four changes will undoubtedly be very difficult. But, taken as a package, there is much to recommend it, and there is every reason to expect that the population of Taiwan will swing behind it. Sequencing will also be important, as will preparatory work, but the situation demands this.
Sir Halford Mackinder observed in his 1919 book, Democratic Ideals and Reality, that “Democracy refuses to think strategically unless and until compelled to do so for purposes of defense.” Time has proved this correct, sadly. Democracies today are beginning to think strategically, as they face the growing military threat from mainland China.
The crushing by the PRC of the autonomy of Hong Kong, in spite of treaty commitments to the contrary, is reminiscent of the Germans’ occupation of the Rhineland in 1936. Like Hong Kong, the Rhineland was acknowledged to be German territory, but it was not to be occupied under the Versailles Treaty. And yet, when Hitler ordered the army into the area, there was really no push-back, and, of course, there was celebration in Germany itself.
The next step – after the Anschluss with Austria - was the demand for Sudetenland, after which, Hitler declared that there were no more territorial claims. But when the western powers agreed to the demand, and compelled the Czechs to transfer it to Germany, it turned out that there were more territorial claims. Much the same is being implied by the Chinese today in respect of Taiwan, saying that that would complete the process of reunification of the motherland. But China too has other claims: some are active, as with India, others are dormant, as with Mongolia and Russian territories, including Vladivostok. Add the genocidal practices in Tibet and Xinjiang, and the parallels are pretty compelling.
The parallels between today’s China and Nazi Germany are not new, and have been drawn by others as well, including some regional leaders. The difference is that the Chinese leaders have, so far, followed the tactics of incremental steps, creeping forward, so that there is no consensus on how to respond to the minor changes. This tactic needs to be seen for what it is, and met firmly. This is what India is now doing in the northern border where China has been nibbling at Indian territory, in violation of bilateral agreements on stabilising the border.
Even though the student of history needs to be careful in adopting such parallels, there are similarities that cannot be overlooked. There does seem to be a limitless hunger for more territory among the Chinese leaders. Perhaps they should read Tolstoy’s short story - How Much land Does a Man Need? - and avoid the fate of Pakhom, the story’s tragic hero.
Taiwan is important for being the “democratic China”, a genuine democracy and a centre of hi-tech industry; it is, not least, also one of the vital links in the first island chain in the western Pacific. But it is more than all of that; it is also a legacy country, which was an active member of the global community during the tumultuous first half of the 20th century, where several of the current disputes took shape. And that is the aspect this note has tried to highlight. Thus for both historical reasons and the present order and stability, it is a country that requires some hard thinking and decisions with regard to its future.
(Prabhat Prakash Shukla has been diplomatic adviser to three Indian prime ministers. In his long and distinguished career as a diplomat, he was also India's ambassador to Russia.)