The Korean War was a conflict with no clear winner. One possible exception was Chiang Kai-shek, even though he was a non-combatant in the conflict. A year after faltering in the Chinese Civil War, the Generalissimo’s KMT troops were granted a crucial opportunity to settle in Taiwan as Mao Zedong shifted his focus to the confrontation on the Korean Peninsula.
The high proportion of Chinese POWs (14,000 out of 21,000) opting for exile in Taiwan after the conflict (see page 11) also proved a propaganda coup for Chiang’s regime. The KMT government would repeatedly cite their choice as a justification for the island’s United Nations representation in place of Communist China. For many years January 23 – the day the POWs started to arrive in Taiwan in 1954 – was also celebrated locally as “123 Freedom Day”.
Perhaps the makers of The Battle of Lake Changjin hoped that Taiwanese audiences would get a different perspective on the former conflict in Korea (a forlorn hope, it turns out, as there isn’t much chance the film will be shown on the island).
For instance, when a senior officer in the Chinese army rallies his troops in the movie, a huge banner behind him reads: ‘Taiwan must be liberated’. The politically-charged scene has some connection to the historical reality. The Chinese forces that took part in the Lake Changjin battle were previously stationed in southern China and were said to be training for an invasion of Taiwan (their hasty deployment to the bitterly cold northeast saw many of the troops fighting in freezing weather without winter uniforms).
Chinese leader Xi Jinping made sure a similar message on reunification was heard across the Taiwan Strait on October 10 in a speech commemorating the 110th anniversary of the 1911 Chinese Revolution (which overturned the Qing Dynasty). A peaceful reunification was in the best interests of everyone, he stressed, before warning that “secession aimed at Taiwan independence is the greatest obstacle to national reunification and a grave danger to national rejuvenation”.
The increasingly volatile relationship between Taiwan and mainland China is one of the trickiest variables for Sino-US ties. In fact, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations in January 1979 was only possible after the two countries signed a communiqué in which Washington acknowledged that “there is but one China” while undertaking to withdraw its military presence from Taiwan (see WiC436). In return Beijing ‘guaranteed’ that it would strive for “a peaceful solution to the Taiwan question”.
These understandings, stipulated in the second of the so-called ‘Three Communiqués’, has been on shakier ground in recent years, with the Trump administration seeming to move away from some of its underlying assumptions. But US President Joe Biden told reporters last week that during a phone call with Xi last month, the two had agreed to abide by “the Taiwan agreement”.
Biden made the remark in response to a question about rising tensions near the Taiwan Strait. The Pentagon confirmed last week that a US nuclear submarine had collided with an “unknown object” in waters in the Asia-Pacific region (most likely the South China Sea). Meanwhile to coincide with National Day celebrations in mainland China, the People’s Liberation Army ordered more than 149 sorties (over four days) into airspace claimed by Taiwan.
In another revelation that will be seen as provocative in Beijing, the Wall Street Journal has reported that teams of US special forces have been deployed in Taiwan to help train local soldiers for months. If true, Beijing will view the matter as another major departure from the established consensus on Taiwan.
How long the status quo can prevail is now being openly questioned by both sides. Tsai Ing-wen, the Taiwanese president, warned on Sunday that China’s flights into the island’s air defence zone were part of a situation “more complex and fluid than at any other point in the past 72 years”. And last Wednesday Taiwan’s defence minister forecast that the PLA would have the capacity to mount a full-scale invasion of the island by 2025. “It is the toughest situation I have seen in more than 40 years of my military life,” Chiu Kuo-cheng told the island’s legislature.
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