Everything You Should Know About Taiwan’s Struggle With Sovereignty

On May 24, 2018, Burkina Faso - one of the poorest nations in the world, situated in southern Sahara - renounced diplomatic ties with Taiwan, effectively failing to recognize it as an independent State. Previously on May 1, 2018, The Democratic Republic of Congo announced the same. In light of this, Swaziland is the only African nation that still recognizes Taiwan, and one of the eighteen nations that do so too, as of May 26, 2018.
 

This is not the first time we’ve heard of nations denying Taiwan its sovereignty. Since as far back as 1683, Taiwan has had a tumultuous relationship with China, which has influenced more nations to cut off diplomatic ties with it. International organizations too are skeptical of this and do not want to contradict China; even one as big as the United Nations has not recognized Taiwan since 1971. With China gaining more influence in the political ring, the support for Taiwan is drastically low. To understand how this situation came to be, here is a definitive recap of Taiwan’s struggle with sovereignty: 
 

A Prospective Ally Blessed With Resources  
    A host to large amounts of sulfur, gold, and other natural resources, Taiwan has attracted explorers for many centuries. However, the Han Chinese began crossing the Taiwan Strait only in the 15th century to gain access to resources. Taiwan is the home of nine plains tribes, who form its aboriginal population. 

Taiwan was invaded by the Dutch, who entered from the South in 1624 in search of gold. In 1626, the Spanish were also searching for gold on the Northeast coast. This is very similar to the Dutch and British invasion of Singapore, as more powerful nations gained control of another nation for personal gain (port-access in Singapore for the Dutch and the British, and gold in Taiwan for the Dutch and the Spanish). While neither the Dutch nor the Spanish found gold, one of the plains tribes, the Ketagalan, did help the Spanish discover sulfur in Yangmingshan, a mountain range on the outskirts of Taipei. Taiwan eventually gained independence from the Spanish, and then the Dutch. The Mainland Chinese continued to enjoy access to Taiwan and returned in 1697 for sulfur after a huge fire destroyed 300 tons of it. Their diplomatic relationship was also why the Qing dynasty started mining for gold in Taiwan when word got around. 
 

An Era of Turmoil 
    China’s political scene was unstable whilst the Spanish and the Dutch were taking control of Taiwan. The Manchus, a Tungistic people of Northeast China, overthrew the Ming Dynasty. This caused rebel Koxinga to seek refuge in Taiwan, but this was beneficial as Taiwan was under Dutch rule in 1662 and Koxinga was beneficial in driving them out by 1683. But soon after this, the Qing dynasty started gaining control of China and announced in 1885 that Taiwan was recognized as China’s 22nd province. 
 

Complications arose after China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War. Japan, who was interested in Taiwan since the 16th century, gained control of Taiwan in 1895. This is similar to the fate of Singapore in 1941 when the British acceded to Japan and let them take control. Interestingly, both Taiwan and Singapore were relieved of Japanese occupation in 1945 after Japan’s defeat in the second World War. But while Singapore eventually found independence, the Republic of China’s (ROC) government re-established Chinese control in Taiwan. Even after the Republic of China government was defeated by a wave of communism, Taiwan was used to orchestrate retaliations to the Chinese mainland. The eventual victory of the new People’s Republic of China (PRC) government crowned Mao Zedong as the Chinese premier and efforts were made to free Taiwan through military action. But the situation then is the same as the situation we know today, given that this political liberation has not progressed since. 
 

Détente
    As the People’s Republic of China gained power in mainland China and the Republic of China was ousted to Taiwan, more obstacles were created. While the Korean War ensued in 1950, the United States sent in extra fleets to patrol the Taiwan Strait so that communist activity would not enter Taiwan. At the time, the Republic of China had primary support from the US as Americans believed it could curtail the influence of communism in the region. A Chinese Communist attach in 1954 also influenced the US to sign a Mutual Defense Treaty with the ROC government. Similarly, in the upkeep of the Domino Theory, the Republic of China was also the official holder of the Chinese seat in the United Nations. 

The American monetary aid proved useful in transforming Taiwan into a modern economy, but Taiwan remained under martial law during this period. In 1975, the situation worsened as the ROC lost its seat in the United Nations to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This led to the US ending any and all military relationships with Taiwan and recognizing Beijing for diplomatic purposes instead of Taipei. 
 

By 1978 in Mainland China, the Communist Party changed the “liberation” policy to “peaceful unification” as they believed in a “one country, two systems” framework. PRC continued to support the use of military power to resolve the dispute with Taiwan, and with the lack of US opposition in the matter, Taiwan had no other say. Instead, the ROC government in Taiwan tried to recreate the shortcomings of communism in mainland China by remodeling the island as a “model province”. 

This paved the way for increasing investments in technology and export industries, earning Taiwan the label as one of Asia’s ‘four little dragons.’ In 1987, the martial law too was finally lifted and there was hope for political liberalization. This was also the first time Taiwanese people were allowed to visit mainland China since the end of the Chinese Civil War. 

The Question of Independence and Recognition 
 

There was a surge in the number of people who identified themselves as “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese” in the 1990s. There was a transition to a democracy with the lifting of the ban on opposition parties, and a distinct identity for Taiwan emerged. Declarations were also made to show that the ROC government only represents the people of Taiwan and the offshore islands of Penghu, Jinmen, and Mazu and that this is independent of the work of the People’s Republic of China in the mainland. This gained more importance as the ROC campaigned to win back its seat in the United Nations and other international organizations. The ROC government also made an official commitment to Taiwan’s unification with the mainland but declared that at the moment, the PRC and ROC were sovereign states and that democratization in the mainland was a primary requisite for unification negotiations. 

In 1996, Taiwan witnessed a missile attack by the PRC as a warning that it could wield military force to prevent Taiwan’s independence. This was right before Taiwan’s first direct presidential election of the first Taiwan-born leader Lee Teng-hui. But in response, the United States sent two aircraft carriers as a signal to commit its alliance to Taiwan in the face of a PRC attack. 
 

Taiwan finally phased out of an ROC party majority when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Chen Shui-bian won the elections. Chen’s policies were a lot more explicit compared to Taiwan’s previous leaders and severely emphasized on Taiwan’s alleged independence from China. This included the ambitious move to replace a 1947 ROC constitution with a  new one and to re-apply for United Nations membership under the name of ‘Taiwan’. This worried the Communist Party in China and in 2005, they hence passed the Anti-Secession Law authorizing the use of force against Taiwan if it attempted to push for legal independence from China. 
 

But over time, the DPP eventually lost power, putting it back in the hands of an ROC dominated government. Because of the “92 consensuses”, the new government several economic negotiations were held with mainland China to open up postal, navigational and communicational links across the Taiwan Strait and to establish a free trade area across the Strait. Taiwan also opened itself to tourists from mainland China. 

Today’s Situation 
    While several countries and international organizations fail to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign State, the thawed tension between Taiwan and China is a good sign. Majority of Taiwan’s citizens are in favor of a continued economic and trade relationship with China even though the movement for independence is not as fervent as it used to be. The situation today seems to be status quo, even if it might be beneficial for Taiwan to have its own seat at the table internationally.
 

 

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