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Taiwan and China: The way it might have been

Taiwan and China: The way it might have been

As alluded to in the above-mentioned, the issue of Taiwan as a wholly independent and therefore, separate entity to China has been fraught with tensions, missteps and overt antagonism. There is a need however, to compartmentalise the actions of both Taiwan and China in order to gain an insight into the way in which the Taiwanese government as a claimant of independence and as a political actor, has dealt with the issues-at-hand; and the CCP as a claimant, unification determinant and corresponding political actor, has dealt with their single issue-at-hand. It should be noted that the correlation of the ‘issues’ for Taiwan and the ‘issue’ for China comprises a deliberate dyad and therefore, is not an argument of semantics. The issues for Taiwan are complex interactions which involve but are not limited to, recognition by others, constant questioning regarding independence, UN associations being fluid; and a myriad of other politico-components. In contrast, China has an overriding single issue: reunification. Whilst it is not pertinent to comment on all of the later-twentieth century interactions as they are far too numerous in both intent and manoeuvrings there is nevertheless, a requirement to monitor the respective power-plays in order to observe the determination of the two actors.

During the late-1970s—before the reunification of Taiwan became more sclerotic on the part of the CCP—the NPC in 1981 announced and submitted A Message to Compatriots in Taiwan.[1] This was an offering to the government of Taiwan and it was designed to resolve tensions and whether the autonomous components of the message would have come to fruition for Taiwan is a moot point and need not be debated here. Within the manifest Taiwan was offered a high degree of autonomy upon its agreeing to be a part of the mainland and a dialogue did develop which eventuated in

[A] thaw in cross-[S]trait relations … which developed in mainly one-way unofficial economic relations: tens of thousands of Taiwanese businessmen went to invest in and trade with the mainland, but not the reverse, because of the ban by the Taiwan government on investment and goods from mainland China … the two sides also took steps to increase their overall contacts … on reunification. Taiwan also agreed to negotiate cross-[S]trait affairs involving what it called “common power” (gong quan li) … [through] the Strait Exchange Foundation … established in February 1991. Beijing accepted this informal arrangement and set up its own counterpart, the Association for Relations across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), in the hopes that it would lead to reunification.[2]

The cross-Strait dialogue continued and whilst no resolution would take place, tensions eased and a conclusion-of-sorts in the form of an agreement was anticipated from the dialogue which would be a continuum. Ultimately, the dialogue failed and this would be due to the admission by President Lee Teng-hui whose tenure as president had encompassed 12 years (1988 – 2000) when in 1999 he ventured relations between mainland China and Taiwan were ‘between two countries (guojia), at least special relations between two countries … [and] there was no need to declare independence again since it (ROC) had always been an independent country since 1912.’[3] The commentary that followed such a declaration revolved around what the statement meant and whilst the commentary needs no further analysis here, suffice to state that the intent Lee expressed reflected Taiwanese government policy. China reacted with the statement that the suggestion was a ‘dangerous step he has taken down the separatist road,’[4] and that China had ‘never renounced the use of force to prevent Taiwan’s independence, and warned Taiwan not to underestimate Beijing’s determination and capability to uphold the nation’s sovereignty, dignity and territorial integrity.’[5]

