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For the last sixty years, the Republic of China has claimed that it is the sole legal government of China. During that time however the only area effectively under its jurisdiction is the island of Taiwan. The Republic of China persuaded the international community to play along with its charade from 1949 to 1971 when, at last, it lost the “China seat” in the United Nations to the People’s Republic of China. Since that time, to most nations of the world the Republic of China has not formally existed.

Officially, both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China adhere to what is known as a “One China Policy”. Both governments admit that there is only one China, consisting of both the mainland and Taiwan. For Taiwan however, this policy has become little more than lip-service. It adheres to the One China Policy as a way of appeasing the PRC and to prevent increased tension between the two nations and their allies.

The PRC opposes any international recognition of the ROC as an independent entity. The PRC consistently professes its willingness to go to war to keep Taiwan from declaring independence. The PRC proposes unification under a “one country two systems” approach similar to the one used in its unification
with Hong Kong. This system a allows for economic and social autonomy with tight political control.

Since the 1980s Taiwan has undergone a gradual political liberalization initiated by the then ruling Koumintang (KMT) Party. This liberalization culminated in Taiwan’s first ever free presidential elections in 1996. As the political systems of the two countries drift further apart, the chances for eventual unification drift with them.

Thus, as of 2008 Taiwan remains in a curious predicament. Taiwan is a nation without being a formally recognized state. While publicly professing the desire for eventual reunification with the PRC, the government gradually works for international recognition. It is a game of subtle moves however, as the international community is unwilling to accept provocative actions on the part of either the Republic of China or the People’s Republic of China. Taipei is unable to declare independence for fear of Beijing’s reaction, but Beijing is unable to use force for fear of international reprisals.

History of the ROC

The “Taiwan problem” effectively began in 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) triumphed in the Chinese civil war and the Nationalist government retreated to the island of Taiwan. Unable to accept the reality of the fall of China to communism, the United States continued its commitment to defend the Nationalists. When the Korean War broke out in June of 1950, the United States sent its Seventh Fleet into the strait between Taiwan and the mainland and threatened to use nuclear weapons to keep the island from falling into the hands of the Communists.

The United States’ support during the 1950s and 60s created a perverse international situation. The Republic of China retained the “China seat” at the United Nations and was the internationally recognized government of China. The seat was finally relinquished to the People’s Republic of China on October 25, 1971, just months before President Nixon made his famous visit to China in February 1972.

In the joint communiqué issued by the United States and the PRC, the United States accepted the One China Policy. “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China. The United States government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.”

The final diplomatic split between Taiwan and the United States came on January 1, 1979 when Washington extended for full diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China. Relations with the Republic of China were simultaneously severed. The mutual defense treaty between the two countries was ended exactly 1 year later. All other ties between the two countries, including economic, were retained however, including the United States right to sell weapons to Taiwan.

Taiwanese Politics

When Chiang Kai-shek removed his Nationalist government to Taiwan in 1949, the Republic of China was a Leninist one-party system run by Chiang’s KMT party. Chiang continued to lead the party until his death in 1975. When Chiang’s son died in January of 1988, Lee Teng-hui succeeded him as the first ever native Taiwanese President of the Republic of China.

For the 85% of the population of Taiwan who are native Taiwanese, the succession of Lee signaled a new age. The Lee presidency signified the native Taiwanese eclipse of the mainlanders in Taiwanese politics. Henceforth, a policy of “Taiwan first” could be implemented.

By 1990, Lee was calling for economic and cultural exchanges with the PRC. In that same year, Taiwan rescinded both the state of emergency and the temporary power’s given to the presidency in the 1940s. By the early 1990s the ascension to power of native Taiwanese brought about major changes in both domestic and foreign policy.

On May 17, 1990, the KMT repealed the Statute of Punishment for Sedition, relinquishing its decades old monopoly on power. The legalization of opposition parties moved Taiwan closer to the establishment of a full-fledged democracy. The KMT hold on the presidency through the 1990’s was mostly the result of Lee’s personal popularity.

In 1990 President Lee called for “full academic, cultural, economic, trade, scientific and technological exchanges between the two countries.” Since then, relations between Beijing and Taipei have improved. Low-level talks were held between the two countries for the first time ever in April of 1990. On January 30, 1995, PRC President Jiang Zemin issued an eight point proposal. While Jiang’s proposal contained few new points it did formalize Beijing’s policy. More importantly, it seemed to represent a triumph of negotiation over force on the part of the PRC.

