Friday, August 1, 2008

A Lengthy Analysis of China: The Status of Taiwan Part 1

Post 4 of an 11 part essay on how the recent unrest in Tibet is a barometer of the various internal issues and the international pressure that China is struggling to deal with.

In addition to Tibet and Xinjiang, another, somewhat more complicated territorial dispute involving sovereignty over Taiwan has been a tremendous burden for China, particularly internationally, where it has been one of the most sensitive global foreign policy issues of the last 60 years.

Like Tibet and Xinjiang and, for that matter, Outer Mongolia, Taiwan is a domain of the former Qing Empire that modern China sought to reestablish control over. Unlike with the others, though, Communist China sought Taiwan less out of a desire to reassert Chinese control over its former empire and more out of a desire to cement its own control in the Chinese heartlands: the last of its Guomindang (Nationalist) adversaries in the Chinese Civil War, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, fled to Taiwan with the remnants of the Republic of China (ROC) (the government that officially succeeded the Qing in 1912 and that had been dominated by the Guomindang since the 1930s) after losing control of mainland China. Thus, the new People’s Republic of China (PRC) (the government that the Communists established after the flight of the ROC) desired to conquer Taiwan and the ROC, which, despite its desperate situation, still claimed all of China as under their rule, in order to put a final end to the Chinese Civil War and eliminate all doubt as to who was the true master of China.

The international politics of the time, though, would prevent the PRC from bringing closure to the Chinese Civil War. Consistent with its newly established containment policy, the United States supported the Guomindang even before Chiang’s flight in order to deter the further spread of Communism. After Chiang’s retreat across the Taiwan straits, the United States continued to back Chiang and the ROC, refusing to recognize the PRC and providing military and economic aid to Taiwan so as to strengthen it in the event of a Communist invasion.

For the first few decades after Chiang’s retreat, such an invasion seemed imminent. Emboldened by the U.S. support, Chiang fortified Taiwan and other surrounding islands under ROC control, while the PRC, not yet relenting just because of the opposition of the United States, responded by bombarding Chiang’s fortifications, particularly those near mainland China’s coast. Several thousands of soldiers on each side died in these skirmishes, and indeed the Chinese Civil War seemed to have resumed.

Fearing what seemed like an inevitable Communist invasion of Taiwan, the United States took its commitment to the ROC to the next step, signing a mutual defense treaty with the ROC in which the United States pledged to come to Taiwan’s aid militarily in the event of a Communist invasion and threatening the PRC with a nuclear strike if it continued to shell ROC islands.

With the possibility of all-out, nuclear war with the United States looming, the PRC finally backed down, and by the 1960s it had ceased shelling ROC islands (aside from the propaganda leaflets that both sides continued to launch at each other throughout the 1960s and 1970s). For its part, the ROC, realizing that the United States would only commit troops to a defense of Taiwan and recognizing the growing military might of the PRC, would also eventually back down and abandon any serious plans to reconquer the Chinese mainland.

Although this reluctant, somewhat forced stalemate would end direct military confrontation between the two sides (as of now), it would not precipitate a resolution to the conflict. Rather, the dispute over Taiwan would evolve into its own little cold war within the Cold War. The PRC, while not invading Taiwan, still claimed the island, and the ROC would not formally renounce its claim over the entire Qing Empire. Both sides continued to build up their military, with the ROC even trying to build nuclear weapons to match those of the PRC.

Diplomatically, the PRC strived to gain more international recognition as the legitimate government of China, trying to discredit the ROC claim of China with the fact that, with the stalemate, Communist rule over China was a fait accomplit. All the while, the ROC tried to hold on to its international recognition by appealing to fears of Communism in the West.

In fact, the dispute over Taiwan would become so deeply woven into the fabric of international and regional relations that it gained a life of its own, outlasting both the Chinese Civil War and the Cold War, making every effort on the part of both sides to progress and move on trickier and harder.

The ROC, for instance, began to stop focusing on retaking the mainland in the wake of the stalemate, particularly after the death of Chiang, for whom the recapture of the mainland that he had once been the preeminent ruler of became something of a personal quest. The next generation of the ROC acknowledged that Taiwan would be the only permanent domain of the ROC, and so they began to focus on developing the island. These efforts helped Taiwan develop a dynamic, market economy as well as a more democratic political system: a much different path from mainland China, whose economic restraints have only recently been loosened and whose political system remains decisively authoritarian. It would not be unreasonable, then, to suggest, as many people have, that the ROC is in fact the ruler of an independent Taiwan that is separate from the mainland.

To say such things, though, is highly controversial, and to act on such words would likely provoke the PRC into invading Taiwan. Although Taiwan has been de facto independent for nearly 60 years, its official status is still consistent with the One-China policy, which states that there is one China, of which both the mainland and Taiwan are a part. This policy is essentially the preservation of the outdated status quo of the Chinese Civil War, since, under the wording, both the PRC and the ROC could claim to be the rulers of this “one China.”

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