The Stalemate of Taiwan’s Democratization

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Written by: Abby Chu, University of Toronto

In a dramatic break from decades of diplomatic protocol, on December 2, 2018, US President-elect Donald Trump accepted a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. This seemingly innocent telephone conversation between two democratically elected presidents of nations with similar liberal values caused an international and diplomatic uproar, particularly from China. For decades, Beijing has forced countries around the world to embrace the One-China Policy, which states that there is only one China, and that Taiwan is a part of that China. In 1979, Washington acknowledged China’s claim, officially switching diplomatic recognition of “China” from Taipei to Beijing. Shortly after the phone call between Tsai and Trump, China made its displeasure clear, emphasizing that “the ‘one China’ policy is the cornerstone of a healthy China-U.S. relationship,” citing the potential of the phone call to damage that relationship.[1]Trump’s fielding of a phone call from any other democracy in the world would not have garnered nearly as much coverage or international significance. Yet, his call with Taiwan only furthered claims that Trump was unhinged.[2]

This incident exemplifies the delicateness and complexity of Taiwanese politics, particularly surrounding its relationships with the US and China. Taiwan’s democratization in the 1980s has put itself in a vulnerable stalemate that must be understood not merely in domestic terms but rather through geopolitics, . While democratization has allowed Taiwan to gain unofficial allies from other democratic nations, democratization has also stymied Taiwan’s further liberalization and autonomy, due to China’s insistence on the One-China policy and Taiwan’s eventual reincorporation back into mainland China. 

One must understand the complex history of Taiwan to account for why its political status is so hotly debated in the present day. Taiwan was a Japanese colony up until October 25, 1945, when it reverted back to China in the aftermath of World War II. However, the beginning of the Taiwan sovereignty problem began in 1949 when the head of the Kuomintang (KMT) government of the Republic of China (ROC), Chiang Kai-Shek, and his followers fled from mainland China to Taiwan, going into exile after the Mao-led Communist Party of China (CPC) gained control of the mainland, establishing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and effectively ending the Chinese Civil War between the KMT and CPC, although no official conclusion has been declared. From the perspective of Chiang Kai-Shek and the KMT, however, the war was far from over, and Chiang continued to proclaim his regime in Taiwan as the official government of China, claiming that his government still controlled mainland China. The goal at the time was not to remain in Taiwan forever, but to rebuild the strength to reconquer the mainland and achieve reunification.[3]

Chiang’s declaration was aided by the United States’ support in recognizing his government as China’s legitimate government, which provided international legitimacy, and was thus supported by most of the world’s countries. The United States took this position mainly because of its hostility toward the PRC because of its relationship with the Soviet Union, guaranteeing its support for the ROC’s position in the international community. Its support, both material and diplomatic, ensured that the KMT government maintained the majority of its pre-1949 legitimacy as the sole representative of China, despite having lost the mainland to the PRC.[4]  

The KMT swiftly imposed martial law on Taiwan once Chiang and his followers landed on the island, and all political power was consolidated within the KMT in an era known as the White Terror.[5]In the long run, the KMT aimed for a progressive change from centralized rule to a constitutional democracy. This was in keeping with the KMT’s ideology based on Sun Yat-sen’s “Three Principles of the People,” which mixes Chinese tradition with principles of Western democracy and nationalism. That is, the party was committed to the promise of something more but without a timeline, both in Taiwan and on the mainland. In the meantime, Chiang and the party were focused on consolidating and maintaining their rule against internal threats to the island, such as a nationalist uprising by the very people they had abruptly imposed their rule upon. Additionally, Taiwan faced external threats, such as that of PRC military invasion of Taiwan. In order to garner the support of members of the KMT government, as well as citizens with ROC identities, they sought to bring economic prosperity to the island.[6]

Civilians had little political freedom under martial law, as the KMT refused tolerate any opposition to its rule. During this period, Chiang’s government presided over economic development and reform programs, substantially raising Taiwanese standards of living. Simultaneously, Chiang’s government also employed education and popular culture as propaganda to erase leftover Japanese cultural influences and to replace traditional Taiwanese identities by encouraging a homogenized Chinese national identity. Furthermore, Mandarin was enforced as the national language, and the KMT referred to Taiwan as a Chinese “province.”[7]All of these actions were taken to assimilate the Taiwanese locals into the ROC, and to further assimilate them when it finally came time for the KMT to recover the mainland, which was thought to rightfully belong to Taiwan.[8]

As the KMT authoritarian regime claimed to represent the one “Free China,” local elections were held, a distinctive feature of its version of authoritarianism,[9]and expansion of local elections instituted in the 1920s, by the Japanese colonial government. These actions projected an image of a progressive government in a time when KMT dissenters faced harsh punishments that violated human rights and certainty would have violated civil rights had the country not been under martial law. Elections also acted as a vehicle to lure people into the system. However, because potential threats to KMT rule would have been suppressed by the government before elections, elections effectively were tools of KMT propaganda rather than symbols of liberalization and democratic advance. Finally, the elections were a tacit acknowledgement by the government that stabilizing the ROC regime in Taiwan took immediate precedence over recapturing the mainland, and that there was a need to make the locals feel represented.[10]

