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Political status of Taiwan

Taiwan Strait Area

The political status of Taiwan is controversial over questions about whether Taiwan should remain the Republic of China, become part of the People's Republic of China, or become an independent Republic of Taiwan. Currently, it is a de facto independent state with a government based on representative democracy. The official name of the state is the Republic of China. Different groups have different concepts of what the current formal political situation is. See also Taiwan independence and Chinese reunification.

In addition, it can be confusing because of the different parties and the effort by many groups to deal with the controversy through a policy of deliberate ambiguity. The political solution that is accepted by most of the current groups is the status quo: that is, to leave Taiwan's status the way that it is as a de facto independent state without making a formal declaration of independence. What a formal declaration of indepedence would consist of is confusing given the fact that the People's Republic of China has never controlled Taiwan since its founding. The status quo is accepted in large part because it does not define the legal status or future status of Taiwan, leaving each group to interpret the situation in a way that is politically acceptable to its members. At the same time, a policy of status quo has been criticized as being dangerous precisely because different sides have different interpretations of what the status quo is, leading to the possibility of war through brinksmanship or miscalculation.


Table of contents

Question of sovereignty

Main article: Legal status of Taiwan

Cession, retrocession and self-determination of Taiwan

At the establishment of the ROC in 1912, Taiwan was de jure part of Japan.

China ceded the island of Taiwan to Japan "in perpetuity" at the end of the first Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) by the Treaty of Shimonoseki. In the Cairo Conference of 1943, the allied powers agreed to have Japan restore "all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese", which included Taiwan and the Pescadores, to the Republic of China upon Japan's surrender. According to both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China, this agreement was given legal force by the Instrument of Surrender of Japan in 1945. PRC's UN Ambassador Wang Yingfan has stated multiple times in UN general committee: "Taiwan is an inseparable part of China’s territory since antiquity" and "both the 1943 Cairo Declaration and the 1945 Potsdam Declaration have reaffirmed in unequivocal terms China’s sovereignty over Taiwan as a matter of international law."

On the other hand, a number of supporters of Taiwan independence argue that Taiwan was only formally incorporated as a Chinese province in 1885. Subsequently, because of the Shimonoseki Treaty of 1895, Taiwan had been de jure part of Japan when the ROC was established in 1911 and thus was not part of the Chinese republic. Also, because the Cairo Declaration was an unsigned press communique, the independence advocates argue that the legal effectiveness of the Declaration is highly questionable. Furthermore, they point out that the Instrument of Surrender of Japan was no more than an armistice, a Modus Vivendi in nature, which served as a temporary or provisional agreement that would be replaced with a peace treaty. Therefore, the independence supporters assert that both the Treaty of San Francisco and Treaty of Taipei hold the legal supremacy over the surrender instrument and that these treaties did not transfer the title of Taiwan from Japan to China. According to this argument, the sovereignty of Taiwan was returned to the people of Taiwan when Japan renounced sovereignty of Taiwan in the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951, based on the policy of self-determination which has been applied to "territories which detached from enemy states as a result of the Second World War" as defined by article 76b and 77b of the United Nations Charter and also by the protocol of Yalta Conference. Independence advocates point out that at the end of World War II, allied powers agreed that the Republic of China was to "temporarily occupy Taiwan, on behalf of the Allied forces" under the authorization from General Douglas MacArthur's General Order No. 1 of September 2, 1945. Even though some people interpret the 1952 Treaty of Taipei as indirectly suggesting that Japan recognized the ROC government's sovereignty over Taiwan, Penghu, and "territories which are now, or which may hereafter be, under the control of its Government," Japan abrogated this treaty upon establishment of diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1972.

Although the interpretation of the peace treaties was used to challenge the legitimacy of the ROC on Taiwan before the 1990s, the introduction of popular elections in Taiwan has compromised this position. Except for the most extreme Taiwan independence supporters, most Taiwanese support the popular sovereignty theory and no longer see much conflict between this theory of sovereignty and the ROC position. In this sense, the ROC government currently administrating Taiwan is not the same ROC which accepted Japanese surrender because the ruling authorities were given popular mandate by different pools of constituencies: one is the mainland Chinese electorate, the other is the Taiwanese constituencies. In fact, current president Chen Shui-bian has been frequently emphasizing the popular sovereignty theory in his speeches.

