Taiwan lives in mainland China’s shadow. Its citizens are content for now to live in diplomatic limbo. Any change in sentiment would have global repercussions.
By Anne-Sophie van Wingerden
Arriving at Beijing’s airport last summer, I glanced at the flight monitors. Taiwan was not listed among domestic destinations. Nor was it alongside international capitals.
Taiwan exists in limbo, neither part of mainland China to the west, nor fully independent.
That ambiguity extends from diplomatic relations to domestic politics, and casts a shadow over Taiwan’s future as the People’s Republic of China flexes its economic, political and military muscles in Asia and beyond.
Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province that is part of Communist China. “One country, two systems,” is how the mainland government describes its relationship with the island — the same slogan it applies to Hong Kong.
Although Taiwan is officially the Republic of China (ROC), it is recognized as a sovereign state by fewer than two dozen countries and is not a member of the United Nations. Yet it is an economic powerhouse — the 21st largest economy in the world — and enjoys the implicit backing of the world’s biggest military power, the United States.
U.S. policy remains wrapped in ambiguity.
Taiwan’s modern history begins in 1949 when nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek were driven from the mainland by Communist troops under Mao Zedong. Mao established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with its capital in Beijing, while the nationalists set up in Taipei, claiming to be the legitimate government of all of China.
The two sides have never officially abandoned their conflicting claims on each other, and Beijing has never renounced the use of force to take the island, particularly if it makes moves toward independence.
The evolution of U.S. policy towards Beijing and Taipei has reflected changes in the balance of international power and Taiwan’s standing in the world.
During the beginning of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, the United States maintained relations with the ROC and shunned the Communist PRC.
In 1972, with the United States still mired in the Vietnam War, U.S. President Richard Nixon took the bold step of visiting the PRC, ending 25 years of separation between Washington and Beijing. Still, the two countries could not reach a consensus on Taiwan, declaring only that “Taiwan is China’s internal affair.”
In 1979, the United States and China normalized relations, with Washington acknowledging the Chinese position that “there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.”
In April of that same year, Washington dissolved official diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The new arrangement did not guarantee American military support in the event of an invasion by PRC troops. The American president would merely be obliged to inform Congress of any act of aggression.
In 1982, the United States declared that it had no intention of pursuing a policy of “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan.”
While over the decades Washington has moved closer to Beijing, U.S. policy remains wrapped in ambiguity. The United States supplies arms to Taiwan and in practice would be expected to come to the island’s aid if it were attacked by the PRC.
Independence or diplomatic limbo?
One could easily assume that the inhabitants of Taiwan desire full independence instead of living in diplomatic limbo. After all, wouldn’t any people prefer independence to living under the shadow of its neighbor?
Indeed, the Taiwanese feel distinct from their cousins on the mainland. A 2015 poll by the Taiwan Braintrust showed that 90 percent of respondents identified as “Taiwanese,” while only six percent chose “Chinese.”
Among younger respondents, even fewer identified themselves as “Chinese.”
Yet despite their distinct identity, Taiwanese are divided on the issue of independence. The Braintrust poll asked respondents whether they favored unification with China, independence or the status quo.
The result? More than half said they preferred the status quo, with 31 percent favoring independence.
For now, the “one country, two systems” arrangement appears satisfactory.
While younger generations were much more likely to support independence, most preferred the current situation over risking confrontation with the mainland.
For now, then, the “one country, two systems” arrangement appears satisfactory. But times are changing and younger generations are more supportive of independence.
In January, an independence-leaning political party won presidential and parliamentary elections in Taiwan, succeeding China-friendly Nationalists. Ties have already begun to strain between Beijing and Taipei, and this week mainland China said Taiwan’s new government would be to blame for any crisis that erupted once it assumes office next week.
More than four decades ago, China articulated its position in the Shanghai Communiqué that emerged during Nixon’s trail-blazing visit: “the people of all countries have the right to choose their social systems according to their own wishes.”
If a majority of Taiwan’s inhabitants one day call for independence — choosing “according to their own wishes” — they will be opting for a new political chapter under “two countries, two systems.”
That choice, however, could have dire geopolitical consequences given China’s historic claim and Washington’s military support for its Taiwanese ally.
Anne-Sophie van Wingerden grew up in the United States, the Netherlands, France and England. She has spent the past two years studying in China and Italy, living with a host family and learning the local languages. Next year she will attend Williams College in the United States, where she plans to study Classics and Computer Science.