Updated, June 13th, 2022. Originally published October 20, 2021.
Dr. Denison reported in Monday’s Daily Article that “China’s defense minister stated [on June 12th] that his country would “fight to the very end” to stop Taiwan’s independence. His speech came just weeks after President Joe Biden said the US would respond “militarily” if China attacked Taiwan.”
In 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a speech denouncing the “separatism” of Taiwan and has previously said China would “smash” any attempts of Taiwan to declare independence.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s speech, presented during the island’s National Day celebration, stirred international attention as she said Taiwan would not bow to China’s pressure.
It seems like a classic David and Goliath story and may remind some of the Cold War. Tsai certainly frames the conflict that way in her language. She said, “Free and democratic countries around the world have been alerted to the expansion of authoritarianism, with Taiwan standing on democracy’s first line of defense.”
However, one may notice that Taiwan holds no seat at the United Nations. Indeed, the island’s self-proclaimed title may seem strange: “The Republic of China.”
What’s going on?
Does China have a legitimate claim on Taiwan? And is war inevitable?
The violent history of China vs. Taiwan
China’s politics in the twentieth century reflects a wartorn and complex history. At the risk of leaving out potentially important details, I will provide a brief historical context. Understanding this history will reveal the nature of the modern conflict across the strait from the mainland of China to the island of Taiwan.
Though Taiwan initially belonged to China by 1683, Japan annexed Taiwan in 1895. Later, Japan returned control of the island to China after World War II as part of the peace accords.
Mainland China was governed by the Nationalist Party of Kuomintang, under the Republic of China. In the course of their reign, they executed tens of thousands of members of the Communist Party.
Eventually, in the 1930s, civil war broke out between the People’s Republic of China (ruled by the Communist Party and the infamous Mao Tse-Tung) and the Republic of China (ruled by the Nationalist Kuomintang government). After pausing briefly to defend against Japan’s invasion in World War II, they resumed fighting. Eventually, the Communist armies won, and the Kuomintang party with its remaining army fled to Taiwan.
At this point, the two governments claimed to be the legitimate government of all of China: the People’s Republic of China (the victors) and the Republic of China (who formed a home in Taiwan).
Why Taiwan isn’t recognized by the United Nations
Eventually, the United Nations recognized the Communist system (the People’s Republic of China) as the rightful government of China, leaving Taiwan in an undefined gray space.
In 1992, the two hostile governments came together, both saying that they believed there was only one China. This agreement stated that they would “work together to seek national reunification.” However, the Taiwanese government did not want to cede control to mainland China, which is how Beijing unsurprisingly interprets this agreement. The Taiwan position is summarized by the phrase “one China, different interpretations.”
Fast-forward and Taiwan still exists in that gray area. Taiwan (again, technically the “Republic of China”) is not recognized as an official country by the United Nations.
However, in every conceivable practical way, Taiwan acts as an independent country. Taiwan has its own large military, a rigorous economy, and effectively rules its own 23 million people.
Taiwan is independently governed by democratic processes; it’s a free place that highly values liberty. This is a stark contrast to the People’s Republic of China, whose authoritarian reign continually grows tighter.
Beijing claims that there is only one China and that Taiwan is a rogue province. China continues to offer a “one party, two systems” structure to Taiwan. But commentators point out that Taiwan carefully takes note of the conflict-laden relationship between China and Hong Kong, which uses that system.
What does Taiwan want?
Taiwan’s citizens are split between three broad beliefs:
- Maintain status quo, but move toward independence (26 percent)
- Maintain status quo and decide between unification or independence (31 percent)
- Maintain status quo forever (26 percent)
There are two parties in Taiwan, the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Until recently, the KMT supported closer ties with Beijing, though now they are reconsidering. The DPP wants to maintain the status quo, with support for eventual independence.
In 2016, Tsai Ing-wen was elected president as part of the DPP, which leans toward the eventual independence of Taiwan. To Beijing’s chagrin, and against their best efforts, Ing-wen won again in 2020.
It remains that, technically, both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) claim to rightfully rule all of China after a seventy-year-old civil war, though one is pressing that claim while the other wants to be left alone.
What about the US?
The US tentatively supports Taiwan while maintaining the agreement that President Reagan made in 1982. The agreement:
- rejects the use of force to settle the dispute,
- says the US will maintain ties with Taiwan,
- allows the US to sell arms to Taiwan for its defense,
- remains ambiguous on whether America would come to Taiwan’s defense against China,
- and still acknowledges that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of it.
President Trump spoke on the phone with Ms. Tsai after he won the 2016 election—an unprecedented recognition for Taiwan.
Biden was the first president to invite Taiwanese representatives to attend his inauguration.
The policies of Trump and Biden have aligned on their support for Taiwan, both selling massive amounts of arms to them.
The rising conflict between China and Taiwan and two opposing speeches
This brings us to the recent speeches by Chinese President Xi and Taiwanese President Tsai.
Xi’s agenda firmly states that China will unify, by force if necessary. He claimed they would pursue it via peaceful means, but also clearly left military action open. Last week, he said, “Those who forget their heritage, betray their motherland and seek to split the country will come to no good.”
China has several times conducted “drills” near Taiwan and sent bombers into Taiwan’s airspace in January (which led to a warning from the US), pressuring them with demonstrations of force. China has the third strongest military, with the largest standing front-line army. These tactics of pressure are not uncommon in China’s foreign policy, which is bent on control of the Asia–Pacific region.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “The top U.S. military commander in the Indo–Pacific warned that China could try to invade Taiwan within the next decade, while some experts believe that such an invasion is further off.”
In response to China’s mounting economic and military pressures, last Sunday President Tsai said she hopes for “an easing of cross-straits pressure.” She explained her commitment to peaceful development.
She also said, “There should be absolutely no illusions that the Taiwanese people will bow to pressure. . . . We will continue to bolster our national defense and demonstrate our determination to defend ourselves in order to ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us.”
Taiwan continues to bolster its defense while reflecting the overwhelming desire of the Taiwanese people to presently maintain the status quo.
She spoke plainly about why they will not bow to China: “The path that China has laid out offers neither a free and democratic way of life for Taiwan, nor sovereignty for our 23 million people.”
Tsai summarized their history from Taiwan’s perspective: “Over these past 72 years, we have gone from poverty to prosperity, from authoritarianism to democracy, and from uniformity to diversity.”
With this backdrop, Tsai’s words ring with courage. The issues surrounding Taiwan’s independence are complex and muddied. Though almost all Taiwanese support the status quo (for now), they are still divided on how to move forward beyond the present.
Many are drawing comparisons between Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the potential for an invasion from China into Taiwan. I consider that question further in “Will China copy Russia and invade Taiwan?”
Their fate and political status may remain in a gray area, but their resolve has not fluttered in the face of mounting pressure to unify with China under the People’s Republic.