The Absolute Basics of the US-China-Taiwan Relationship

This is A. J. Johnson’s 1865 map of China. Covers the region with particular attention to cities and waterways. China at the time this map was made was mostly closed country, however, a few ports were opened to western trade, these are noted in capital letters and include Tanchau, Kaifung, Waingan, Shanghai, Canton and Nanking (Nanjing) among others. Insets detail the “Island of Amoy” and Canton (Hong Kong). Features the Celtic style border common to Johnson’s atlas work from 1863 to 1869. Steel plate engraving prepared by A. J. Johnson for publication as plate no. 97 in the 1865 edition of his New Illustrated Atlas… This is the first edition of the Johnson’s Atlas to exclusively bear the A. J. Johnson imprint.

(A post by Ben Lehman, who many of you will recognize from “Alas” comments. Reprinted from Ben’s facebook, with Ben’s kind permission. The illustration, an 1985 1865 map of China and Taiwan, was chosen by Amp.)

PREAMBLE: I’m going to endeavor to try to keep this essay as viewpoint neutral as humanly possible. However, I should let you know what my biases are before I start talking. Taiwan is one of my favorite places in the world. I love it, and I love the people there. My highest hope is that they will be able to achieve prosperity and happiness, and will be able to enjoy their hard-fought and well-earned social and political freedoms. I wish this regardless of their current or future political identity.

VERY ABBREVIATED, SIMPLIFIED HISTORY: Up until the 1500s, Taiwan was mostly inhabited by Taiwanese aboriginal groups (who are not ethnically or linguistically Chinese) and the occasional Chinese fisherman or pirate gang along the coast. In the 1500s and 1600s there were several failed attempts at European colonization, first by the Portuguese and then by the Dutch and the Spanish, to provide a waypoint for ships to restock and repair on the long journey to Japan.

In 1644 when the Qing took control of the Mainland, a half-Japanese half-Chinese pirate named Koxinga declared Taiwan a rump dynasty of the Ming, complete with a young claimant to the Imperial Throne, with the intent on reclaiming the mainland. He consolidated power, expelled the Dutch, and generally made a huge nuisances of himself. When the Qing finally crushed this nascent state in 1683, they annexed the island, mostly in an attempt to prevent further pirates, Europeans, or political revolutionaries from taking up residence.

The Qing governed Taiwan as a frontier, and attempted to keep out ethnically Chinese settlers, fearing that the area was too distant and overseas to be controlled effectively. But the farmland in the western plains was excellent and there was good fishing, so Chinese settlers arrived and settled enthusiastically. This settlement was somewhat analogous to the American West — including the expulsion, conquest, and massacre of the aboriginal people, although the government — which was ruled by Manchus who didn’t trust the Chinese settlers — was somewhat less openly anti-aborigine and pro-Settler than in the US.

This state of affairs — an influx of Chinese settlers intermarrying with and displacing the native population, with wary government oversight — continued until the Qing lost the Sino-Japanese War in 1895. As part of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, the Qing signed over Taiwan and its outlying islands to the Japanese empire in perpetuity. The Japanese would govern Taiwan for the next 60 years.

The Japanese government of Taiwan was a different form of colonialism. They focused on assimilation — making the local, mostly Chinese population speak Japanese, take on Japanese names, wear Japanese clothes, and live a Japanese lifestyle. Meanwhile, they looted the island for its natural resources (mostly gold and timber) to help fund Imperial expansion.

In the treaty of San Francisco that ended World War Two, Japan surrendered all of its imperial possessions, including Taiwan, to their own sovereign rule or to their original countries. Because China was regarded as one of the Allies, Taiwan was returned to Chinese sovereignty, and the Japanese withdrew, but Taiwan did not actually receive any government from the Republic of China (ROC), because the Republic of China was a bit busy fighting the Communists in the Chinese Civil War. When they finally lost the Chinese Civil War in 1949, they did not surrender. Rather, they “retreated to Taiwan.” In practice, this was a full-scale military invasion of the island. The invading ROC, a fascistic military dictatorship under Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang (KMT) party, brutally suppressed the local inhabitant, who they saw as Japanized quislings and collaborators, as separatists, or as communist-sympathetic liberals. They established military rule on the island, and consolidated power and wealth in the hands of the KMT elite who had come from the Mainland in 1949.

Now, it’s worth noting here that, while both of these groups are ethnically Chinese, they are different Chinese ethnicities. The KMT elite were Mandarin and Cantonese speakers from the northern and southern cities. The local Chinese were Taiwanese speakers (a dialect of Fujianese) and from a very different culture, now shaped by 60 years of Japanese social engineering. So, though both these groups are Chinese, there is a legitimate and meaningful ethnic divide here. It’s not just political.

Meanwhile, on the Mainland, Mao Zedong, having effectively won the Chinese civil war, declares the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and proceeds to begin governing Mainland China and its outlying territories.

