Op-Ed: It’s Time to Rethink the “One China” Policy
China’s military threat against Taiwan represents a direct threat to Germany’s and Europe’s security. A new China strategy needs to take this into account.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
When talking about military threats in the Indo-Pacific, people tend to speak of the "Taiwan conflict." Similarly, in Germany, people still often talk about the “Ukraine conflict” rather than Russia’s war of aggression. But just like in Ukraine, in the South China Sea, too, we are not speaking about a conflict in which different parties have legitimate interests. Rather, Taiwan is a sovereign, democratic state threatened by a revisionist power. Moreover, China is already waging a hybrid war against the democracies of the world. Germany certainly has been one of Beijing’s preferred target for some time: There is a lot of know-how to be exploited and German society is not very resilient.
Therefore, when we talk about China policy, Taiwan, and Germany's role, it is not about “interfering” in a "conflict." Rather, it is about defending our own security, to which Taiwan contributes—as an economic partner, not least as a supplier of high-end semiconductors, and as a security partner that is committed to a rules-based order, respect for state sovereignty, international law, and nonviolence.
A Birth Defect
The current “One China” policy has always suffered from a birth defect that is now playing into the hands of the People's Republic of China. For the Chinese Communist Party, the “One China” principle is the basis of all questions of sovereignty. According to this principle, there is only one sovereign China: mainland China. Taiwan as well as Hong Kong and Macau, on the other hand, are not sovereign, but part of mainland China. The acceptance of the “One China” principle is a prerequisite for diplomatic and thus also economic relations. This precludes official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Like the vast majority of the world's states, Germany has so far adhered to the "One China” policy imposed by Beijing. Its de-facto annexation of Hong Kong has gone widely unnoticed. The peoples' right to self-determination has been ignored. Taiwan now fears the same fate.
Responding to China’s ever-growing threats against Taiwan is a matter of upholding international law and preventing a war of aggression by the People's Republic of China, amounting to a warlike confrontation in the Indo-Pacific. Here, Germany's and Europe's most elementary security interests are threatened. At stake is nothing less than the question of whether borders will be moved by force in the future. This raises the questions of whether a nuclear arms race is imminent and whether international relations will be based on rules in the future. A war would also lead to a global economic crisis as a consequence of any naval blockade, supply chain disruption, and sanctions. Global climate protection will then hardly be possible.
Unfortunately, an invasion of Taiwan by the People's Republic of China seems to be highly likely if a future alliance of states supporting the rules-based order, which should include Germany, does not succeed in deterring Beijing from this project. This cannot be achieved by purely diplomatic means, as we had to learn in case of Russia. Rather, we need smart power approaches—to make us more resilient in the systemic conflict as well as to seize the last chance to deter China from attacking.
China Is Getting Ready
Currently, however, we see China making war preparations at various levels: a massive military buildup, an increase in the number of military exercises, a militarization of society in which Chinese representatives demonize and dehumanize citizens of Taiwan. Also, China is "buying in" ex-military pilots from Western countries to generate knowledge of Western defense strategies. Strategically, Beijing is buying up critical infrastructure and companies in Western countries to increase vulnerabilities so that it is harder to sanction Chinese violations of international law in the first place. That's how it wants to make us incapable of imposing sanctions.
Meanwhile, China is strengthening its own supply chains to be less vulnerable in the event of Western sanctions and is selectively purchasing the expertise of Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturing professionals. In addition, China has massively increased cyber-attacks: Data thievery, industrial espionage, and sabotage are part of the cyber war that is already being waged against us! According to a 2022 study conducted by Bitkom, Germany’s digital association, nine out of 10 companies in Germany have been affected by such attacks.
Germany and other countries committed to the rule of law should finally overcome their naiveté and stop trying to ingratiate themselves with China. Like Russia, China thinks in terms of zones of influence; it has been committing systematic human rights violations for decades, and it de-facto supports the Russian war of aggression. Diplomacy and concepts such as "change through trade" have failed. We should therefore learn from the mistakes made vis-à-vis Russia. We must finally respond in a united and consistent way and stop constantly playing into China's hands. Autocracies only understand the language of strength, so we need a new approach: smart power.
Conducting the Systemic Conflict
Unfortunately, China is no longer a partner, but uses Europe as a testing ground and expects the West to be worn out by the Russian war of aggression. The systemic conflict is already in progress. What matters is to clearly side with rule-based states and this includes rethinking the “One China” policy since it favors China's imperial agenda and weakens the rules-based order because it defines sovereignty and self-determination exclusively according to Chinese interests.
Taiwan’s sovereignty and freedom, however, is crucial to Germany’s and Europe’s security. We must no longer view the Indo-Pacific solely through China's eyes. Reciprocity in economic relations is wishful thinking. Our policy must be: de-risking as a minimum, de-coupling where possible. In particular, we need to protect critical infrastructure from Chinese hybrid influence and diversify, accelerate the building of more resilient supply chains, and diversify our economy. National Sonderwege such as Germany relying on Huawei for its telecommunications infrastructure or allowing Chinese state-controlled company COSCO acquire a stake in a Hamburg port terminal must end.
Conversely in China, if sanctions were imposed, German companies would simply be socialized. Therefore, it is in the self-interest of German companies to cut back on investments and instead develop new markets and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region with countries that support the rules-based order—Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, Taiwan—and to intensify existing cooperation such as with the United States and Canada. Consistency means finally sanctioning human rights violations and breaches of international law.
At the end of the day, however, consistency and unity also mean providing military support to a state under attack. That is why we should already be involved in a military buildup, in joint deterrence, and in operations to secure sea lanes in the Indo-Pacific. We should show more robust engagement than just sending a frigate on a diplomatic mission. This is the only way to prevent an attack by China on Taiwan. Such an attack would have fatal consequences for the entire world and would massively threaten Germany's security.
Let us be courageous in finally drawing the right conclusions from the mistakes of the past. Taiwan's security is also our security. It is time to rethink the "One China” policy.
Col (ret.) Roderich Kiesewetter is a member of the German Bundestag for the Christian Democrats (CDU). He has been representative (“Obmann”) on foreign affairs for the CDU/CSU caucus since 2014. Currently, he also serves as deputy chairperson in the parliamentary oversight panel supervising Germany’s intelligence services.