Lee’s opinion presented a mandate to China and it is safe to argue that 1999 confirmed to the CCP that Taiwan intended to remain an independent country and no amount of political dialogue would result in an irenic politico-transfer of the country. The politico, regional, and geo-strategic-machinations had been set in place and from this point in time. To be sure, the peaceful retrocession of Hong Kong in place the CCP would launch threat-of-force and use-of-force monologues due to the ‘dangerous step’ that had been taken and under the pretext of ‘China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are indivisible.’[6] Whilst it would seem that 1999 was a cornerstone year in Taiwan retaining its stance and China establishing its pathway for the future, there is a long history to this moment in time that is relevant to mention. The relationship between the CCP government since the retreat of the KMT to Taiwan and the unification of the mainland under Mao Zedong (December 1949), has always been a contentious one. The recognition of Taiwan as a quasi-nation-state by the US—which had gained the status of superpower after the European and Pacific phases of WWII—caused the suspension of diplomatic relations by the CCP which in part, was due to the continuing unease between the two unequivocally opposed political ideologies: communism and liberal-democracy. The number of countries that have diplomatic ties with China are too numerous to list here, and it is suffice to state the world’s nation-state’s recognise China as a sovereign nation-state; and subsequently, the CCP as the legitimate government is a germane, yet necessary statement. It is the suzerainty of Taiwan that divides opinions in the diplomatic arena however, and not the sovereignty of China and this is what adds to A-P tensions. The CCP would continue the momentum of striving for recognition of being the legitimate government of all of China—the Middle Kingdom (Zhong Guo)—and it would continually advance this political state-of-affairs. The US would have its own issues with China and they would be exacerbated by Chinese support of North Vietnam in the Vietnam War.[7] The inherent tensions of the Vietnam War and the subsequent involvement of China beyond said acknowledgement need not be debated here suffice to state that the visit of (US) President Richard Nixon in 1972 would ease tensions and whilst the visit had many peripheral elements beyond statesmanship, it was nonetheless a significant step in the decreasing of overtly hostile US-China relations.[8] This step it can be argued would inevitably lead to a geo-political change in the US’ approach to Taiwan of unwavering explicit politico- and military-support, to a more fluid ‘wait and see’ approach. The Chinese Communists had gained much during their ‘long march’ (1934 – 1935),[9] and the subsequent establishment of Mao’s power over the following decade and this would include the total route of the Chinese Nationalists in 1949.[10] The visit by Nixon would prompt the beginning of incremental though ever-closer ties with the CCP.

Regardless of the domestic issues the CCP faced, there would be, throughout the years significant milestones for China with respect to gaining international status. After diplomatic ties were re-established (primarily with the US as per the above mentioned, although Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam would be the first Western leader to visit China), the pathway to full recognition of the CCP as the bona-fide and legal government of mainland China would slowly but surely, take hold. As China has grown in terms of diplomatic, economic, and military-power it has commensurately applied pressures within the A-P region; and in the broader international sphere; and in doing so and in particular since 1999, has progressively attempted to shut down Taiwan’s international dialogues. With the aforementioned in mind China has, in no uncertain terms, begun its rise and it is important to determine what the term ‘nascent’ encompasses, including in contemporary times globalisation, preponderance and war.

Continued tomorrow … International relations and war

Previous instalment … The dawn of pax-Sino: From cataclysms to cosmopolitanism


[1] The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the PRC. ‘A Message to Compatriots in Taiwan. Beijing Review. 1, 22, Jan 1979, 17.

[2] Sheng Lijun. China and Taiwan. Cross-strait Relations Under Chen Shui-Bian. London: Zed Books, 2002, 6 – 8.

[3] China and Taiwan. Cross-strait Relations Under Chen Shui-Bian, 11. Emphasis added.

[4] ‘Spokesman on Lee Teng-Hui’s separatist malice.’ Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America. 23 Oct, 2003.

[5] China and Taiwan. Cross-strait Relations Under Chen Shui-Bian, 13.

[6] Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America. 23 Oct, 2003.

[7] The Vietnam War is ‘known as the “American War” in Vietnam.’ See: British Broadcasting Corporation. Timeline: Vietnam.

[8] For a succinct analysis of the visit by President Nixon and the major as well as peripheral reasons alluded to, see: ‘Nixon arrives in China for Talks.

[9] ‘Long March.’ Encyclopædia Britannica.


Strobe Driver – Strobe completed his PhD in war studies in 2011 and since then has written extensively on war, terrorism, Asia-Pacific security, the ‘rise of China,’ and issues within Australian domestic politics. Strobe is a recipient of Taiwan Fellowship 2018, MOFA, Taiwan, ROC, and is an adjunct researcher at Federation University.


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  1. RomeoZcharlie29

    Taipei might have done well to reject a Chinese offer of joint power-sharing considering how the Hong Kong promises of shared power have been subverted. Much as it might irk China, Taiwan has effectively affirmed its independent status since 1949 and this should be recognised by China and all other nations.

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