USA, China and Taiwan
USA, China and Taiwan

USA, China and Taiwan

Published: Release date – kl. 12.00, Monday – 6 December 21

Rising tensions put the United States in a difficult position, but armed conflict between the two superpowers is unlikely

By Colin Alexander

The tense triangular relationship between the United States, China and Taiwan has resurfaced amid escalating military tensions across the Taiwan Strait. The status of the small densely populated island off the southeast coast of mainland China is hotly contested, and there are almost daily news reports predicting that a newly assertive China may soon take action – militarily or otherwise – to forcibly incorporate Taiwan. However, we have been here before and to see such an action as inevitably would be wrong.

It is a complex situation that has its roots in the chaos that followed the end of World War II in Asia and the civil war in China, which ended with Mao Zedong’s Communist Party founding the People’s Republic on October 1, 1949.

Japanese colony

The island, formerly known as Formosa, had been a Japanese colony between 1895 and 1945, but was brought under control by the nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (ROC) after Japan’s defeat.

In 1949, Chiang withdrew to Taiwan with about 2 million soldiers, affiliated companies and civilian refugees, and planned to recapture the mainland and overthrow the Communists. Of course, this never happened, and since then there has been a global competition between two competing conceptualizations of China.

During the Cold War, this was often perpetrated by the ROC and by Western sources such as “Red China” versus “Free China”. But both used much of the conflict as brutal and tyrannical dictatorships, encouraging personality cults around their galleon leaders – so the notion that Taiwan’s people were free was, to say the least, debatable.

Neither China nor the ROC acknowledges the other’s claim. Formal contact is limited and negotiations usually take place through proxies to ensure the maintenance of the alleged lack of legal existence of the other.

The One China principle emerged shortly after the ROC’s withdrawal to Taiwan. Neither party could be seen accepting that their claims against the whole of China could be challenged if it damaged national and international prestige. The term “a China” then became popular after its use in Shanghai Communique from 1972 between China and US representatives and gained further fame after consensus in 1992, when unofficial representatives from Beijing and Taipei met in British Hong Kong and proclaimed their agreement that there was “one China” – although the interpretations of who should rule this kingdom were clearly different.

One China principle is one of the strange things about modern diplomacy: it basically calls on governments and major international organizations to recognize that either China or the ROC is the only legitimate government in all of China – including Taiwan and its remote islands.

Competition areas

There are three international arenas where one China is most evident today. One, and perhaps most visible, is in international sports competitions, where Taiwan usually competes as “Chinese Taipei”. Taiwan is not allowed to use the ROC flag and its national anthem is not played.

Another is membership of international organizations, including the United Nations (UN) and its affiliates such as the World Health Organization (WHO), in which China vetoes Taiwan’s membership. The ROC was one of the founders of the UN in 1945, but withdrew in 1971 in protest of UN efforts to integrate China. The ROC was subsequently replaced by China in its capacity as a permanent member of the Security Council.

The third arena is diplomatic recognition. Since 1949, there has been a general decline in the number of states around the world formally recognizing the ROC, as this would prevent a formal relationship with the much larger China. This limits the formal contact most countries have with Taipei, although informal trade and cultural relations remain.

The British government recognized China almost immediately after its declaration of statehood in 1949 – mainly out of concerns about Hong Kong’s status. The US government, meanwhile, did not formally recognize China until New Year 1978-79 – the culmination of a process that began under then-US President Richard Nixon in 1969 and ended under Jimmy Carter nearly a decade later.

Dictatorship for democracy

Since President Tsai Ing-wen came to power in 2016, Taiwan has experienced its fifth wave of diplomatic recognition and lost various allies, including Burkina Faso in Africa and Panama and El Salvador in Central America. This is because Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is in favor of greater independence for Taiwan from China, perceived as a hostile act by Beijing. Hence the threatening behavior that has been evident in various forms over the past five years and which seems to be increasing in recent weeks.

However, one should not consider the situation as mere doom and gloom for Taiwan. Taiwan has been here before, and political commentators have on many occasions feared for the future of the ROC – and yet it remains a living part of the social, economic and political landscape of the Asia-Pacific region. The key to the ROC’s sustainability has been the reforms it implemented during the 1980s and 1990s that moved it from dictatorship to multi-party democracy with respect for human rights at the heart of its political views.

This is in stark contrast to the authoritarian grounding and ongoing issues of human rights abuses by China on the mainland and in Hong Kong.

However, mounting voltages put the United States in a difficult position. The Taiwan Relations Act, signed by the US Congress in the spring of 1979 in response to the Carter administration’s recognition of China, promises to defend Taiwan in the event of Chinese aggression. How far the United States will go is still unknown – but armed conflict between the two superpowers is still unlikely.

(The author is an Associate Professor of Political Communication, Nottingham Trent University.

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