‘I think the threat of A Chinese assault on Taiwan is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years’. These words of Admiral Philip Scot Davidson, the United States Indo-Pacific commander, shocked the world a couple of weeks ago.1 The position of Taiwan has been complicated in the political atmosphere of modern history. With the People’s Republic of China’s power on the rise, it has become even more clear that the position of Taiwan is very important in the battle for control of political power in the Pacific. But why has Taiwan become such an interesting player on the political field and is it even an independent country?
Relationship China-Taiwan: yes or no?
After the Second World War, Taiwan was put under the administrative control of the Republic of China government led by the Kuomintang. Soon after this, the second phase of the Chinese Civil War started between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China. At the end of the Chinese Civil War, after four years of bloody fighting, the government of the Republic of China, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, retreated to Taiwan. The Communist Party of China, led by Mao Zhedong, took control of the mainland of China.2 On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China and declared that his government was the sole legitimate authority in China.3
‘At first, the United States supported the government of Chiang Kai-Shek’
From the first moment on, the Chinese communist government saw Taiwan as a part of China and never recognized Taiwan as an independent country. The Republic of China on the other hand declared that its government was the sole legitimate authority in China. The United States ultimately supported the government of Chiang Kai-Shek.4 The reason why the United States backed the government of Chiang Kai-Shek was that it was a force against communist rule in Asia.5 Many democratic nations backed this approach of the United States and therefore saw the government of Chiang Kai-Shek as the legitimate government of China.
Role of US changed in 1979
The approach of the United States changed in 1979 when it switched its embassy from Taipei to Beijing. From that moment on the United States viewed the People’s Republic of China as the real China, but kept having relations with the Republic of China. This point of view is still in place, but with new tensions on the horizon with the People’s Republic of China, the alliance between the United States and Taiwan may become stronger.6
Independency of Taiwan for discussion
The People’s Republic of China always viewed Taiwan as a part of their nation and never recognized their independence.7 In accordance with the Montevideo-criteria (from the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, 1933) it can be determined if Taiwan is an independent country or not. The art. 1 Montevideo-criteria are:
1. A permanent population
2. A defined territory
3. A government
4. Capacity to enter into relations with the other states
‘It is the fourth criteria that brings the problems’
For Taiwan, the first three conditions are no problem. They have a permanent population of approximately 23 million people. It is an island that meets the criteria of defined territory with roughly 23,000 square kilometers. It also has a government that doesn’t answer to any higher government or any government abroad.8 It is the fourth criteria that brings the problems for meeting the Montevideo-criteria for Taiwan. Although it keeps some diplomatic relations with a small number of countries, no other country formally recognizes Taiwan as a separate state. Therefore, Taiwan doesn’t have the capacity to formally enter into relations with the other states and doesn’t fulfill the criteria of the Montevideo Convention.
Taiwan: strategically important
In the political atmosphere of Southeast Asia, Taiwan has played a significant role since the Second World War. Especially for the United States and China, the position of Taiwan has been crucial in containing their strategic position in this region. Since the Second World War, the United States has had the most prominent influence in this region with its diplomatic and military power.10 That position has come under scrutiny with the military and political power of China on the rise. Mainly the naval power of China has gotten bigger. China’s naval fleet is even larger now than that of the U.S. Navy.11
U.S strategists have identified Taiwan as crucial to contain the rising military and political power of China over the past years.11 Taiwan’s centrality to the Pacific power struggle between the USA and the People’s Republic of China arises from several factors. Taiwan is the biggest island in the archipelago between Japan and Southeast Asia and it is a first-class economic power for instance. But perhaps the most important reason why the United States wants to play hardball on Taiwan, is that if China were to gain full control of Taiwan, it would have a free hand in operating east of the island. The power of the U.S. forces would have been sere compromised in that case.12 The control of the Pacific would be redefined in that case with a stronger People’s Republic of China and a weaker USA.13
The future will tell us
The role of Taiwan will be interesting to watch over for the coming years. If the People’s Republic of China and the United States will go toe to toe with each other over the political control of the Pacific, Taiwan will be crucial to each party’s strategy. It either may come under China’s rule, or it will go on as it has for the last 75 years or perhaps it will get its independence? Only time will tell…
1. B. Lendon, ‘China building offensive, aggressive military, top US Pacific commander says’, www.cnn.com.
2. C. Horton, ‘Su Beng, a Father of Taiwan Independence, Dies at 100’, NY Times 4 oktober 2019.
3. ‘Formation of the People’s Republic of China’, www.britannica.com.
4. ‘U.S. Relations with China’, www.cfr.org.
5. S.M. Goldstein, The United States and the Republic of China 1949-1978: Suspicious Allies, 2000.
6. ‘VS sturen ‘onofficiële delegatie’ naar Taiwan’, Parool 14 april 2021.
7. E. Albert, ‘China-Taiwan Relations’, www.cfr.org.
8. J. deLisle, Taiwan: Sovereignty and participation in international organizations (Foreign Policy Research Institute), Juli 2011.
9. S.L. Myers, ‘With Ships and Missiles, China Is Ready to Challenge U.S. Navy in Pacific’, NY Times 29 augustus 2018.
10. G. Ziezulewicz, ‘China’s navy has more ships than the US. Does that Matter?’, NavyTimes 9 april 2021.
11. L. Thompson, ‘Why Taiwan has become the ‘Geographical pivot of history’ in the Pacific age’, Forbes 29 september 2020.
12. S.L. Myers, ‘With Ships and Missiles, China Is Ready to Challenge U.S. Navy in Pacific’, NY Times 29 augustus 2018.
13. L. Thompson, ‘Why Taiwan has become the ‘Geographical pivot of history’ in the Pacific age’, Forbes 29 september 2020.