However, as of 2005, the conflict between these two theories still plays a role in internal Taiwanese politics. The popular sovereignty theory, which the pan-green coalition emphasizes, suggests that Taiwan could make fundamental constitutional changes by means of a popular referendum. The ROC legal theory, which is supported by the pan-blue coalition, suggests that any fundamental constitutional changes would require that the amendment procedure of the ROC constitution be followed.

Position of the PRC

Position of the PRC towards the ROC

The position of the PRC is that the ROC ceased to be a legitimate government upon the founding of the former on October 1, 1949 and that the PRC is the successor government of the ROC as the sole legitimate goverment of China, with the right to rule Taiwan under the succession of states theory based on the UN Charter which advocates states' rights to territorial integrity. Whether ROC, on the other hand, still has the legitimacy to retake the mainland is not widely accepted, but disputed.

The ROC argues that it maintains all the characteristics of a state and that it was not "replaced" or "succeeded" by the PRC because it has continued to exist long after the PRC's founding. According to the Montevideo Convention of 1933, the most cited source for the definition of statehood, a state must possess a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. The ROC claims to meet all these criteria as it possesses a sovereign government exercising effective jurisdiction over well-defined territories with over 23 million permanent residents and a full fledged foreign ministry.

However, PRC argues that the ROC does not meet the fourth criterion as it is recognized by only 26 countries and has been denied access to international organizations such as the UN. The ROC counters that it is pressure exerted by the PRC that prevents it from being widely recognized and that Article 3 of the same Montevideo Convention specifically says, "The political existence of the state is independent of recognition by other states."

Position of the PRC towards Taiwan

The current position of the People's Republic of China is that "the Government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legal government of China, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China". The PRC is unwilling to negotiate under any other formulation than a one China policy, but has been willing to allow the meaning of "one China" to remain ambiguous. International news organizations often report that "China considers Taiwan a renegade province that must be united with the mainland by force if necessary" even though the PRC does not explicitly say that Taiwan is a renegade province. However official PRC media outlets and PRC officials often refer to Taiwan as "China's Taiwan Province".

Position of the ROC

The position of the Republic of China has always been that it is a separate nation. The ROC government under authoritarian Kuomintang rule actively maintained that it was the sole legitimate government of China, until 1991 when President Lee Teng-hui claimed that the government would no longer challenge the rule of the Communists on the mainland. However, the National Assembly has not officially changed the national borders, as this would be seen as a precursor to Taiwan independence.

On the other hand, though the constitution of the Republic of China promulgated in 1946 does not state exactly what territory it includes, the draft of the constitution of 1925 did individually list the provinces of the Republic of China and Taiwan was not among them, since Taiwan was de jure part of Japan as the result of the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895. The constitution also stipulated in Article I.4, that "the territory of the ROC is the original territory governed by it; unless authorized by the National Assembly, it cannot be altered." However, in 1946, Sun Ke, the minister of the Executive Yuan of ROC, son of Sun Yat-Sen reported to the National Assembly that "there are two types of territory changes: 1. renouncing territory and 2. annexing new territory. The first example would be the Independence of Mongolia, and the second example would be the reclamation of Taiwan. Both would be examples of territory changes." Japan renounced all rights to Taiwan in the San Francisco Treaty in 1951 and the Treaty of Taipei of 1952 without an explicit recipient. While ROC continuously ruled Taiwan after the government was directed to Taiwan by the General Order No.1 to receive Japanese surrender, there has never been a meeting of the ROC National Assembly in making territory change according to the ROC constitution. Thus, many pro-independece advocates suggest that the ROC constitution in fact denies its own legality governing Taiwan.[1]

In 1999, President Lee Teng-hui proposed a two-states theory in which both the ROC and PRC would be considered separate states with a special diplomatic, cultural and historic relationship, and gained immense support within Taiwan. This however drew an angry reaction from the PRC who believed that Lee was covertly supporting Taiwan independence.

