The conflict about the status of the island of Taiwan is once again featuring prominently in the news. The recent exercises by the military of the People's Republic of China around the island are raising tensions that have been latent since 1949. As the government of mainland China has been insisting for decades to annex a territory it deems a part of China, many are asking themselves whether a war of catastrophic consequences could happen over Taiwan.
At this point, the global community should try and find a peaceful solution to an impasse that has lasted for over seven decades and could potentially threaten the stability of the region and the world at large.
In December 1949, after more than two decades of fighting, the People's Liberation Army of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) defeated the forces of the nationalist Kuomintang-led government (KMT). Upon their victory, the Communist Party took complete control of Mainland China, while the KMT took its forces and people across the Taiwan Strait to the Island of Taiwan, establishing a government in exile.
Both governments claimed to be the legitimate government of the whole of China, and have done so ever since. In short, despite the military victory by the CCP, the civil war was not concluded. It has just been dormant for the past 74 years.
Upon the KMT's retreat to Taiwan, the mainland and the island of Taiwan established their own forms of government, vastly different today. The Communist Party imposed a totalitarian regime impacting all facets of civilian life on the mainland, while in Taiwan, several decades of military-authoritarian rule eventually gave way to a democratic transformation. Since 1996, Taiwan has existed as a full-fledged democracy.
Both governments retain to this day the concept of one China and entertain the hope and aspiration of unification. And, of course, each of them aspires to impose on the other part of China their own form of government.
It goes without saying that, for any form of unification to occur, the ongoing state of cold civil war must come to an end. But how to peacefully end an unfinished war with each party seeking opposite, and even clashing, goals?
Given the current balance of forces, with Communist China becoming a superpower and the second-biggest economy in the world, there are three possibilities of how things could go from here. The first possibility is an outright military victory for the CCP.
Second, both sides could secure an agreement that included a detailed truce incorporating a non-aggression pact and maintain the status quo. That would mean accepting the definitive partition of China, something the Communist government on the mainland will not accept in the foreseeable future.
Such an agreement would merely delay the inevitable. Both Taiwan and China will maintain their desire to eventually unify under their own terms and governmental systems while refusing to work in concert on any issue. Even more discouraging is that, as we've recently seen with China's approach to Hong Kong, a "one country, two systems" policy will never actually last.
A third possibility would be for both sides to agree on a loose form of confederation, in which they would speak with one voice on matters of mutual interest and concern and join forces in areas where unification could show strength to the rest of the world.
The unification of West and East Germany was possible because the collapse of the Communist system made it possible for the latter to actively join democratic life in West Germany. But that historical event cannot serve as a model. With mainland China and Taiwan having such differing political systems and opposing ideologies, it is inconceivable that the two entities can merge unless one side were to give in to the other.
Therefore, unification in the form of a confederation could be a potential solution, as it would allow both sides to retain their respective political regimes. This would allow them to maintain their independence and remove the threat of violence that has been suffocating the region while allowing a friendly relationship to be built, benefiting both countries economically and politically.
Although the present Chinese leadership appears to value the use of force, or "grey zone" tactics such as blockades, to achieve unification, they have to think very hard about Taiwan's geopolitical position. Despite being less than 200 kilometres from mainland China, Taiwan is far from being on its own, as it has the backing of the formidable military forces of the United States.
A larger risk for mainland China lies in the fact that its extended coastline is comprised of heavily populated urban centres that are home to over 200 million people. That coastline is highly vulnerable. While China is not currently in a position to threaten the US West Coast in retaliation, China would clearly have the capability to bring about large-scale destruction to Taiwan and other US interests in the region, putting almost another 25 million lives at risk.
The use of force by China to resolve this ongoing conflict and bring about unification is tempting and answers the ambitions of the hard-line members of CCP. However, the potentially catastrophic consequences for the country make the military option extremely dangerous, for now.
A sense of proportion, as well as acceptance of reality, would bring China global respect, based upon reverence rather than fear, that the military option would destroy. It would also entail enormous economic benefits.
For us humans, greatness should not be found in war and destruction but in building and preserving peace and the ability to live together in harmony in spite of diversity and differences. The Taiwanese and the Chinese are brethren. To be able to live together rather than killing each other would be a greater achievement of the Chinese leadership than a war whose implications and consequences are unimaginable.
Kasit Piromya is a retired diplomat with a career of over 30 years as ambassador of Thailand to countries like the Soviet Union, Indonesia, Germany, Japan, and the United States. He served as Thai Foreign Minister from 2009 to 2011.