Taiwan Seeks to Escape Its History

Taiwan Seeks to Escape Its History

Taiwan’s shift toward more explicitly nationalist politics has exposed serious contradictions in U.S. China policy. 

In his inauguration speech last May, Taiwan’s new president, Lai Ching-te, evoked the year 1624—when the Dutch East India Company established a fort on the island—as the year that “marked Taiwan’s links to globalization.” His theme was that since then, Taiwan has been an international entity and entrepot with a complex history of interaction with many foreign countries and other actors, including mainland China. Many Taiwanese, especially from Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), assert that Taiwan has “never been part of China,” and emphasize in particular that it has never been part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since 2006, DPP administrations have issued textbooks that teach Taiwan’s history separately from Chinese history.

The importance of understanding this history is highlighted in a new book by scholar Sulmaan Wasif Khan, The Struggle for Taiwan: A History of America, China, and the Island Caught Between. Khan’s narrative records that Taiwan was, in fact, part of the Chinese empire from 1683 to 1895—more than 200 years—because Emperor Kangxi decided that “the idea of a potentially hostile power offshore was not one he would countenance.” The island then became part of the Japanese empire for fifty years after the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–5).

The United States became centrally involved in 1943, when President Franklin Roosevelt, at the wartime Cairo Conference—attended by Republic of China (ROC) leader Chiang Kai-shek—agreed that Taiwan would be “restored to the Republic of China” after the defeat of Japan, which came two years later. Khan explains, however, that in making this commitment, Roosevelt ignored the fact that Chiang would have to fight for control of China with Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) after Japan’s defeat. As is now well known, the CCP forced Chiang and the ROC regime to retreat to the island of Taiwan in 1949.

Washington was prepared to surrender Chiang and Taiwan to their fate but reversed course after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 when President Harry Truman sent the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait to deter further Communist aggression. Although Mao had told an American journalist in 1936 that he was prepared to support Taiwan’s independence, he too reversed course in 1950 because—as Khan observes—“it was inevitable that the Communists would turn their attention” to Taiwan after Truman’s decision, which constituted intervention in the Chinese Civil War “whether Truman thought so or not.” Like Emperor Kangxi, the idea of a “hostile power offshore”—especially a rival Chinese regime under foreign protection—was not one Mao would countenance.

Almost thirty years later, the United States adjusted its position by normalizing diplomatic relations with the PRC, revoking its formal ties and defense pact with the ROC, and committing itself to a “One China” policy. However, it retained a close “unofficial” relationship with Taiwan as outlined by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979. In addition, in 1982, Washington delivered “Six Assurances” to Taipei, which reaffirmed the parameters of U.S. support for Taiwan. 

Khan argues that in trying to have it both ways, this (re)balancing act left many issues unclear or unresolved. The TRA, he states, was a “declaration of intent” that “America would interfere in what it had acknowledged to be internal Chinese affairs.” In Khan’s view, “this bizarre combination of normalized relations and the TRA crystallized America’s fundamental confusion about its China-Taiwan policy”—a “basic confusion [that] would define [U.S.]-China relations from this point forth.”

Then came the democratization of Taiwan in the 1990s. It is important to recall that Chiang Kai-shek ruled Taiwan as an autocrat until his death in 1975, and his son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, did not lift martial law until 1987, before his own death the following year. The passing of the Chiang dynasty unleashed the long-suppressed view (especially among the DPP) that the Taiwan people themselves had not been parties to the Chinese Civil War, which Chiang Kai-shek had brought to their island. Nor were they parties to the U.S.-PRC normalization process, which many Taiwanese saw as largely irrelevant to their long-stifled democracy and autonomy. Since then, Taiwan’s politics has been characterized in part by the flowering of this democratic, non-Chinese identity. And support for Taiwan’s democratic self-determination became a core element of Washington’s “One China” policy in the late 1990s.