President Chen Shui-bian has stated that "Taiwan is an independent, sovereign country" but with the view that "Taiwan is the Republic of China." He, however, has been deliberately silent as to the issue of whether Taiwan is or is not part of China and the meaning of the term China. Government publications have implied that Taiwan and the ROC and China and the PRC are synonymous. Chen has so far refused to endorse the One China Policy the PRC requires for negotiations to begin. There have been thus far unsuccessful attempts to restart semi-formal negotiations through formulations that refer to the 1992 consensus or the spirit of 1992. After becoming chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party in July 2002, Chen appeared to move toward a two states theory and in early August 2002, he stated that Taiwan may "go on its own Taiwanese road" and that "it is clear that the two sides of the straits are separate countries." These statements were strongly criticized by opposition parties in Taiwan.

The position of supporters of Taiwan independence is that Taiwan is not part of China and the PRC is the sole legitimate government of China. Until the mid-1990s, supporters of Taiwan independence opposed the Republic of China and supported the creation of an independent Republic of Taiwan. Since the mid-1990s, a compromise has been reached between most supporters of Taiwan independence and Chinese reunification on Taiwan to support the continuation of the Republic of China but as a government that administers only Taiwan. The Taiwan Solidarity Union, a smaller party within the pan-Green coalition, opposes this compromise.

The position of supporters of Chinese reunification in Taiwan is that Taiwan is part of China but the PRC is not the sole legitimate government of China, and that reunification does not necessarily have to occur under the communist regime. Within Taiwan, support for Taiwan independence and Chinese reunification exists as part of a political spectrum with most people in the middle. Traditionally, reunification has more support among "mainlanders" (the descendants of those who fled the mainland after the civil war), while support for independence is rooted in the "Taiwanese" majority ethnic group (those who have lived on the island since before the civil war).

Position of other countries and international organizations

Because of anti-Communist feelings during the start of the Cold War, the Republic of China was initally recognized as the sole legitimate government of both mainland China and Taiwan by the United Nations and most Western nations. However, the 1970s saw a switch in diplomatic recognitions from the ROC to the PRC. In October 1971, Resolution 2758 was passed by the UN General Assembly, which in effect expelled the Republic of China and replaced the China seat on the Security Council (and all other UN organs) with the People's Republic of China. It declared "that the representatives of the Government of the People's Republic of China are the only lawful representatives of China to the United Nations." Multiple attempts by the Republic of China to rejoin the UN, no longer to represent all of China but just the people of Taiwan, have not made it past committee, largely due to diplomatic maneuvering by the PRC.

The PRC refuses to maintain diplomatic relations with any nation that recognizes the ROC, and most nations have diplomatic relations with Beijing while maintaining offices in Taipei that are diplomatic in all but name. For example, the United States maintains the American Institute in Taiwan. Similarly, the government in Taiwan maintains quasi-diplomatic offices in most nations under various names, most commonly as the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office.

The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Japan recognize that there is one China and that the People's Republic of China is the sole legitimate government of China. However, the US and Japan acknowledge rather than recognize the PRC position that Taiwan is part of China. In the case of Canada and the UK, the bilateral written agreement stated that the two respective parties take note of Beijing's position, but the word support was never used. Although the Chinese media claims that the United States opposes Taiwanese independence, the United States currently does not support (contrast that to the word oppose) either reunification or independence. The US does support both sides of the Taiwan Strait to resolve their differences peacefully. All this ambiguity has resulted in the United States constantly walking on a diplomatic tightrope with regards to the China/Taiwan issue.

The ROC maintains formal diplomatic relations with 26 countries, mostly in Central America and Africa. Interestingly, the Holy See also recognizes the ROC, mainly out of protest of the PRC's suppression of the Catholic faith on the mainland. During the 1990s, there was a diplomatic tug of war in which the PRC and ROC would attempt to outbid each other for diplomatic support of small nations. However, by 2001, this effort seems to have ended as a result of the PRC's growing economic power and doubts on Taiwan as to whether this aid was actually in the Republic of China's interest. In March 2004, the nation of Dominica switched recognition to the PRC, in exchange for a large package of aid. However, in late 2004, Vanuatu briefly switched recognition from Beijing to Taipei, leading to the ouster of its Prime Minister and a return to its recognition of Beijing. On January 20, 2005, Grenada switched its recognition from Taipei to Beijing, in return for millions of dollars of aid ($1,500USD for every Grenadan).

