The “Taiwan Question” – Does Taiwan Belong To China? (Part III)

In the last part of this post I would like to talk about what I consider to be the five possible options to solve the question of the relationship between China (PRC) and Taiwan (ROC). The scenarios are:

1 – Taiwan declares independence; 

2 – Taiwan and the PRC maintain the status quo;

3 – Taiwan and the PRC seek unification;

4 – The PRC annexes Taiwan;

5 – The PRC renounces her sovereignty claim to Taiwan.

Introduction: Chinese Nationalism, Taiwanese Nationalism And Cross-Strait Relations

Before we analyze the aforementioned five scenarios in detail, we should first of all understand that the China-Taiwan issue can and should be analyzed from different perspectives. An objective truth doesn’t exist. Single individuals, political parties, governments etc. may think that their own standpoint represents the truth. But, as I pointed out in my earlier post, the Taiwan question is first of all a political issue. The fact that the standpoint of all parties may have a rational justification is the reason why the China-Taiwan relationship is so complex. I am not writing this post to explain my personal opinion, but to highlight the five possible political solutions. 

To some observers, a “declaration of independence” from China by Taiwan seems unnecessary. As a matter of fact, the ROC and the PRC have had different governments, currencies and military since 1949. We can easily understand this point if we ask ourselves what sovereignty means:

Sovereignty resides in the state—a body that exercises predominant authority within its geographic borders, possesses a relatively stable population that owes its allegiance to a government and maintains diplomatic ties with other states. 
A state differs from a nation. A nation refers to a group of people with a shared sense of identity, often based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, language, history or culture. Consequently, it is possible for two or more states to reside within one nation, or for a nation to exist within two or more states. 
The Republic of China exercises predominant authority within its borders, possesses a relatively stable population that owes its allegiance to the ROC government, maintains formal diplomatic ties with roughly thirty of its ‘little friends’ and strong ‘unofficial’ links with many others. Despite PRC protestations to the contrary, it is obvious that the ROC does exist and meets all the requirements of statehood.” (source)

A declaration of independence, however, should not be understood as the declaration of de facto independence, but as the departure of the ROC from the one China policy which was endorsed by both the CCP and the KMT dictatorships and which, after the democratization process in the ROC, was challenged by large parts of the Taiwanese population. In some ways, the Taiwanese nationalism that arose with the democratization of the ROC broke the tacit agreement between the two adversaries, the CCP and the KMT, that there is only one China, of which Taiwan is a province. 
When Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, relocating the government of the Republic of China to Taiwan, “Taiwan became part of a bizarre myth; it was the ‘island fortress’ of a government-in-exile, a model China in miniature and also just a province of the Republic of China.” (Harrison, p. 98-99) As long as Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo were alive, the CCP never feared that the ROC might give up the one China principle. 

In the initial 20 years, cross-strait relations were mainly of a military nature. One side would want to ‘counter-attack the mainland, kill Chu-teh and Mao Tse-tung’, and the other would want to ‘liberate Taiwan by force’. Gradually, these slogans were replaced with slogans such as ’70 per cent political, 30 per cent military’ on the Taiwan side and ‘peacefully liberate Taiwan’ on the mainland side.” (Su Chi 2008, p. 2) 

The KMT was committed and is still officially committed to the eventual reunification of China.  In Taiwan’s identity debate there are therefore two competing nationalisms: Chinese nationalism (shared by the CCP and the KMT alike), which regards Taiwan as a province of China; and Taiwanese nationalism (also called Formosan nationalism), which supports an exclusive Taiwanese identity and Taiwanese independence from China. 

When the PRC and the ROC were both one party dictatorships, Chinese nationalism was the official state ideology of both states. In the ROC this ideology couldn’t be challenged openly, because every dissent was suppressed and state propaganda promoted Chinese nationalism in media and education. In the PRC, this is true until today. The democratization of Taiwan meant that the KMT monopoly of the national narrative was broken and so a new public debate about Taiwanese identity began. We may therefore say that Taiwan embarked in a period of identity quest, in which different concepts began to compete with each other. The case of Lee Teng-hui shows the complexity of the issue.

Lee Teng-hui

Lee Teng-hui was born in Taiwan in 1923, when the island belonged to the Japanese Empire. He studied at Taipei High School and subsequently at Kyoto Imperial University. After the war he graduated from Taiwan University. In 1968 he was awarded a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics from Cornell University. He started an academic career as a professor at Taiwan National University and, as a technician, he was employed as an official at the Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction, which was responsible for the successful land reform that boosted the Taiwanese economy. 

