Taiwan’s Tightrope

By | Updated Dec 8, 2016 4:17 AM UTC

Taiwan is a country, right? Well, sort of. It has a constitution, an army and an elected government, and yet the United Nations doesn’t recognize it. The reason? Taiwan became the home base of Chinese who fled Communism in the 1940s, and China considers the island one of its provinces, the government as illegitimate and any talk of independence as deeply hostile. China blasted missiles into the waters surrounding Taiwan in the mid-1990s as a warning not to go it alone. Relations and trade links have strengthened since then, but Taiwan's first female president is testing China's tolerance.

The Situation

Taiwan elected Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, as president in a landslide in January 2016. She replaced Ma Ying-jeou and the Kuomintang party, who had pursued eight years of warming ties with China. Tsai said at her inauguration that she will seek peaceful ties with China while resisting pressure from the mainland to acknowledge the idea that they are part of a single nation. Tsai has promised to follow public opinion on China: Polls show strong support for maintaining the status quo of coexistence and little immediate interest in independence. China has stepped up pressure on Tsai to openly endorse the “one-China” principle, the understanding that both sides belong to one China, even if they have different ideas about what that means. (The Beijing government considers itself the rightful ruler of a nation that includes Taiwan; under Taiwan’s constitution, adopted in 1946, Taiwan is the legitimate ruler of all of China including Taiwan.) Since the election, China has shown how a less cooperative future might look, obstructing Taiwanese officials' access to an OECD conference and resuming diplomatic ties with Gambia, which had earlier broken them with Taiwan. In December, China lodged a complaint with the U.S. after President-elect Donald Trump talked with Tsai by phone, casting aside almost four decades of diplomatic protocol by directly speaking with the leader of Taiwan.


The Background

Victory by the Communists in the Chinese civil war in 1949 forced the nationalist Kuomintang government to flee the mainland and cross the 110-mile Taiwan Strait along with more than 1.5 million refugees. Staunch U.S. support mellowed in the 1970s when President Richard Nixon shifted America’s diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan in an effort to contain the Soviet Union. After 38 years of often brutal rule, Taiwan dropped martial law in 1987 and a year later got its first native-born president, who went on to become its first democratically elected leader in 1996. Tensions erupted into Chinese military action twice — in the 1950s then again around a Taiwan election in the mid-1990s. China passed a law in 2005 authorizing an attack if the island declares independence. Only a handful of nations recognize Taiwan — even the U.S., which is bound by a 1979 law to safeguard Taiwan’s democracy, doesn’t have official diplomatic relations. Nonetheless, Taiwan’s 23.5 million people have built their economy into a technology and manufacturing powerhouse. Average income is three times greater than that of China. Much of Apple’s iPhone is made by Taiwanese companies, while tech giants including Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company lead the world in making computer chips for other firms.

The Argument

China aims more than 1,200 missiles at Taiwan and no peace treaty has been signed in the seven decades since the governments split. Yet many China-watchers say there is too much at stake for military action, especially given the prospect of U.S. involvement and possible economic fallout. Others interpret China’s actions in Asia’s disputed waters as evidence of a more expansionist and aggressive regional stance that does not point to a relaxing of attitudes toward the likes of Taiwan and Tibet anytime soon. A meeting between Xi and Ma in 2015  — the first in seven decades between the two sides’ leaders — was taken by some as a warning by the Beijing government to steer clear of the path to independence. Taiwan’s voters, wary of the lack of political freedom in China, have turned to Tsai to keep the peace while building international ties — something of a challenge given its neighbor's influence — with a view to a future less dependent on the mainland. 

The Reference Shelf

  • U.S. Congressional Research Service report on Taiwan policy and Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 that  “maintains the capacity of the U.S. to resist any resort to force.”
  • The Diplomat considers the legality of the U.S. and Japan coming to Taiwan’s defense and looks at China’s attempts to win the hearts and minds of Taiwan’s people.
  • Richard Bush makes the case for a peaceful long-term solution in his book “Uncharted Strait.”
  • China’s 2005 anti-secession law stating that “reunifying the motherland is the sacred duty of all Chinese people, the Taiwan compatriots included.”
  • A 2007 paper by the Cato Institute says Taiwan risks war by relying too much on the U.S. for defense.

First published Jan. 10, 2016

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Debra Mao in Taipei at dmao5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Grant Clark at gclark@bloomberg.net