Currently, the countries who maintain formal diplomatic relations with the ROC includes:

Most First World countries have policies toward this issue that use very careful language which is deliberately ambiguous. Under strong pressure from PRC, international organizations also have different policies toward this issue. In some cases (such as the UN and the World Health Organization) the ROC has been completely shut out while in others, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) the government on Taiwan has a special name--"Chinese Taipei" in the case of APEC and the IOC, and the "Separate customs territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kimmen, and Matsu" in the case of WTO. The ISO 3166 directory of names of countries and territories registers Taiwan (TW) separately from China (CN), but lists Taiwan as a "province of China".

Naming can also be a contentious issue in non-governmental organizations. One organization which faced a huge controversy in this respect was the Lions Club.

Possible military solutions and intervention

Until 1979, both sides intended to resolve the conflict militarily. Intermittent clashes occurred throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with escalations comprising the First Taiwan Strait crisis and Second Taiwan Strait crisis. In 1979, with the U.S. change of diplomatic recognition to the PRC, the ROC lost its ally needed to "recover the mainland." Meanwhile, the PRC's desire to be accepted in the international community led it to promote peaceful unification under what would later be termed "one country, two systems," rather than to "liberate Taiwan" and institute socialism.

PRC's condition on military intervention

A PRC's political propaganda poster aiming for liberating Taiwan in the early days.

Notwithstanding this, the PRC government has issued three triggers for an immediate war with Taiwan. These three conditions are:

  • if events occurs leading to the separation of Taiwan from China in any name, or
  • if Taiwan is invaded and occupied by foreign countries, or
  • if Taiwan refuses reunification negotiations indefinitely.

Much saber-rattling by the mainland has been done over this, with Jiang Zemin, after assuming the mantle of the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, becoming a leading voice.

The third condition has especially caused a stir in Taiwan as the term "indefinitely" is open to interpretation. It has also been viewed by some as meaning that preserving the ambiguous status quo is not acceptable to the PRC.

Concern over a formal declaration of de jure Taiwanese independence is a strong impetus for the military buildup between Taiwan and mainland China. Some people believe that Taiwan will attempt a declaration of independence during the 2008 Olympic games. Others point out that the current US administration has publicly declared that given the status quo, it would not aid Taiwan if it were to declare independence unilaterally. But the U.S. is also quick to point out that Chinese nuclear weapons near Taiwan are already altering the status quo.

According to ROC President Chen Shui-bian, China has accelerated the deployment of missiles against Taiwan to 120 a year, bringing the total arsenal to 706 ballistic missiles capable of being fitted with nuclear warheads are aimed at Taiwan. These missiles are believed to have a CEP (Circular Error Probable) of more than 100 meters, which implies they could do little damage in a likely conventional war scenario because of poor accuracy. This would seem to indicate that their deployment is most likely a political tool on the part of the PRC to increase political pressure on Taiwan, at least for the time being.

Balance of terror

The possibility of war, the close geographical proximity of the Taiwan and PRC, and the resulting flare-ups that occur every few years conspire to make this one of the most watched focal points in the Pacific. Both sides have chosen to have a strong naval presence. However, naval strategies between both powers greatly shifted in the 1980s and 1990s, when the PRC assumed a more aggressive posture by building landing crafts, and Taiwan adopted a more defensive attitude by building and buying frigates and missile destroyers.

The PRC's air force is considered large and powerful, although it is not yet capable of controlling Taiwan's airspace in event of a conflict. Taiwan's airforce relies on Taiwan's second generation fighters. Taiwan has ~150 US-built F-16s, ~60 French-built Mirage 2000–5s, and ~130 locally developed IDFs (Indigenous Defence Fighters). All of these Taiwanese fighters are able to conduct BVR (Beyond Visual Range) combat missions with respective BVR missiles, while only a handful of Chinese fighter airplanes are able to conduct such tasks.

