The Taiwan Question

Representatives of China and Taiwan formally met today (11th February 2014) for the first time in 65 years. It is an historic occasion, a pragmatic (if difficult step) in the ever-closer relationship between the mainland and Taiwan. But what is the back ground to the Taiwan question.

Aboriginal peoples have from ancient times inhabited Taiwan, with Han Chinese relocating to the island form the 7th Century onwards. In the modern era it was the Portuguese in the 16th Century who “discovered” the island, and called it Formosa (Beautiful). But it was the Dutch, and shortly afterwards the Spanish that formed colonies on the island during the early part of the 17th Century.

When the Ming Dynasty was overthrown, some loyalists to the Ming regime set up administration in part of the island, but the Qing Court gained control of the island in 1683, but it was another 200 years, in 1885, before Taiwan was designated China’s 22nd Province. But this status came abruptly to an end in 1895, when, following China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) the island was ceded to Japan.

Following Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II Taiwan was returned to China in 1945. Soon after the civil war broke out between the ruling Kuomingtang (KMT) – Nationalist Party, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The KMT were eventually pushed to the peripheral areas of China, most notably the islands of Hainan and Taiwan. The CCP declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on 1st October 1949, even though these two areas remained under the control of the KMT.

In the spring of 1950 the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) retook Hainan Island and were poised to make an assault on Taiwan. But just at that point the PRC became embroiled in the Korean War. The United States, who had until this point kept out of the civil war, sent its navy to the Taiwan Straits and prevented the amphibious assault taking place.

From their island stronghold, protected by the US, the KMT asserted that they, and they alone, as the government of the Republic of China, remained the sole legitimate government of the whole of China, and vowed to retake the mainland. The United Nations recognised the ROC as the legitimate government of China until 1971. As the Republic of China, Taiwan maintains its position as the sole legitimate government of China, although the diplomatic battle for recognition was lost a long time ago. Today just 20 countries recognise the ROC as China.

But this is not a position shared by some opposition parties in Taiwan, some of whom advocate and independent state of Taiwan. Such talk became so loud in 2003-4 that the PRC responded in 2005 with an anti-cessation law that formally declared the PRC would use non-peaceful means to reunify Taiwan with the mainland if it were ever to declare independence.

With the PRC’s Open Door Policy there was massive investment from Taiwan and gradually direct contact was allowed, including direct postal, shipping and aviation links. In 2008 the PRC and Taiwan effectively agreed not to vie for diplomatic recognition“z – effectively freezing the diplomatic position at that point in time. The PRC, with its growing economic and political strength has had to actively turn down requests for the establishment of diplomatic relations in order to keep to this agreement. Of late the situation has been complicated by Gambia severing diplomatic links with Taiwan; but the PRC have remained resolute and refused to establish diplomatic relations with them – it is clear where the PRC’s priority lie.

There remains, however, some distance to travel in terms of a popular movement in Taiwan for reunification, despite Beijing’s offer of a Hong Kong style One Country to Systems approach. However, it is not all bad news for Beijing, with a majority on Taiwan believing that negotiations regarding reunification should only be undertaken when the conditions are right for Taiwan – indicating that there is an underlying acceptance by the majority that reunification could take place. Meanwhile, on the mainland, Taiwan’s estrangement from the motherland is an extremely sensitive point. The Taiwan question provides the single biggest political divide among the Chinese diaspora.

As for the PRC, a long game approach has been adopted regarding reunification. For ever the pragmatist, Deng Xiaoping, not anticipating any serious notion of independence, declared, “Reunification of the motherland is the aspiration of the whole nation. If it cannot be accomplished in 100 years, it will be in 1,000 years.”

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