Now, it’s important to note that while there are two governments here, there are two governments of China. The Chinese Civil War never formally ended. The ROC never signed a surrender document. Chiang Kai-shek, delusionally believing that he’s going to successfully retake the mainland any day now, wants to avoid being having other states, particularly the US and other anti-communist states, recognize the PRC as a legitimate government of China, leaving him governing a rump, separate, state of Taiwan. So he declares the “One China Principle,” which is to say, there is one legitimate government of China, and you can recognize the ROC as legitimate or the PRC as legitimate but not both. Mao, likewise, wants to claim Taiwan as Chinese territory, not as a separate state, so issues the same ultimatum. The US and its allies, as well as the UN, recognize the ROC, but not the PRC. The USSR and its allies recognize the PRC. The PRC refuses recognition from several US-bloc countries, such as the UK, on the grounds that it would violate the One China principle.

This is the deal: Pick your Government of China, the other government is illegitimate and you can’t have anything to do with it.

So the ROC, run by the KMT as a one party state, is on Taiwan oppressing the hell out of people with US support, and the PRC, run by the CCP as a one party state, is on the Mainland oppressing the hell out of people, sometimes with the support of the USSR, sometimes going it alone. This is the status quo.

Things start to shift in the late 60s early 70s. Canada recognizes the PRC and its recognition is accepted. The UN shifts its recognition in 1971, functionally expelling the ROC and Taiwan from representation permanently. In 1972 Nixon goes to China and the US and the Mainland start an informal relationship. In 1975, Chiang Kai-shek dies and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo takes over. Chiang Ching-kuo begins to initiate dramatic social reforms, rolling back martial law, carrying out land reform, economic development programs, opening up elections to “non-party” candidates and KMT membership to local Taiwanese, and dramatically increasing freedom of the press.

And, with basically no notification, in 1979, the US recognizes the PRC, thus recognizing the legitimacy of the largest nation on the planet and gaining a badly needed anti-Soviet Communist ally.

Taiwan has lost its major patron. Because of the One China principle, the US cannot acknowledge it as a government at all. It’s basically fucked. The US comes to Taiwan with a deal, though: continue to carry out its social reforms with the end goal of liberal democracy, and the US will continue to support Taiwan through back channels. Taiwan agrees. So the US passes the Taiwan Relations Act, which does a few things:
* It allows the US to come to defense of the Taiwan if China-Taiwan (PRC-ROC) status quo is threatened.
* It allows private US arms manufacturers to sell weapons to Taiwan for use in self-defense.
* It establishes the American Institute in Taiwan, a non-governmental organization staffed by state department officials on leave, to be an informal embassy.

Meanwhile, in China, Mao dies and Deng Xiaoping takes control of the party and state. He initiates the Reform and Opening, a policy of economic and diplomatic liberalization without political or social liberalization. Included in this is a revision to Taiwan policy, which includes the idea of the Three Links (postal, commercial, and transport), that there should be some communications between the sides. This basically goes nowhere for 20 years.

And this is the beginning of the modern status quo.

The ROC, on Taiwan, holds free and fair political elections for the first time in the 90s. The political parties rapidly form into two coalitions, the Pan-Blue coalition led by the KMT (which has renounced fascism and military government and reinvented itself as a centre-right party of business and the status quo) and Pan-Green coalition led by the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, an alliance of dissidents, democratic reformers, non-communist leftists, and independence and human rights activists. The KMT, led by the Taiwanese statesman Lee Teng-hui manages to hold onto power until the election of 2000, where the Pan-Blue coalition splits their vote between the KMT and independent James Soong, letting Chen Shui-bian of the DPP win the presidency in with a narrow plurality of the vote.

The PRC, on Mainland China, flips the fuck out at this. Let’s look briefly at why.

Theoretically the Chinese Civil War between the CCP and the KMT is still unsettled. As long as the KMT is in charge on Taiwan, the CCP can claim that they are simply two sides of this ongoing struggle gone cold. But the DPP has no part of the Chinese Civil War. They’re not a rival China. The extremists in the party are even pro-Taiwan independence, and although Chen Shui-bian rejects that they have their suspicions about his sympathies. They build up missiles pointed at the island, they threaten to invade, it’s a huge deal. For decades, the belief has been that Taiwan and the Mainland are the same country, with two rival governments. Now, there’s a huge existential threat to that in the form of 1) election 2) of a non-KMT president 3) with separatist sympathies.

Secondarily, the KMT has emerged as the pro-China party, what with the business opportunities and the insistence on the status quo. The DPP has separatist leanings and favors a closer relationship with Japan, partly as a counterweight to China, and partly out of nostalgia for Japanese colonial rule. So, ironically, the CCP is happier with the party that they are at war with, rather than the party that refuses to acknowledge that there’s any reason for a war.

Despite this, during Chen Shui-bian’s tenure, China and Taiwan get a hell of a lot done through back-channel negotiation. They open mail and transit links, they open opportunities for investment and trade. Taiwanese owned and built factories in China bring high-tech manufacturing and jobs to the Mainland, and a shitload of money to Taiwan. After Chen Shui-bian leaves office in a cloud of scandal, the KMT president Ma Ying Jeou accelerates ties, arranging high level meetings with PRC officials and opening up real estate purchases on Taiwan to mainland elites. This makes him very popular with the Mainland government, but it (along with a lot of other mistakes) also alienates the populace of Taiwan.

