Shortly after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, he took a call from Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen. In doing this he appeared to be ignoring or possibly discarding established US policy on Taiwan, which is that the United States does not have diplomatic ties to the island, which China considers to be its sovereign territory. The phone call sparked much media debate but little explanation about US-Taiwan relations and China-Taiwan relations, yet Taiwan plays a prominent role in a number of issues of vital global importance.
The following is a brief overview of important facts about Taiwan and its importance as well as key initiatives of mainland China that of international significance.
- Where is Taiwan located?
- Is Taiwan a democracy?
- How are Taiwan and China connected?
- How are the Chinese and Taiwanese governments different?
- If Taiwan is functionally an independent country, why is there this “one China” policy?
- Where is the US in this?
- What happened to Taiwan when the US established formal relations with China (PRC)?
- What effect does not having official diplomatic status as a nation state have on Taiwan?
- Taiwan is a small island. How important is it in international affairs?
- What are some of China’s key interests and initiatives?
- What is the Belt and Road Initiative?
- What is the AIIB?
Where is Taiwan located?
Taiwan is an island off the coast of mainland China bordering the South China Sea (SCS). When the Chinese Nationalists (国民党, KMT, Kuomingtang), led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled the Communist Chinese (共产党, CCP, Chinese Communist Party) in the mid-twentieth century, the bulk of the Nationalist army retreated to Taiwan. Other names for Taiwan include Republic of China and Formosa. Taiwan has conflicting claims with China to islands in the SCS.
Is Taiwan a democracy?
Yes. Taiwan has a free press, rule of law-based system of governance, independent judiciary, and democratic elections. It also maintains its own military. Taiwan was governed under martial law by the KMT (the party of Chiang Kai-shek) until July 14, 1987 but then successfully transitioned to a democratic system of governance.
How are Taiwan and China connected?
The governments of both China and Taiwan have their roots on the Chinese mainland. Chiang Kai-shek inherited the leadership of the KMT from Sun Yat-sen, who is regarded by both the KMT and CCP as the father of the Republic of China (1918-1937).
A civil war (the 1949 Communist Revolution) between the Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists ended in the defeat of the Nationalists. Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist (KMT) army retreated to Taiwan. Chiang Kai-shek did not acknowledge the Chinese Communists as the legitimate government of the China. Over time the two countries established separate systems of governance, but the PRC has not given up its claims to Taiwan, which it refers to as a “rogue province,” and Taiwan still officially refers to itself as the “Republic of China.”
How are the Chinese and Taiwanese governments different?
China is a single party state under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. Taiwan has developed a two party political system and holds democratic elections. Taiwan has two main political parties–the independence leaning DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) and the KMT.
If Taiwan is functionally an independent country, why is there this “one China” Policy?
In pragmatic terms, the “one China” policy preserves a status quo where China and Taiwan avoid armed conflict and issues related to Taiwanese independence. Countries must choose to have diplomatic relations with either Taiwan or the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan’s official name is still the “Republic of China.” China-Taiwan relations are also referred to as “Cross-Strait Relations.” China has stated that it will invade Taiwan if the island declares independence.
Where is the US in this?
The short answer is that the United States supported Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT over competing warlords in the early twentieth century and later over the Chinese Communists. China was invaded by Japan in 1937 and joined the Allied Powers when the United States entered World War II. The dynamics of armed conflict in China during the twentieth century are complex. The United States maintained diplomatic ties with the “Republic of China” under the KMT until 1976.
What happened to Taiwan when the US established formal relations with China (PRC)?
The United States switched its official diplomatic ties to the PRC in 1979 following then President Richard Nixon’s landmark 1972 visit to the Chinese mainland. The PRC replaced Taiwan in the United Nations and on the UN Security Council in 1971. The United States continues to maintain strong economic ties with Taiwan, its fourth largest trading partner, and also sells defensive armaments to the island per the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.
What effect does not having official diplomatic status as a nation state have on Taiwan?
Lack of official status puts Taiwan in a difficult position internationally. It operates independently of mainland China, but cannot claim the rights and privileges of an independent nation state. As the PRC grows in power, it has taken steps intended to bring the island under the control of Beijing.
It is difficult for Taiwanese representatives to participate in international organizations and decision making bodies, including academic conferences, model UN meetings, and the Olympics. Recently, China has pressured a number of countries to deport Taiwanese passport holders to the PRC, claiming them as “Chinese citizens,” and arrested a pro-democracy activist who is a Taiwanese national.
Taiwan is a small island. How important is it in international affairs?
As China gains international strength and prominence, it also grows in international influence. Taiwan is one of many areas in Asia that maintain democratic systems of governance, and its political system is affected by Chinese influence. In some senses, Taiwan is a bellwether for how democracy and democratic institutions in Asia are responding to China’s growing influence.
Hong Kong is another such case. As a former British colony that returned to mainland China in 1997, the city is supposed to operate under an autonomous and democratic system of government for the next 30 years; however, there are signs that Hong Kong’s democratic institutions are being eroded. Other Asian democracies–Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and India among them–must negotiate their own strategic interests with an increasingly powerful Chinese state.
What are some of China’s key interests and initiatives?
China has initiated economic initiatives, including the “Belt and Road” and established the AIIB as a competitor and possibly alternative to the World Bank. It has acted to assert claims to the South China Sea, which is an area of importance in terms of commerce and natural resources.
What is the Belt and Road Initiative?
The Belt and Road initiative is also known as One Belt, One Road (OBOR) (一带一路). The Belt and Road initiative is the PRC’s strategic economic initiative to develop a southern “maritime Silk Road” and land-based Silk Road or “belt” through Central Asia and extending into Europe.
What is the AIIB?
The AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) is an organization spearheaded by mainland China as an effective alternative to the World Bank, which it views as an institution dominated by the United States and other western countries. The United States, while invited to join the AIIB, has not done so. China has attracted the participation of AIIB countries by offering incentives, such as investment in the infrastructure of participating countries. AIIB strategically advances China’s economic interests and complements its Belt and Road (一带一路) initiative.