Explainer: the situation in Taiwan

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In 1945 the Second World War ended, yet in China it was to be followed by another conflict deciding the future of the nation. On one side were the Chinese Nationalist Party, the first power to successfully unite China after the fall of the last Imperial Dynasty in 1911. On the other side were the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong.

The civil war that had started in the 1920s and killed millions saw violence largely come to a close with the Nationalist Party retreating southwards and eventually crossing the Taiwan Strait in 1949. There, the Nationalist Government would rule as the Republic of China (ROC), more commonly known as Taiwan. Back on the mainland, the Communist Party would rule as the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), known now as China.

Since then the Civil War has stagnated, but not officially ended. Both the ROC and Communist China continued to consider themselves as the sole government representing China internationally, with the other being an illegal occupier of some of their territory. This relationship also involves one other major power, namely the US, which acts as Taiwan’s most valuable ally and a counterbalance to China.

Both the ROC and Communist China continued to consider themselves as the sole government representing China internationally

After the Communist takeover of mainland China many nations still recognised the ROC as the official Chinese government, but over the course of the Cold War it was an increasingly untenable position, due to the reality that the historical territory of China was decisively controlled by the PRC. In 1971 the UN changed its official seat for China from the ROC to the PRC, and in 1979 the US also switched diplomatic recognition to the PRC alongside strengthening relations with Mao’s regime.

The US was not however planning on abandoning Taiwan to the mainland. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 made provisions for continued de facto diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and also allowed for the US to continue arms sales to Taiwan.

The question of whether the US would come to the aid of Taiwan militarily in the event of war had been left intentionally unclear, under a policy of strategic ambiguity. This policy has the advantages of not formally committing the US to an unwanted war, yet also leaving that possibility open making China less willing to invade and Taiwan less likely act rashly knowing it has US backing.

The US and the world has to navigate the increasingly complicated context of Taiwan

In the past 40 years, China has opened up its economy and become a superpower, both economically and militarily. Taiwan on the other hand has become a thriving democracy. However, with China’s recent authoritarian turn under Chinese President Xi Jinping this set of circumstances has led Taiwan into a precarious position.

China still considers its goal as reuniting Taiwan with the mainland, with Xi claiming this “must and will” happen. Simultaneously the democratic culture of Taiwan has led to the success of the Democratic Progressive Party, who strongly oppose reunification and consider Taiwan to be a sovereign country independent from China, leading to deep tension from these contradicting positions.

Careful and patient thinking will be needed to stop a costly and damaging conflict in this region

To add to this, we have had four years of destabilising Trump presidency which undermined many of the unwritten rules underlying the US approach to Taiwan. Now the US and the world has to navigate the increasingly complicated context of Taiwan, torn between historical commitments, support for democracy, and dealing with the prospect of conflict between military superpowers.

It is therefore important that more people come to understand this history and the importance of Taiwan in the relationship between China and the US. Regardless of happens next, careful and patient thinking will be needed to stop a costly and damaging conflict in this region.

Image by tomscy2000 via Flickr

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