This initial triumph would prove short-lived however.

Lee’s trip to his alma mater, Cornell, in June of 1995 caused a short-term break down in relations. Lee’s quest for international recognition involved “holiday diplomacy.” Through vacations abroad, Lee attempted to strengthen bilateral ties and to garner international recognition for his fledgling democracy. These trips also served to lessen pressure on the government to declare outright independence.

Beijing saw Lee’s trip to Cornell as provocative. In 1995 the PRC fired missiles near Taiwan. Military maneuverings also occurred prior to Taiwan’s 1996 presidential elections. Since that time however, relations have again improved and stabilized.

In 2000, Chen Shui-bian was elected president, ending decades of KMT rule. Chen is a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (the “DPP”). The DPP was formed in 1986 before other parties were illegal. As a result, it was the first of the opposition parties to arise in Taiwan. At conception, its main purpose was to advocate ethnic equality in Taiwan. However, since the reforms have produced a mainly native Taiwanese government, the DPP has essentially become the independence party.

In Taiwan however, even the independence party doesn’t really advocate for Taiwanese independence. In Taiwanese politics, there are three potential avenues which the Taiwanese could take towards their future, independence, unification with the mainland, or the status quo, de facto independence. In a 2007 survey, over 80% of Tawainese supported maintaining the status quo. Only 10% were in favor of immediate independence. Support for reunification was negligible.

Eight years of rule by the “pro-independence” party was accompanied by eight years of relative calm in relations between the two nations. In March 2008, the Taiwanese went back to the polls. KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou voiced strong support for closer economic ties with China. Ma’s campaign proposed a “Great China market” based on the EU’s common market which would provide free movement of goods and capital (but not people). The DPP candidate, Frank Hsieh, called the “Great China market” the “one-China market” at every opportunity, in an obvious reference to the one-China policy.

Ma Ying-jeou was overwhelmingly elected as Taiwan’s new president by a 58% to 42% margin. Just as the DPP does not advocate immediate independence, Ma’s support for economic integration does not mean that the KMT seeks reunification. Rather, the KMT supports economic integration under the belief economic strength will lead to increased political strength. Economic leverage would presage political leverage.

The future

Over the last two decades, Taiwan has become a major economic power. More importantly for the United States it has become a full-fledged democracy of 23 million people. And, just as prosperity has brought about political liberalization within the country, it has also brought a desire for full entry into the international community, including membership at the UN. Taiwan’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2002 as a special customs territory has strengthened its standing in the global economy.

De facto relations between the two Chinas have grown significantly over the past decade and cross-Strait economic interaction has ballooned. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner and Taiwan is China’s fifth largest.

According to the State Department, “as of March 2008, Taiwan had formal diplomatic ties with 23 countries. At the same time, Taiwan has cultivated informal ties with most countries to offset its diplomatic isolation and to expand its economic relations. A number of nations have set up unofficial organizations to carry out commercial and other relations with Taiwan. Including its official overseas missions and its unofficial representative and/or trade offices, Taiwan is represented in 122 countries. Recently, Taiwan has lobbied strongly for admission into the United Nations and other international organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO). The P.R.C. opposes Taiwan’s membership in such organizations, most of which require statehood for membership, because Beijing considers Taiwan to be a province of China, not a separate sovereign state.”

With respect to U.S.-Taiwan relations, “the U.S. insists on the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait differences and encourages dialog to help advance such an outcome. The U.S. does not support Taiwan independence. President Bush stated on December 9, 2003 that the United States is opposed to any attempt by either side to unilaterally alter the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. While the United States welcomes recent exchanges that enhance channels of communication between leaders in Beijing and Taipei, the United States urges Beijing and Taipei to further advance cross-Strait cooperation and dialog, including direct discussions between the authorities in Beijing and elected leaders in Taipei.”

John Bolton, the much maligned former ambassador to the United Nations goes further. He has called for the United States to “reaffirm clearly and unequivocally that it supports the expression of the people’s will in Taiwan’s elections and will continue to stand beside its longtime ally, including through necessary military assistance” and to give “full diplomatic recognition to the state that already exists.”

And the Politburglar’s take? Well, he’s primarily a realist and like the Taiwanese themselves, doesn’t think that the status quo should be disturbed. Taiwan is a functioning democracy that should be supported by the United States to the extent possible within the political realities of the day.

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