China views Taiwan as a rogue province that will reunify with the mainland sooner or later.
However, many Taiwanese disagree. Taiwan sees itself as an independent, democratically governed country, even though it has never officially declared its independence.
The dispute between Beijing and Taiwan threatens to escalate into a violent confrontation with profound international implications.
What is the history and source of the tension?
The first to settle in Taiwan were people of the Austronesian tribes, hailing from Oceania, Southeast Asia, and parts of what is now southern China.
The island was first recorded in Chinese archives in 232 AD, when China sent an expeditionary force to explore the place.
This is a fact that Beijing cites to support its territorial claims.
After being a Dutch colony for a short time (1624-1661), Taiwan was undisputedly administered by the Qing dynasty from 1883 to 1895.
Since the early 17th century, significant numbers of migrants began arriving in Taiwan from China, many fleeing political turmoil or hardship.
Most were Hoklo Chinese from Fujian Province or Hakka Chinese from Canton. The descendants of these two waves of migration make up the majority of the current population.
In 1895, after Japan’s victory in the First Sino-Japanese War, the Qing government had no choice but to cede Taiwan to Japan.
But, after its resounding defeat in World War II, Japan had to relinquish control of all the territories it had occupied in China.
The then Republic of China, one of the victorious countries in that war, began to rule Taiwan with the consent of the allies United States and United Kingdom.
However, China’s civil war, which had started in 1927, continued after World War II and, a few years later, Chiang Kai-shek’s government troops were defeated by communist forces led by Mao Zedong.
Chiang and what was left of his nationalist government of the Kuomintang (KMT) then took refuge on the island of Taiwan, in 1949, proclaiming the Republic of China in that territory, defending that they were still their legitimate government.
This group of people, known as mainland Chinese and numbering about a million and a half people, dominated Taiwanese politics for many years, although they only represent 14% of the population.
After inheriting a de facto dictatorship, and facing pressure from anti-regime society and a nascent democratic movement, Chiang’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, began to allow a process of democratization on the island.
President Lee Teng-hui, known as the “father of democracy” in Taiwan, led the constitutional changes that led to political openness and eventually led to the election of the first non-KMT president, Chen Shui-bian, in the year 2000.
In what state are the relationships now?
After decades of hostile rhetoric, China and Taiwan began to bond in the 1980s.
China advocated the formula known as “one country, two systems,” under which Taiwan could exercise meaningful autonomy if it accepted reunification with China.
This system was introduced in Hong Kong, in a way as a sample for the Taiwanese people.
The offer was rejected by Taiwan, but the territory relaxed restrictions on visits and investments in mainland China.
Also, in 1991, he proclaimed the end of the war with the People’s Republic of China.
There were also brief talks between the two sides through unofficial representatives, although Beijing’s insistence that the ROC in Taiwan is illegitimate did not allow government-to-government contact.
The election of Chen Shui-ban as president of Taiwan in 2000 alarmed Beijing, as it openly supported independence.
Chen was reelected in 2004, prompting China to pass the so-called anti-secession law in 2005, which declares China’s right to resort to “non-peaceful measures” against Taiwan if it tries to officially secede from mainland China.
In 2008, Ma Ying-jeou was elected president. The politician sought to improve relations, particularly through economic agreements.
Eight years later, in 2016, Tsai Ing-wen, the current president of Taiwan, was elected.
Tsai leads the Progressive Democratic Party (DPP), which is leaning toward formal independence from China.
After Donald Trump won the 2016 elections in the United States, Tsai spoke by phone with the president-elect, reversing the American policy in force since 1979, when relations between the two countries were cut off.
Despite no formal ties, the US has pledged to supply Taiwan with defensive weapons, also highlighting that any attack by China would be of “grave concern.”
Throughout 2018, China increased pressure on international companies, forcing them to list Taiwan as part of China on their websites.
Otherwise, China threatened to curb their commercial ambitions in the Asian giant.
Tsai was reelected in 2020. By then, Hong Kong had been through months of unrest, with protesters protesting against the growing influence of Beijing, a situation closely watched by Taiwan.
