Amid rising military tensions in the Taiwan Strait, the tense triangular relationship between the US, China and Taiwan has once again emerged. The status of the small, densely populated island off the southeast coast of the Chinese mainland is hotly disputed and almost daily news reports are predicting that a newly assertive China may soon act – militarily or otherwise – to forcibly retake Taiwan. To organize from. However, we’ve been here before, and to see such action inevitable would be misleading.
It is a complex situation that has its roots in the chaos that followed the end of World War II in Asia and the civil war in China, which ended with the establishment of the People’s Republic on 1 October 1949 by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party.
The island, formerly known as Formosa, was a Japanese colony between 1895–1945, but after the defeat of Japan it was placed under the control of the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (ROC).
In 1949, Chiang withdrew from Taiwan with about 2 million soldiers, allies and civilian refugees, planning to retake the mainland and overthrow the communists. Obviously, this never happened and since then there has been a global competition between two competing concepts from China.
During the Cold War, it was often promoted by the ROC and Western sources as “Red China” versus “Free China”. But both spent much of the conflict as brutal and tyrannical dictatorships that encouraged personality cults around their prominent leaders—so the notion of the Taiwanese people being independent was a matter of debate, to say the least.
Neither the PRC nor the ROC accept the other’s claim. Formal contact is limited and is usually negotiated through proxies in order to maintain the pretense of the other’s lack of legal existence.
The One China doctrine emerged soon after the ROC retreated in Taiwan. Neither side could even be seen to accept the competitiveness of its claim to the whole of China in the event of damage to its domestic and international reputation. The phrase “One China” then became popular among the PRC and US representatives following its use in the 1972 Shanghai Communic and gained more notoriety after the 1992 Consensus when informal representatives from Beijing and Taipei met in British Hong Kong and held their own. The agreement declared “One China” – although the interpretation of the people who ruled the region differed markedly.
The One China Doctrine is one of the oddities of modern diplomacy: it essentially requests that governments and major international organizations accept that either the PRC or the ROC is the rightfully single government of the whole of China – including Taiwan and its outlying islands.
field of competition
There are three international areas where One China is most evident today. One, and perhaps the most visible, is in international sporting competitions where Taiwan usually competes as “Chinese Taipei”. Taiwan is not allowed to use the ROC flag and its national anthem is not played.
Another is membership of international organizations including the United Nations (UN) and its allies such as the World Health Organization (WHO), where China opposes Taiwan’s membership. The ROC was one of the founders of the United Nations in 1945, but resigned its seat in 1971 in protest of UN moves to unify the PRC. The ROC was later replaced by the PRC in its capacity as a permanent member of the Security Council.
The third area is diplomatic recognition. Since 1949, there has been a general decline in the number of states worldwide that formally recognize the ROC because it would prevent formal relations with the much larger PRC. This limits most countries’ formal contact with Taipei, although informal trade and cultural ties remain.
The UK government recognized the PRC almost immediately after the declaration of statehood in 1949 – mainly due to concerns over the situation in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the US government did not formally recognize the PRC until the new year 1978–79 – the culmination of a process that began in 1969 under then-US President Richard Nixon and ended nearly a decade later under Jimmy Carter.
Since President Tsai Ing-wen came to power in 2016, Taiwan has been experiencing its fifth wave of diplomatic recognition, losing various allies including Burkina Faso in Africa and Panama and El Salvador in Central America. This is because Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supports greater independence for Taiwan from China, which is considered a hostile act by Beijing. Hence the threatening behavior which has been evident in different forms over the past five years and which has been increasing rapidly in recent weeks.
However, one should not see the situation as mere doom and gloom for Taiwan. Taiwan has been here before and political commentators have on several occasions raised fears for the future of the ROC – and yet it remains a vibrant part of the social, economic and political landscape of the Asia-Pacific region. Key to the stability of the ROC are the reforms undertaken during the 1980s and 1990s, which shifted it from a dictatorship to a multi-party democracy with respect for human rights at the center of its political approach.
Read more: China and Taiwan: why a war of words is unlikely to lead to a military conflict (for now, at least)
This sits in stark contrast to authoritarian incursions and ongoing questions over human rights abuses by the PRC on the mainland and in Hong Kong.
However, rising tension has put America in a difficult position. The Taiwan Relations Act, signed by the US Congress in the spring of 1979, was in response to the Carter administration’s recognition of the PRC’s pledge to defend Taiwan should a Chinese invasion be forthcoming. It remains to be seen how far America goes – but an armed conflict between the two superpowers is still unlikely.