In 1984 Chiang Ching-kuo chose him as one of the talented Taiwan-born new members of the KMT, in an effort to reorganize the party to give more space to the local population. Lee Teng-hui became Vice President of the ROC and, following Chiang’s death, President of the ROC in 1988. Lee Teng-hui is a devout Christian. 

Lee Teng-hui’s personal history as well as his political ideas are an interesting example of the contradictions in today’s Taiwanese society and politics. Born in Taiwan, educated in Japan and the USA, Christian, ex-member of the KMT, then “spiritual leader” of the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU; source), Lee’s worldview combines Taiwanese nationalism, Japanophilia, Western influence and, at the same time, “Chineseness”, in the sense that he is a descendant of Han Chinese who came to Taiwan, and, as a citizen and then president of the ROC, he was required to speak Mandarin and had to make compromises with KMT’s Chinese nationalism.

During and after his presidency, Lee Teng-hui made numerous statements that stirred major controversies. In 2005 he justified the then current Prime Minister of Japan Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, the shrine where Japanese soldiers are honoured. Among them are soldiers who died during the Japanese invasions in China, Korea and other Asian countries in World War II. Lee was quoted as saying: “It is natural for a premier of a country to commemorate the souls of people who lost their lives for their country.” (Japan Times, 17/10/2005). It is obvious that a mainland Chinese politician could never have said anything like that. In 2012, Lee stated that the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands belong to Japan. It is clear that his views contradict some key principles of both CCP and KMT nationalism. Lee, who was the first democratically elected Guomindang President of the ROC, was expelled from the KMT after he openly backed the TSU.

Lee Teng-hui’s Presidency marked the beginning of a new era in cross-strait relations. At first, Lee’s policy toward the PRC continued what Chiang Ching-kuo had started: he sought to establish an administrative channel for talks with the PRC to improve cross-strait relations, and most especially to make economic exchanges and flights to mainland China possible. “Democratization”, “new cross-strait relations”, and “pragmatic diplomacy” were the main points in his political agenda shortly after taking over the presidency.

Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) Headquarters
in Taipei

The ROC founded the National Unification Council (NUC) in 1990 and the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) in 1991. On 19 February 1991, following a decision of the MAC, the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) was established. In September 1992 the Statute Governing Relations between People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area was enacted. (Su Chi 2008, p. 4) 

In February 1991 the NUC issued the National Unification Guidelines (NUG), which became a blueprint for Lee Teng-hui’s mainland policy. The NUG had a gradualist approach toward the question of cross-strait relations. Although it still adhered to the one China dogma of the KMT, it didn’t put forward any detailed proposals for reunification, which was rather considered a distant goal. The document outlined three phases: mutually beneficial exchanges (phase I), mutual trust and cooperation (phase II), and negotiations on unification (phase III). Phase III included requirements such as “political democratization and economic liberalization” in mainland China. (ibid., p. 5)

One of the major phenomena of cross-strait relations became the great and vital activity of private business. While the political atmosphere remained tense, economic exchange prospered. With the proclamation of the “Termination of the Period of General Mobilization for the Suppression of the Communist Rebellion” by Lee Teng-hui on 30 April 1991, investment in mainland China by Taiwanese business people wasn’t considered any more a “seditious” act in favour of Communist rebels. Consequently, Taiwanese investments in China began to thrive. (ibid., pp. 5-6)

In October 1988 the PRC established the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO). In December 1991 it formed the Association for Relations across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS). (ibid., pp. 6-9)

Having set up offices to deal with cross-strait negotiations, the PRC and the ROC intensified talks in order to find mutual understanding on a range of issues. The most important and thorny point was that of the sovereignty. Using the most diplomatic language possible – i.e. the most ambiguous one – on 1 August 1991 the NUC passed a “Definition of One China” resolution. One passage of this resolution was to become defining for the future of cross-strait talks: 

The two sides of the Taiwan Strait uphold the One China Principle, but the interpretations of the two sides are different…. Our side believes that One China should mean the Republic of China established in 1912 and existing today, and its sovereignty extends throughout China, but its current governing authority is only over Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matzu. Admittedly, Taiwan is a part of China, but the mainland is also a part of China” (ibid., p. 13)

On 3 November, after a round of secret talks between the SEF and the ARATS in Hong Kong had failed, the SEF brought forward the suggestion that a solely verbal declaration should be used to express each side’s interpretation of the one China principle. The ARATS accepted this flexible common ground. 

