Various invaders of the past have justified their annexation of a neighbouring country by claiming that country is unable to defend its own sovereignty. Although it makes little sense, the circular argument maintains sovereignty can only be achieved through annexation. Nazi Germany used this approach for the annexation of Austria in 1938. Russia is still using that rhetoric to justify its invasion of Ukraine. Now, the People's Republic of China (PRC) is appropriating former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou's China narrative, made during his historic trip to China in March/April. This paves the way to China's annexation of Taiwan, potentially affecting Australia's strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific region.
Ma departed from Taiwan on 27th March, commencing his historic 12-day journey into the PRC. It was the first time a former or sitting Taiwanese president had entered the PRC since the defeated Republic of China (ROC) government fled to Taiwan after losing a civil war to the communists seven decades ago.
During his trip to the PRC, on multiple occasions Ma referred to Taiwan by its official name "ROC", supposed to be taboo in the PRC. An even more jaw-dropping moment took place on April 2nd, when Ma was giving a talk at Hunan University in Changsha.
"Our country has been divided into two parts, one is the Taiwan area, and the other is the mainland area. Both are part of our Republic of China. Both are China. They are just two parts (of China)," Ma said.
Ma's China narrative is at odds with Beijing's. Beijing has reiterated its position numerous times, asserting there is only "one China"– which is the PRC. The CCP maintains that "there is but one China in the world, Taiwan is an inalienable part of China's territory, and the Government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China." For Beijing, the ROC is history and no longer has sovereignty over both China and Taiwan.
However, the PRC continues to turn a blind eye to Ma's nomenclature, ROC. The question is: why now?
The easiest explanation is that the PRC was making a friendly gesture to Taiwan, hoping the voters would support the Pan Blue's (the pro-unification camp in Taiwan) candidate in the upcoming presidential election early next year. That probably is the case, but no evidence could support that speculation, apart from wishful thinking.
Ma talking about the "ROC" (the other "China") was a publicity stunt. At first glance, it seemed to be a moment worthy of congratulation within Taiwan that Ma had championed the ROC on the PRC's soil. However, Ma's China narrative failed to highlight the position that "ROC and PRC are not subordinate to each other," the position championed by the current ROC government. More dangerous for Taiwan is that Ma's China narrative actually suggests that the ROC's sovereignty would be complete only when Taiwan (alongside "the Mainland") is part of China. It is no wonder that hardly any of PRC's state-run media have criticized or challenged Ma's position.
To determine why the PRC entertained Ma's ROC comments calls for analysis by historical analogy. Here there are two incidents in history that must not be neglected: Nazi Germany taking possession of Austria in 1938 and; Putin invading Ukraine in 2022. In both cases, the invaders applied the same justification in their rhetoric: annex a neighboring country for the sake of defending its sovereignty.
Lessons from Anschluss
Nazi Germany claimed that Austria was a "German land" and the separation between two countries was an artificial consequence of the Treaty of Versailles and the Treaty of Saint-Germain following the end of World War I. To further justify the invasion of Austria (the Anschluss), Nazi Germany proclaimed that Austria's sovereignty and national identity were going to be annihilated unless it was united with the Nazi Germany.
This rhetoric was recorded in news media worldwide days after German troops crossed the border entering Austria in mid-March 1938. For example, the front page article of The Canberra Times on 15 March, 1938 stated that Hitler told a journalist: "I have performed a work of peace here. If I had not intervened there would have been a bloody revolution and Austria might well have been another Spain in the heart of Europe."
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