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Is Taiwan a Country? Why the US and China Are So Worked Up Over the Island


Frank Zappa famously said, “You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline.” Well, Taiwan has both of those — plus its own government, a president, its own currency, economy, and military, and it holds free and democratic elections. Zappa would surely approve.

But while Taiwan is de facto independent, China claims it as part of its integral territory, and Taiwan is not recognized as a nation by the majority of the world’s countries. In this sense, Taiwan lacks de jure independence, meaning independence that is recognized by other countries.

The country we know as Taiwan — a mountainous island of 23 million people just across the Taiwan Strait from southern China — is generally referred to as “Taiwan” in common parlance, whether this is in Chinese or English. The official name of Taiwan, however, is the Republic of China.

Making Sense of the ROC, KMT, CCP and PRC

The Republic of China, or ROC, was originally founded on the Chinese mainland in October 1911. The ROC was brought to Taiwan in 1945, when Japan, which had controlled the island as a colony since 1895, handed it back following World War II. In 1949, however, the Kuomintang, or KMT, the ruling party of the ROC state, was itself defeated in the Chinese Civil War by the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, and retreated to Taiwan, which it ruled as a one-party state for decades, during what was once the world’s longest period of martial law. The CCP, meanwhile, remained in power in what we now refer to in common parlance as “China,” or officially the People’s Republic of China, or PRC.

For years, the ROC planned to take back the mainland from its new base in Taiwan. Meanwhile, the PRC swore to reclaim Taiwan as an integral part of its territory. Through the 1950s and into the 1960s, there were military skirmishes between the two, particularly around the small Taiwanese islands that lie close to the mainland. But while the ROC eventually gave up on its ambitions, the PRC did not — hence the current conflict. As far as Beijing is concerned, Taiwan is a province of China that’s pretending to be independent and needs to be brought back into the fold.

At first, the ROC in Taiwan was recognized by other nations as, well, China. That began to change in 1971, when Taiwan withdrew from the United Nations, and culminated in 1979, when the U.S. switched its recognition to the PRC in mainland China. Today, only a handful of small countries — many of them in the Caribbean and the Pacific, but also the Vatican — still recognize the ROC. Taiwan maintains relations with these countries so that they can speak up for it in international organizations.

By the criteria of recognition, then, it is not clear as to whether enough other countries recognize Taiwan that it can be considered a country. Yet the reason Taiwan’s not recognized as a country is that China pressures everyone else not to. China, in the present, tries to poach diplomatic allies of Taiwan, with the likely aim of ensuring that no countries recognize the ROC and not the PRC. This also plays a strategic role for China, in that Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies occupy strategic locations as Pacific islands or in Africa, allowing China to expand its global reach.

US–Taiwan RelationS: Arms Sales and More

The U.S. is Taiwan’s security guarantor from the threat of a Chinese invasion, in that in the hypothetical event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the US may come to Taiwan’s defense. To this end, the U.S. provides Taiwan with arms to defend itself against a potential Chinese invasion. These sales are often used as a barometer of the current state of U.S.-Taiwan relations. Taiwan does have indigenously manufactured weapons systems, such as several missile systems and the Indigenous Defense Fighter, but there are a number of parts that Taiwan cannot purchase on its own.

Likewise, there is no official agreement between the U.S. and China about Taiwan’s status. Under the One China Policy, the U.S. acknowledges that there is one China, but does not have any shared consensus with China on Taiwan’s status.

China instead adheres to the One China Principle, but it often seeks to conflate international perceptions of the One China Principle and One China Policy as being the same. This is aimed at suggesting that there is an agreement between the U.S. and China on Taiwan’s status — when there is no such agreement.

The U.S. does not have any explicit commitment to defend Taiwan but instead maintains what is referred to as a “strategically ambiguous” stance on Taiwan. The U.S. One China Policy is itself a strategically ambiguous one, in that the U.S. has an ambiguous stance on Taiwan’s unsettled geopolitical status.

While the U.S. is understood as Taiwan’s security guarantor from China, it has sometimes acted to prevent Taiwan from pursuing de jure independence. This was illustrated in the American view of Taiwan’s former president Chen Shui-bian as a political leader who was willing to threaten regional peace by pursuing formal independence. Current president Tsai Ing-wen may have won the faith of the U.S., as illustrated in the high-profile diplomatic visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but back during Tsai’s 2012 presidential campaign, the U.S. didn’t support her, because it thought she would be a pro-independence provocateur in the mold of Chen.

Why Is Taiwan So Important?

Why does the U.S. back Taiwan today? Some reasons are economic. Taiwan is the world’s 21st-largest economy, and it manufactures 92% of the world’s advanced semiconductors. The world’s reliance on Taiwanese semiconductors incentivizes the U.S. and other western nations to defend Taiwan, as well as discourages China from attacking it, because China is itself also dependent on Taiwanese semiconductors. Some reports, denied by the Taiwanese government, suggest that, ironically enough, Taiwanese semiconductors are used in the missiles that China has pointed at Taiwan.

Other reasons the U.S. values Taiwan go back to its strategic location in the Asia Pacific. Key international maritime shipping routes and underwater cables pass around Taiwan. Taiwan is thought of as part of the “First Island Chain,” which China would need to obtain if it hopes to expand its influence in the Pacific Ocean.

