Unpacking the China-Taiwan relationship

The complicated relationship between China and Taiwan continues even today. Here’s all you need to know about the parallels between the two countries.

China and Taiwan have been in a complicated relationship since 1949. Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), is an island off the southern coast of China that has been governed independently from mainland China since 1949. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) views the island as a province, while Taiwan is a democratic country that is home to around 23 million people. It is important to note that political leaders have differing views on the island’s status and relations with the mainland.

Birth of Taiwan

The Republic of China (ROC) was a sovereign state based in mainland China between 1912 to 1949. Mainland China was established on January 1, 1912, after the Xinhai Revolution which overthrew the last imperial dynasty of China, the Qing dynasty, and established the Republic of China.

At that moment of time, various kinds of political forces and impulses were arising, which were captured by Sun Yat-sen. He soon founded a political party called Kuomintang (the political party of ROC), also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party (CNP). The political party of ROC won the parliamentary election held in December 1912, and Sun Yat-sen became the first President of the Republic of China, which was established after overthrowing the Qing dynasty.

Picture of Sun Yat-sen, first President of Republic of China.

Sun Yat-sen died in 1925 after being diagnosed with gallbladder cancer. Following his death, his favourite Chiang Kai-shek was appointed as the successor to the country. However, during the same period of time, the communist forces in the Chinese Nationalist Party (CNP) led by Mao Zedong were steadily becoming stronger.

Chiang Kai-shek participated in the Second World War and was also the in-charge of the forces. But somewhere, he was aware that as soon as the war will end, there was going to be a civil war between him and the communists, and therefore he preserved a lot of his forces during World War II.

As Chiang Kai-shek had feared, the Chinese Civil War began in 1927. Initially, he pushed the communists away and that was the time when the Long March took place. Mao and Zhou Enlai, the other two favourites of Sun Yat-sen, were able to rally their forces and had more people on their side. The civil war ended in 1949 with the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek, who then fled to Taiwan.

In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) established the People’s Republic of China and overthrew the nationalist government in Nanjing. The government of ROC (the Kuomintang party, Chinese Nationalist Party) fled to the island of Taiwan and took control of Taiwan and several nearby islands.

The island, which was 100 miles off the Chinese coast, the CNP called themselves the inheritors of the Republic of China that Sun Yat-sen had formed. The CNP considered itself to be the rightful government of ROC, and also believed that China, Taiwan, and Mongolia should all be controlled by the government of ROC and not by CCP.

Republic of China lost its UN seat in 1971

The Republic of China (ROC) was the founding member of the United Nations including its Security Council seat. But in 1971, the ROC lost its United Nations seat as China, and henceforth the seat was given to the People’s Republic of China (recognised China). This decision at the United Nations made the PRC the rightful government of China internationally and therefore, most countries have accepted the PRC as China.

The current political status:

 The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is recognised by most countries in the world as China, while the Republic of China (ROC) also calls itself China, but is better known in most of the world as Taiwan. Taiwan (Officially called ROC) possesses a democratic rule of government in comparison to the Communist rule of government in China.

China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, when the defeated Nationalist government fled to the island as the Communists, under Mao Zedong, swept to power. China insists that other countries cannot have official relations with both China and Taiwan. As a result, Taiwan has formal diplomatic ties with only a few countries. The US is Taiwan’s most important friend and protector.

The formula of One Nation, Two Systems by China

After decades of hostile intentions and angry rhetoric, relations between China and Taiwan started improving in the 1980s. China put forward a formula, known as “one country, two systems”, under which Taiwan would be given significant autonomy if it accepted Chinese reunification.

This system was established in the governance of Hong Kong and Macau since they became Special Administrative Regions (SARs) of China in 1997 and 1999 respectively. It is also believed that this was done in order to entice Taiwanese people back to the mainland. In Taiwan, the offer was rejected, but the government in Taipei did relax rules on visits to and investment in China.

The evolution of political system in Taiwan

Taiwan remained under martial law untill 1987. It was only after the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975, that his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, brought reforms in the political system. Chiang Ching-kuo saw the need for democratisation and believed his country needed to have a western-style of democracy and have elections. 

The first three open elections: The congressional elections, the election for provincial governors, and municipality mayors and a direct election for the President and Vice President – were held between 1991 and 1996. Initially, the Kuomintang party came to power but the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), formed in 1986, was simultaneously growing in influence, hence labelling the elections as “two-party affair.”

In 2000, Taiwan elected Chen Shui-bian as its President. This was an alarming situation for China as he was re-elected in 2004 and also because he openly backed the idea of “independence”. Ma Ying-jeou was elected as the President of the country in 2008, and he somewhat tried to improve relations with China, mainly through economic agreements. In elections in January 2016, Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP candidate defeated Kuomintang party candidate Eric Chu, and became the first woman President of Taiwan.

However, it is important to note that the victory of DPP in Taiwan gave rise to renewed complications. While Kuomintang still believes in Chiang Kai-shek’s dream that both Taiwan and China are in fact one country, the sentiment is not shared by the DPP. They believe in two separate nations.

Xi and Tsai: The old rivalry

In 1999, few people would have expected Xi Jinping and Tsai Ing-wen to lead China and Taiwan today. But in a sense, they were already confronted through the waters at the time, thanks to the figure: Tsai’s mentor, Lee Teng-hui.

Lee Teng-hui and Two State Theory:

Lee Teng-hui was the fourth President of the Republic of China, also known as Taiwan from 1988 to 2000. He was the first President of ROC, who was born in Taiwan and the first to be directly elected. During his Presidency, Lee led an ambitious foreign policy to gain allies around the world.

In 1999, Lee Teng-hui for the first time openly defined mainland China and Taiwan as two different countries. He also noted that there was no need for Taiwan to declare independence again since ROC had always been an independent country since 1912.

Tsai Ing-wen, the present President of Taiwan, was a talented political scholar during the Presidency of Lee. She also supported the two-state theory of Lee Teng-hui. Lee, the “father” of Taiwanese democracy, died last month at the age of 97, was a mentor to Tsai.

Lee Teng-hui and Tsai Ing-wen
Tsai and Xi:

Lee Teng-hui provoked Xi Jinping’s wrath in 1999 by proposing what has the “two-state” theory. Twenty years later, Lee is dead and troubling signs are again appearing over cross-strait relations. Tsai Ing-wen, protégé of Lee, is serving as the seventh President of Taiwan. While Xi Jinping, governor of Fujian province in 1999 is now the president of mainland China.

In May 2020, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said, “Taiwan cannot accept becoming part of China under its ‘One Country, Two Systems’ offer of autonomy.”

The geopolitical absurdity of Taiwan’s status

The island is not recognised by its most important ally and faces an existential threat from the territory it claims as its own. There are disagreement and confusion about what Taiwan is, and even what it should be called. It has its own constitution, democratically-elected leaders, and about 300,000 active troops in its armed forces. China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province which it has vowed to retake, by force if necessary. But Taiwan’s leaders say it is clearly much more than a province, arguing that it is a sovereign state.

There are few nations in the world that don’t recognise Taiwan as an independent country and only recognise mainland China as a country. While on the other hand, the majority of the developed countries like the USA, Russia, Europe, etc. although recognise mainland China as the country but holds a relationship of business with Taiwan. But it should be noted that there are few countries in the world who don’t recognise China officially but have given their full-fledged recognition to Taiwan as a country.

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