Taiwanese media soon coined the term “one China, respective interpretation” (一個中國,各自表述). This principle, also known as the “1992 consensus”, became the principle guiding cross-strait discussions. (ibid., pp. 9-13)

In the early years of his presidency, Lee Teng-hui had been seen by Beijing as a partner to start a gradual reunification process with. However, the ROC President turned out to have a viewpoint that was much more controversial than the PRC had thought. Despite being a KMT leader, little by little Lee Teng-hui proved to be a Taiwanese nationalist rather than a Chinese nationalist. The first grave deterioration of relations between Lee and Beijing happened when the ROC President visited his alma mater, Cornell University. 

On May 22 1995, the US Congress endorsed with a majority vote the issue of a visa for Lee Teng-hui. Bill Clinton backed the decision of the Congress. This infuriated Beijing, since – as Secretary of State Warren Christopher put it – this was against the US-Taiwan unofficial relationship. (ibid., pp. 31-32)

Cross-strait relations experienced a much bigger crisis a few years later. In July 1999 Lee gave an interview to a journalist of Deutsche Welle, stating that: 

The 1991 constitutional amendments have designated cross-strait relations as a state-to-state relationship or at least a special state-to-state relationship, rather than an internal relationship between a legitimate government and a renegade group, or between a central government and a local government. Thus, the Beijing authorities’ characterization of Taiwan as a “renegade province” is historically and legally untrue… Moreover, in 1991, amendments to the Constitution designated cross-strait relations as a special state-to-state relationship. Consequently, there is no need to declare independence.” (ibid., p. 53) 

Lee Teng-hui’s special state-to-state relationship theory (特殊國於國關係, also known as Two-States Theory) severely undermined Beijing’s trust in the ROC President and revealed that the KMT’s official “one China principle” – which had been sacrosanct to Chiang Kai-shek and the mainland cadres that followed him to Taiwan – reflected neither the will of the Taiwanese people, nor did it enjoy the unanimous approval of Taiwan’s political parties. 

According to annual household interview polls conducted by National Chengchi University,” [Academia Sinica research fellow Wu Nai-teh (吳乃德) “said that the results suggested that only 13.6 percent of respondents identified themselves as Taiwanese in 1991. That number had risen to 45.7 percent by late 2004. In contrast, Wu said the “Chinese consciousness” of respondents has steadily decreased. While in 1991 43.9 percent of interviewees identified themselves as Chinese, the number was down to 6.3 percent by 2004.” (Taipei Times 12/03/2006)

After Nixon’s visit in China the USA made the momentous
decision to shift diplomatic recognition from the ROC to
the PRC. The USA accepted to endorse the one China policy

Broadly speaking, we may distinguish three currents in Taiwan: pro-independence, pro-status-quo and pro-unification. 

Though pro-independence sentiments are nowadays dominant in Taiwan in theory, in practice most Taiwanese are pro-status-quo. The reason is that they are aware of the risk they run by upsetting Beijing. DPP ex-President Chen Shui-bian was, too, pro-independence in words, while in reality he knew that provoking Beijing might cause a military conflict that everybody is willing to avoid. Pro-unification is a minority standpoint; yet, as I have pointed out, a pro-unification stance, albeit in a distant future, can be still found in Taiwan, especially among certain segments of the KMT followers. Current President Ma Yingjiu, for example, endorses this perspective. According to him, “the tie between Taiwan and China is not that between two nations, but rather a ‘special relationship’ that can be handled invoking the ‘1992 consensus’ between the two sides.” (China Post, 04/09/2008)

The Five Options

1- Taiwanese Independence: A declaration of independence by the ROC would send a clear signal to Beijing. It would put an end to the PRC’s attempts to achieve reunification peacefully on the basis of a Chinese nationalism shared by both sides. If Taiwanese nationalism prevails, however, Beijing might use force to “retake” Taiwan. (source

The term “independence” itself is not without ambiguity. In fact, the current situation is considered by some Taiwanese people as independence. As Lee Teng-hui said, since the ROC is a state with its own government, population, currency and diplomatic relations with other countries, the ROC is de facto independent. However, the issue of independence is more about semantics than about factual statehood. Furthermore, the ROC itself with its state ideology keeps the ambivalence that Taiwan is a province of China. For example, the date in Taiwan is still counted from the foundation of the Republic in 1912 in mainland China. The year 2013 is therefore the Republican Year 102 (民國102年). The very name Republic of China, as well as the Constitution and other vestiges of the old Republic on the mainland, suggest a tie with China that is more than simple geographical proximity. In order to avoid this ambiguity, a re-foundation of Taiwan with a new name (Republic of Taiwan) could be an effective option to assert once and for all Taiwanese nationalism. 