Recently in 2003, Taiwan made a purchase of four missile destroyers—the former USS Kidd and three sister ships, and is expressing a strong interest in the Arleigh Burke class. But with the growth of the PRC navy and air force, some doubt that Taiwan could withstand a determined invasion from mainland China in the future. This also leads to a view that Taiwanese independence, if it is to be implemented, should be attempted as early as possible while Taiwan still had the capacity for an all-out military conflict. Over the last three decades, estimates of how long Taiwan can withstand a full scale invasion from China without any outside help has decreased from three months to little over three weeks.

Numerous reports issued by the PRC, the ROC, and the United States militaries make wildly contradictory statements about the possible defense of Taiwan.

Naturally, the possible war is not being planned in a vacuum. The United States in 1979 passed the Taiwan Relations Act, a law generally interpreted as mandating U.S. defense of Taiwan in the event of an attack from the Chinese Mainland. The United States maintains the world's largest permanent fleet in the Pacific Region near Taiwan. The Seventh Fleet, operating primarily out of various bases in Japan, is a powerful naval contigent built upon the world's only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk. Although the stated purpose of the fleet is not Taiwanese defense, it is safely assumed from past actions that that is one of the reasons why the fleet is stationed in those waters.

Third Taiwan Strait Crisis

In 1996, the PRC began conducting military exercises near Taiwan, and launched several ballistic missiles over the island. The saber-rattling was done in response to the possible re-election of President Lee Teng-hui, who had promoted a controversial "two states" theory for cross-strait relations. The United States, under then President Clinton, sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region, sailing them into the Taiwan Strait. The PRC, unable to track the ships' movements, and probably unwilling to escalate the conflict, quickly backed down. The event had little impact on the outcome of the election, since none of Lee's contestants were strong enough to defeat him, but it is widely believed that the PRC's aggressive acts had, far from intimidating the Taiwanese population, gave Lee the boost that pushed his share of votes over 50%.

The possibility of war in the Taiwan Straits, even though quite low in the short-term, requires the PRC, ROC, and U.S. to remain wary and vigilant. The goal of the three parties at the moment seems to be, for the most part, to maintain the status quo.

Future prospects

Although the situation is confusing, most observers believe that it is stable with enough understandings and gentlemen's agreements to keep things from breaking out into open warfare. The current controversy is over the term one China, as the PRC insists that the ROC must recognize this term to begin negotiations. Although the ruling Democratic Progressive Party has moderated its support for Taiwan independence, there is still insufficient support within that party for President Chen Shui-bian to agree to one China. By contrast, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and People First Party appear willing to agree to some variation of one China, and observers believed the position of the PRC was designed to sideline Chen until the 2004 presidential election where it was hoped that someone who was more supportive of Chinese reunification would come to power. Partly to counter this, Chen Shui-bian in July 2002 announced that if the PRC does not respond to Taiwan's goodwill that Taiwan may "go on its own Taiwanese road." With Chen's re-election, Beijing's prospects for a speedier resolution dampened, and with elections to Taiwan's Legislative body coming up, one poll suggests that only about 30% of Taiwan's residents believe the KMT can return to power without denouncing the One China Policy.

When given a choice between the three options of independence, status quo, or unification, typical results of recent polls show 20% in favor of independence, 15% in favor of unification, and about 50% in favor of status quo. However, there are also between 70–80% support for the view that Taiwan is an independent nation under the name of Republic of China with a special relationship to the People's Republic of China, as brought forth by former President Lee. Poll results also tend to be extremely sensitive to how the questions are phrased and what options are given, and there is a tendency by all political parties to spin the results to support their point of view. For example, 72% polled said they would fight to defend the country from a communist invasion, however when the question was rephrased asking if they would fight if Taiwan declared independence, the number of affirmative responses decreased to a 68%[2]. There is also a rise in pragmatists who would support either unification or independence based on the situation. A most recent poll in Dec 2004 shows, given a referendum vote on independence, unification or becoming a state of U.S., 41% of Taiwanese residents supports independence, 24% chooses unification and a 15% is in favor of becoming a 51st state of U.S..[3]

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