But this complicated “America’s fundamental confusion about its China-Taiwan policy” because it not only left unresolved but actually deepened the inherent dilemmas of Washington’s position. Democracy in Taiwan had not been part of the diplomatic equation either before or during the United States-PRC normalization process, and Washington’s “One China” policy had originally been somewhat inattentive to the possibility that the Taiwanese themselves had a voice in the matter. Indeed, in the U.S.-PRC “Shanghai Communiqué” of 1972, Washington acknowledged “that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China.” This may not have been correct even at the time; by the end of the 1990s, it was obviously incorrect. There are many people on one side of the Strait who (in addition to denying that they are “Chinese”) maintain that Taiwan is not part of China.

This view was amply reflected in Lai’s inauguration speech. However, contrary to claims that he has not substantially gone beyond the position on cross-strait issues of his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, Lai clearly pushed the envelope. He referred to Taiwan as “a sovereign independent country,” which—although a longstanding DPP formula—was absent from Tsai’s two inaugural addresses. He did not reiterate Tsai’s position that Taipei would address cross-strait issues in accordance with the ROC constitution and the 1992 “Act Governing Relations Between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area,” which, at least in theory, upholds the notion that Taiwan and the Mainland are parts of one polity—and which Tsai had probably invoked to avoid antagonizing Beijing. Instead, Lai cited the ROC constitution only to emphasize Taiwan’s separateness, asserting that “the ROC and the PRC are not subordinate to each other.” Finally, he suggested that the names “Republic of China,” “Republic of China Taiwan,” and “Taiwan” are interchangeable—thus affirming that Taiwan is a country distinct from the PRC—even though Taiwan is internationally recognized as a country only as the ROC (and only by a handful of countries that do not recognize the PRC).

The Biden administration has essentially adopted the position that Lai’s approach to cross-strait relations represents nothing substantially new or different from Tsai’s or anything particularly problematic. In a statement criticizing military exercises that Beijing launched immediately following Lai’s inauguration, the U.S. State Department referred to the latter as a “normal, routine, and democratic transition” that merited no such belligerent Chinese response. A month later, U.S. officials met with counterparts in Taipei for routine consultations on “Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international fora” in accordance with “our one China policy, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three Joint Communiqués, and the Six Assurances.” 

But Lai’s inauguration speech and Washington’s routine reaction to it further underscore the dilemmas of the U.S. position because Lai’s stance on cross-strait relations is not, in fact, wholly consistent with U.S. policy. Although he reaffirmed his determination to “maintain the status quo,” his characterization of it is not the same as Washington’s. A senior U.S. diplomat declared in 2004 that the United States does not support “unilateral moves that would change the status quo as we define it.” Washington did not define it on that occasion or any occasion since. Still, it is certain that the U.S. definition of “the status quo” does not include the notion that Taiwan is “a sovereign independent country.” Indeed, the United States has not recognized Taiwan (or even the ROC) as a “country” since 1979. The underlying risk here is that Beijing will interpret Washington’s public silence on the contents of Lai’s speech and its congratulations to him on his inauguration as implicit acquiescence to—if not endorsement of—his definition of “the status quo” and his framing of cross-strait relations.

Many Taiwanese may be presuming the same. Lai no doubt recognizes that there is an American constituency for his assertion that Taiwan is a separate country from the PRC and his clear preference for Taiwan’s permanent separation—if not de jure independence—from China. This might also have been reflected in Lai’s statement in his inauguration speech that “Taiwan is strategically positioned in the first island chain,” which echoes almost verbatim an emerging U.S. argument that Taiwan’s geostrategic importance dictates that Washington should never allow China to gain control over it. Lai also clearly understands that his emphasis on Taiwan’s democratic identity resonates with its political supporters in the United States. He may calculate that U.S. domestic politics—especially when the presidential and Congressional contenders are competing to be the most hawkish on China—will preempt or constrain any efforts to rein in his rhetorical positions that are inconsistent with U.S. policy. In The Struggle for Taiwan, Khan shows how Taiwan leaders historically have learned how to leverage U.S. politics to their advantage.