Before heading over to Asia, I had a very limited knowledge of the relationships between the countries here. What I knew came from bits and pieces of stories from travellers. In my uneducated world view, one went to South Korea to make money, Japan – to spend money, Thailand to party like a rockstar, China was red, Vietnam and Cambodia were super cheap and Taiwan was like a little cousin of China (…stupid…yeah, I know! How wrong I was).
Other than that, Asia was just one big place with weird customs and awesome food. The politics, economics and social attitudes of the countries toward each other remained hidden in a globulous cloud of ignorance.
Since being here, I’ve managed to educate myself a little bit more, at least about Taiwan. This is by no means a complete academic paper on all the details of the Taiwan – China relationship, just a few things I’ve learned.
Modern Day Names
- ROC (Republic of China) – internationally known as Taiwan
- PRC (Peoples Republic of China) – internationally known as China
History (please stifle your yawns, I’ll keep it brief)
Prior to 1911, China was ruled by a series of dynasties dating back to 1700 BC. The last of these was the Qing dynasty which collapsed in 1911.
- 1911 – Qing dynasty collapses. China is left in the hands of several warlords.
- 1921 – Sun Yat-sen (known as the Father of Taiwan) leads the Kuomintang (KMT) party to oppose the warlords and unify China under one banner. To accomplish this he enlists the aid of the Russians (because western powers were reluctant) and the newly formed Communist party of China (CPC). Despite their different ideologies, the KMT and CPC work together to unify China.
- 1927 – Inevitably, full bellies and ideological differences led to a rift between the parties, and the CPC left the KMT to station their headquarters elsewhere. This led to the KMT executing 100’s of CPC members. Brothers were now enemies.
- 1927 – 1937 – Civil war raged. Finally the threat of a Japanese invasion forced the warring sides to cozy up and present a united front.
- 1937 – 1945 – Even though they were forced to band together, the 2 parties continued to keep co-operation to a minimum. The CPC favoured guerilla action, the KMT – conventional warfare. This worked in the favour of the communists because they got a lot of grass roots support from local communities, while the KMT were loosing soldiers in mass battles. Eventually (end of WW 2) the Japanese were defeated, so now the Chinese could go back to fighting each other.
- 1946 – 1949 – More civil war. The KMT now had the support of the US (because Russia was supporting the CPC), yet the CPC eventually gained the advantage and took over the mainland. Sun Yat-sen, along with about 2 million loyalists retreated to Taiwan.
The mainland (PRC) countinued various assaults over the years which finally tapered down to sabre rattling, and the ROC managed (with a great deal of help from the US) to start up what is now modern day Taiwan. Taiwan officially declared the war over in 1991.
Relationships between the 2 countries – to put it simply – are a mess. China refuses to acknowledge Taiwanese sovereignty, while Taiwan considers itself “the real China”. The UN recognizes the PRC as the legitimate China, and therefore Taiwan has no seat in the UN.
Most countries do not have official diplomatic ties with Taiwan (having them instead with China). There are no Taiwanese embassies in these countries. Instead, unofficial ties are kept through Taiwanese “culture and economic offices”. Reciprocally, other countries have unofficial offices in Taiwan. In international events, Taiwan still participates as part of China – as seen by the “Chinese Taipei” olympic team from Taiwan.
The US, while acknowledging China’s claim over Taiwan on paper, continues to be an unofficial ally of Taiwan.
In recent years, the ice between Taiwan and China has thawed enough to allow economic ties between the two. Flights (which were initially non-existent) are now regularly scheduled and many businesses operate in both countries. A lot of mainlanders visit Taiwan every year as tourists.
Even so, China continuously has it’s eye on this island. Missiles are always pointed across the Taiwan strait (the body of water separating the 2 countries). While military action hasn’t been mobilized (mostly due to the rest of the world insisting on a peaceful solution), Taiwan continues to be under constant threat.
According to the 2011 ROC national defense report,
“Even today the PRC has not renounced the use of military force against Taiwan, and over one thousand missiles are still deployed along the coast opposite Taiwan. Furthermore, the PRC has resorted to every conceivable means to collect intelligence on the ROC Armed Forces, and as cross-strait exchanges are becoming more and more frequent, Taiwan must confront the threat of the PRC.”
Clearly, Taiwan is also gearing the main thrust of it’s forces to defend against a possible PRC military mobilization.
Taiwan’s political landscape is dominated by 2 parties. The KMT (which is now more PRC friendly) and the Democratic Progressive party (DPP) which is more pro independence. Taiwan’s political attitude toward China shifts depending on which party holds power.
So, as it stands now, while there is continuing trade and communication between the 2, a great deal of animosity still exists. Add to that, the confusing nature of Taiwan’s official international status, and the drive of Taiwanese to be recognized by the world Vs the adamant refusal of the PRC to budge on these issues, you have a complicated and delicate situation.
As for me, obviously, I am a proponent of freedom, and I have come to be enchanted with a lot of things on this island. Having to be under the thumb of China would rankle me as much as it does your everyday Taiwanese. For a place that has it’s own law, economy, education and trade, Taiwan certainly seems to be a nation in it’s own right. Plus, having the freedom to talk about issues without disappearing is definitely a nice bonus.
Regardless, with all the uncertainty, there are definitely interesting times ahead for Taiwan.