That same year, the entry into force of a national security law in Hong Kong was widely interpreted as yet another sign that Beijing was increasingly imposing its authority on the territory.
At the same time, the US has been intensifying its contacts with Taiwan and showing its support for Taipei. Last September, Washington sent the highest State Department official to visit the island in decades.
Beijing angrily criticized the meeting, warning the US not to “send the wrong signals to advocates of ‘Taiwanese independence’ to avoid severely damaging Sino-US relations.”
During the controversial visit, China carried out a military exercise with live fire in the strait that separates the island from the mainland.
This year, the administration of President Joe Biden said its commitment to Taiwan is “solid as a rock.”
In the early days of the Biden administration, last January, Taiwan reported a “major raid” by Chinese warplanes over two days. Subsequently, on April 12, the Taiwanese government claimed that China had flown the largest number of military aircraft in its air defense zone in a year.
In response, US Admiral John Aquilino, director of the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific command, warned that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan “is closer than most of us think.”
What, then, is the status of Taiwan?
There is confusion and disagreement about what Taiwan really is and what it should be called.
As we mentioned, China regards Taiwan as a separatist province and is committed to reunification, by force if necessary.
But the Taiwanese leadership assures that it is much more than a province, arguing that it is a sovereign state.
Taiwan has its own Constitution, democratically elected leaders, and some 300,000 active troops in its armed forces.
The government of the Republic of China (DRC) under Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to Taiwan in 1949, declared at first that it represented all of China and that it intended to retake the entire territory again.
This republic held a seat on the UN Security Council and was recognized by many Western nations as the sole government of China.
However, in 1971, the UN transferred diplomatic recognition to Beijing and the DRC government was expelled. Since then, the number of countries that diplomatically recognize the DRC has dropped to 15.
The most recent country to cut ties with Taiwan was Nicaragua, announced by Foreign Minister Denis Moncada on December 9, 2021.
Given the large gap between these two positions, most countries seem content to accept the current ambiguity. So Taiwan possesses most of the characteristics of an independent state, although its legal status remains unclear.
How significant is independence in Taiwan?
Although little political progress has been made, ties between the two peoples and their economies have grown.
Taiwanese companies have invested about $ 60 billion in China, and up to a million Taiwanese live on the Chinese mainland, many running Taiwanese factories.
Some worry about the dependence of Taiwan’s economy on China. Others, however, point out that the close trade relations would make any military action by Beijing difficult because of the damage it would do to the economy of the second world power.
A controversial trade deal sparked the “Sunflower Movement” in 2014, when students and activists occupied Taiwan’s Parliament protesting what they saw as growing Chinese influence in Taiwan.
Officially, the Progressive Democratic Party (DPP) still favors an independence for Taiwan, while the KMT favors reunification.
An opinion poll commissioned by the Taiwanese government in March 2021 showed that the majority of the people now support the DPP government’s strategy of “safeguarding national sovereignty.”
The 2020 elections in which Tsai won with a record 8.2 million votes were widely interpreted as a rejection of Beijing.
What allies does Taiwan have?
The United States is by far Taiwan’s most important friend and only ally.
The relationship, forged during World War II and the Cold War, went through its most difficult period in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter ended Washington’s diplomatic recognition of Taiwan to focus on growing ties with China.
In response, the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, promising to supply defensive weapons to Taiwan, highlighting that any attack by China would be of “grave concern” to the US.
Since then, US policy has been described as one of “strategic ambiguity”, seeking to balance China’s emergence as a regional power with admiration of Taiwan for its economic success and democratization.
The crucial role of the US was clearly demonstrated in 1996, when China conducted missile tests to try to influence the first direct presidential elections.
In response, then-President Bill Clinton ordered the largest US military deployment to Asia since the Vietnam War, sending ships to the Taiwan Strait and a clear message to Beijing.
In 2018, contrary to Beijing’s wishes, President Donald Trump signed a law allowing US officials to travel to Taiwan and meet with their peers to strengthen relations.
Then, in August 2020 and in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump sent a member of his cabinet, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, to Taiwan. He was the highest US government official to visit the island in decades.
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