This scenario is not very probable, though. First of all, Taiwanese nationalists know that by declaring independence a war between Taiwan and the PRC might break out. A war which Taiwan doesn’t have the means to win. Apart from that, the USA, the third big player in cross-strait relations, does not wish a conflict which would put it in a very difficult position. As part of the deal between the USA and the PRC in 1972, Nixon promised not to support Taiwan’s independence and the Chinese side promised to solve the issue of reunification with peaceful means. 

In the 1990’s President Bill Clinton went even further. He coined a policy known as the “Three Nos”: 1) no to “two Chinas” or “one China and one Taiwan”; 2) no to Taiwan’s independence; 3) no to Taiwan joining the United Nations. (Su Chi 2008, p. 36) Taiwanese nationalists can therefore not rely on the USA as an ally in case of a conflict, most especially if the conflict were caused by a unilateral “declaration of independence” by Taiwan.

2- Status-Quo: The maintenance of the current, ambiguous status-quo is the solution that a majority of Taiwanese and Americans seem to regard as the safest and most viable for the time being. However, the status-quo might damage Taiwan in the long run. As the PRC becomes richer and more powerful, the negotiation power of Taiwan will weaken. 

3- Reunification: This is the option that a majority of Taiwanese reject or at least don’t what to happen in the near future. Nevertheless, given that the PRC is too powerful for Taiwan to resist, eventual unification might become a reality sooner or later. For instance, the PRC knows how important Taiwan’s economic dependence on China will be, and they are trying to boost economic ties to “swallow up” Taiwan. One opportunity for Taiwanese people to secure a favourable transition would be to use the argument of Chinese nationalism to push the PRC to make as many concessions as possible, and even to change the political system of the mainland. Conditions for reunification could be the legalization of Taiwanese parties on the mainland, the establishment of a multi-party parliament with members elected by the people; the achievement of a per capita income as high as that of Taiwan; constitutional and institutional reforms, and so on. In this scenario, Taiwan wouldn’t become part of the PRC, but the PRC would have to be transformed and a new China would emerge. 

The CCP has promised that Beijing will not “send troops or administrative staff to be stationed in Taiwan. Dr. Xu Shiquan, President of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at China’s Academy of Social Sciences, has suggested that many matters relating to China’s unification are negotiable: ”Under the one-China principle, everything is negotiable including the flag, name of the country and national anthem. Our aim is the peaceful reunification and everything can be talked about and discussed. And the unified China will definitely be different than what it is now.” When asked if China might even consider adopting the flag presently used by the authorities in Taiwan, Xu replied, “well, if that’s what the majority wants.” (source)

Since Taiwanese nationalism is definitely stronger than Chinese nationalism in Taiwan at the moment, such a political exploitation of Beijing’s one China policy seems hard to pursue in the short-term, and probably it will always be. Nevertheless, if China’s per capita income rises, her economic might consolidates and her political system evolves, Chinese nationalism might become more popular in Taiwan, too, and “money”, which doesn’t really pay attention to flags or national feelings, as it is proved by the dynamic activity of Taiwanese businesses in mainland China.

4 – Annexation: The scenario of an invasion of Taiwan by the PRC seems unlikely in the present, but it cannot be ruled out for the future. If the PRC succeeded and no foreign power intervened, Taiwan could be considered by Beijing as a renegade province that lost a war. The Taiwanese would be at the mercy of the PRC victors, and Taiwanese political parties, the administration and the economic system could be wiped out.  

5 – Peaceful Independence: The last scenario is of course the one which many Taiwanese hope for. If the PRC renounces its claims on Taiwan, a new relation between the two sides would be initiated, in which China and Taiwan would recognize each other as two separate nations with two separate sovereign states. This will happen only if, for some reason, the official line of the CCP regarding Taiwan changes, or if a democratization in China breaks the monopoly of the CCP’s national narrative. 

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