Historically speaking, U.S. support for Taiwan dates back to the Cold War. The ROC can be considered one of the right-wing authoritarian regimes propped up by the U.S. in order to counter the Soviet Union or China. However, Taiwan is currently ruled by the Democratic Progressive Party, which emerged from Taiwan’s democracy movement in the 1980s and 1990s. The former authoritarian party, KMT, remains an active player in Taiwanese politics by continuing to field candidates for elections, even if it is no longer the only game in town.

Why Does China Want Taiwan?

Although China sees Taiwan as an integral part of its territory, Taiwan was actually only incorporated into China during the Qing dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1911, and even then the Qing didn’t control all of Taiwan. Indications are that the Qing dynasty didn’t consider Taiwan a particularly important possession. Instead, Taiwan was viewed as a hinterland occupied by strange savages.

The PRC has never controlled Taiwan, even though its modern borders are primarily those of the Qing empire. It is for historical reasons, however, that China claims Taiwan, probably with the view that it has inherited the territorial possessions of the Qing.

But while the CCP now emphasizes Taiwan as being a part of China, Mao Zedong suggested as late as 1972 that the CCP was willing to set aside the Taiwan question for 100 years or more. Yet staking claims over Taiwan may have to do with the CCP’s ambitions to expand power outward into the Asia Pacific, with Taiwan occupying a significant geostrategic position for projecting maritime power.

It can seem ironic that China is the greatest threat to Taiwan’s de facto independence, given the deep economic integration of Taiwan and China at the present. The Taiwanese are major investors and employers on the mainland; Foxconn, the Taiwanese-owned electronics supplier, has had over 1 million employees in China. Though the CCP has historically been an enemy of the KMT, at present the KMT has become known in Taiwanese politics as the party promoting unification with China.

The KMT eventually accommodated itself to the fact that it would not be able to retake China and has accepted that political unification with China would have to occur under the CCP’s auspices, not the KMT’s. Right now in Taiwan, few members of the original generation of the KMT that came over to it from China are still alive, while their children — the second generation after the KMT came over — constitute its leadership.

China hoped to win Taiwan over through economic means, suggesting that Taiwan’s future lies in closer links with China that would lead it to prosperity. Many in Taiwan, however, fear that such ties would lead to a deterioration of political freedoms, so this has not always been successful. China, then, regularly engages in military intimidation of Taiwan to deter it from pursuing independence — the most recent of which have been live-fire exercises in response to the Pelosi visit.

So Is Taiwan a Country? If so, Which Taiwan?

Another quandary for the question of Taiwan’s nationality is that Taiwan is officially the Republic of China. The ROC remains bound to China and the PRC because both are “China.” But because of Chinese pressure, Taiwan is forced to participate as “Chinese Taipei” in international sporting events like the Olympics. Taiwan is not part of most United Nations bodies except as an observer, if at all, thanks to Chinese political pressure, and it is not a member of the World Health Organization.

Yet such questions of nationality are also increasingly contested. Is a nation defined in terms of identity? Polling shows that Taiwan’s population increasingly identifies as Taiwanese, while the number of Taiwanese identifying as Chinese — or as both Chinese and Taiwanese — is on the decline. Such trends are particularly prominent among young people.

This also raises the question as to how one defines a nation in terms of its ethnic composition. Taiwan’s first settlers, in ancient times, were Austronesian peoples; their descendants make up a mere 2% of the population today. Meanwhile, Taiwan saw a few hundred of years of Han Chinese colonization, beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries — their descendants, known as benshengren, make up 88% of the population. The children and grandchildren of those who arrived with the KMT — known as waishengren — make up the remaining 10%. Amid all of that, you have to take into account Taiwan’s 50-year rule by Japan, which separated the island from the mainland even more and introduced new cultural and political structures. Given this mixed history, it may not be surprising that many Taiwanese do not identify as Chinese but have a distinct sense of cultural identity.

While the international world usually understands Taiwanese independence as independence from the PRC, historically speaking, the Taiwanese independence movement viewed its pursuit as independence from the ROC. This would be for the aim of realizing an independent Taiwanese nation-state, which would theoretically be independent of the ROC and PRC alike, and internationally recognized.

Taiwan, then, occupies a relatively unique position globally in that it is a fully de facto independent nation-state but simply not recognized as such. The only other example of this kind of geopolitical status may be Kosovo, which is blocked from wider official recognition by Russia, much as is the case with Taiwan vis-a-vis China.

Will Anything Change Anytime Soon?

Right now, everyone seems to prefer the status quo. Even though China denies any Taiwanese claims to nationhood and the U.S. supports Taiwan through shows of support such as diplomatic visits or weapons sales, neither does the U.S. recognize Taiwan as a country — because China has threatened military reprisals.

Taiwanese polls also show low support for unification — but they also do not favor an explicit declaration of independence. (See: fears of Chinese military reprisals above.) For her part, Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party claim that Taiwan is already an independent nation under the name of “the Republic of China” and that there is no need to declare formal independence.

For now, things are unresolved — and seem to be staying that way. That may not be comforting amid the high-stakes saber-rattling. but it appears to be what everyone wants.

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