Meanwhile, the US continues arms sales and military support for Taiwan without direct connection. While some ousted heads of state (say, the Dalai Lama) can get away with visiting the US “as a private individual” the President of of the ROC is not even allowed to stop their plane in the mainland US. “Refueling stops” of only a few hours are allowed in Alaska and Hawaii, but no government business is directly conducted and even then it is extremely touchy diplomatically. Nonetheless, we remain the primary guarantor of Taiwan’s security, independence, and democracy. Every time the PRC gets too aggressive towards Taiwan, we sail a carrier group through the Taiwan straight to get them to back down. China and the US are highly interdependent. China doesn’t want to pick a fight with us over Taiwan. We don’t want to pick a fight back.

In China, Xi Jinping, a demagogic, aggressive leader with strong callbacks to Mao, is selected as the head of the party and the president. He proceeds to ratchet up rhetoric towards Taiwan.

Ma Ying Jeou leaves office deeply unpopular, and in a wave election last year Taiwan elects Tsai Ing-wen, it’s first female president and second DPP president, along with, for the first time, a pan-Green majority in the legislature. China gets really, really on edge. Previously, the KMT legislature could block any moves towards independence. Now, they can’t. In practice, it’s unlikely that the DPP will try for independence — it’s fairly unpopular with the people of Taiwan and it’s unlikely that the US would defend them if they instigated a conflict — but try telling that to the Chinese Communist Party. But Tsai Ing-wen has refused to acknowledge several important pieces of previous negotiation (particularly the 1992 consensus which is “there is one China but both sides can decide for themselves what that means). So there’s been another ratcheting up of tension and rhetoric. (It’s worth noting that Tsai Ing-wen was the chair of the Mainland Affairs Council during the period of increased ties 2000-2004. It’s also worth noting that this doesn’t seem to have helped much.)

And now you have a president-elect of the US ignoring decades of diplomatic consensus from both Taiwan and the Mainland, in a situation that’s already tense, after having already threatened to not come to the aid of US allies and to withdraw US forces based in East Asia (which are the primary defense of Taiwan.) So. Here we are.

Hopefully this will provide some context to whatever happens next.

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10 Responses to The Absolute Basics of the US-China-Taiwan Relationship

  1. 1
    kate says:

    Thank-you for this outline. Trump’s impulsive foreign policy is so risky. Do you have any thoughts about how issues in the south China sea relate to this?

  2. 2
    ScottM says:

    I agree–thanks for the quick summary Ben!

  3. 3
    Jake Squid says:

    So do we think Trump wants a PRC/ROC conflict or do we think he’s completely ignorant of the situation?

  4. 4
    Ben Lehman says:

    The South China Sea would take another essay about this size to explain, at least. I might write it, but not right away.

  5. 5
    Doug S. says:

    I had a silly idea for defusing Mainland China / Taiwan tensions.

    Many countries other than the U.K. have the Queen of England as the nominal head of state. What if China and Taiwan did something similar – the CCP appoints an “emperor” with purely ceremonial duties/powers to be “head of state”, and Taiwan’s government agrees that said “emperor” is also their head of state, with the actual governing being delegated to the established mainland and Taiwanese governments? The hope would be to create a sense that both governments are legitimate (if only for now) and both legitimately Chinese governments. (If you want, add in some language about eventual reunification and some token representation of Taiwan and Mainland China in each other’s governments.)

    Of course, there are probably a zillion reasons this is a bad idea that I don’t know yet, in addition to the old standby “this won’t happen because you’d need to get a zillion people to agree to it and convincing that many people is hard work that nobody is going to attempt to do in the first place.” But it’s fun to fantasize.

  6. 6
    Ben Lehman says:

    Doug: Both governments are explicitly Republics and it’s pretty baked into their DNA. Imperial restoration is, uh, let’s just say, unpopular.

  7. 7
    Ortvin Sarapuu says:

    Doug’s idea could work with minimal modifications with a non-hereditary head of state – some kind of “Union President”. Although then you’d have problems about how they were chosen.

    But even if this could be overcome, this is essentially where they are now. Both countries both officially agree that they’re both part of “China” and both are officially in favour of eventual reunification. But it doesn’t defuse existing tensions.

    ” it’s fun to fantasize”

    I have to say this is pretty unsympathetic. This is a massive issue that affects literally a billion people, way more significant on a global scale than American gun violence, for example. It’s nice that you get to have fun playing make believe, but there are people out there really trying to solve this issue, and it feels disrespectful for you to just wave aside the things they’re grappling with as you have “fun”.

  8. 8
    Ortvin Sarapuu says:

    BTW, Amp, I think your map is from 1865, not 1985

  9. 9
    Ampersand says:

    Thanks for the correction, Ortvin. :-)

    I disagree with you about Doug’s comment. Everyone has their own personal line for this sort of thing, but I didn’t see a problem with Doug’s speculation.

  10. 10
    RonF says:

    Very informational and well written. Thanks! This also adds context to Mainland China’s buildup to develop a blue-water navy, complete with aircraft carriers.