In the long run, the KMT’s commitment to eventual democratization and liberalization left the party increasingly vulnerable to open criticism from dissidents and even the public over the prolonged continuation of martial law, despite its accepted legitimacy by many of the people due to Taiwan’s economic progress. Critics argued that this situation was proof that the KMT was fundamentally undemocratic, unable to relinquish its control, and uncommitted towards any semblance of democratization whatsoever. While economic development was one of the KMT’s greatest achievements, it also opened the party to the beginning of its political demise. As Taiwan’s socioeconomic status rapidly improved, people expected democratization to simultaneously occur, pushing the government toward more political reforms.[11]

The 1970s and 1980s were critical eras in Taiwanese history as democratization seemed within grasp. With Chiang’s advancing age in the 1970s, questions around appointing his successor became increasingly pressing. With his impending death, KMT forces worked to discreetly paving the way for his son, Chiang Ching-kuo to succeed him.[12]While the typical KMT manner of responding to turmoil threatening its governance was suppressing dissidents and further tightening its grip on all aspects of civilians’ daily lives, Chiang Ching-kuo as president slowed moved away from a strictly dictatorial grip on the nation to a more reconciliatory and reformist – albeit relatively limited– style of governance by the end of his tenure in 1988. He worked toward greater popular political participation in the KMT party and in politics overall, tolerating some political dissent and opposition in order to legitimize political liberalization.[13]

Despite the domestic potential for liberalization throughout Chiang Ching-kuo’s time as president, the ROC’s international status and recognition was in grave danger despite the international community’s apparent support for democratization. The PRC spent much of the 1970s recovering from Mao’s failed Cultural Revolution, working to establish diplomatic ties with countries around the globe cementing its government as the rightful representative of China. This led to countries switching official recognition from the ROC to the PRC, further diminishing the KMT’s hopes of recovering the mainland and–more importantly at this point– undermining Taiwan’s international status.[14]Perhaps most devastating to ROC, the United States, a long-time ally, began engaging in conversation with the PRC in 1971, and in 1972, US President Richard Nixon famously shocked the world when he visited the mainland for a week which ended with a jointly issued Shanghai Communiqué, despite the US and PRC not yet sharing formal diplomatic relations. These events signaled that a dramatic change in US-PRC relations was to come.[15]

Prior to Nixon’s visit, his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, made two visits to the PRC in 1971. In advance of Kissinger’s second visit in October, Nixon sent Ronald Reagan, then the Governor of California, to Taiwan to meet Chiang Kai-shek. Shortly after Reagan’s visit to Taiwan and Kissinger’s visit to the mainland, the ROC was expelled from the United Nations as the representative of China, and numerous countries followed suit and indicated that they were going to switch recognition of China to the PRC. For Taiwan, this threatened its newfound economic prosperity domestically, and led to a growing feeling of isolation internationally as its status was plunged into limbo.[16]

Hostile to the rest of the world as a result, the ROC government issued a defiant statement post-Nixon’s visit reasserting its place as the rightful representative of China and its intent of toppling the illegitimate PRC regime. And although Taiwanese leaders knew in advance that the US intended to break diplomatic ties with them and switch diplomatic recognition to Beijing, it was still a shock when it finally happened in 1979. In a subtle message to the US, Taiwan suggested they would look elsewhere for new friends in the aftermath of Washington’s betrayal, and did not rule out “shaking hands with the devil,”[17]meaning they were not opposed to turning to the Soviets, which was even more significant in the context of the ongoing Cold War.[18]

\Quite paradoxically, as Taiwan’s diplomatic fortunes declined, its economic development flourished, both domestically and internationally. Domestically, strong and sustained economic growth meant that the living standard in Taiwan continued to grow. However, this had an unintended side effect in that it strengthened the growing voices of the opposition to Chiang Ching-kuo’s still single-party, authoritarian regime. Internationally, economic trade and aid became the most important component in Taiwan’s foreign relations and maintaining its relevance. By the late 1980s, Taiwan had consistently pursued a policy of “flexible diplomacy” in an effort to enhance its international position. By that point, it had amassed the second largest foreign exchange reserves in the world, and was ready to channel its wealth in “assist[ing] in the development of friendly countries,” which were mainly small developing countries, in a diplomatic offensive.[19]

In addition to Taiwan’s domestic economic prosperity, the nation transitioned to democratization with the lifting of thirty-eight years of martial law in July 1987 by Chiang Ching-kuo. In 1986, Chiang Ching-kuo suggested to the KMT Central Committee that he was ready to lift the remnants of the restrictions that defined his authoritarian rule, including martial law, the prohibition on new political parties, and measures limiting local autonomy. In the last two years of his presidency, he instituted democratic reforms that allowed freedom of speech, assembly, and press. Most importantly, opposition parties were officially allowed and tolerated by the KMT, most prominently, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).[20]Despite that, the lifting of the martial law was accompanied by the imposition of a national security law that still restricted pro-communist sentiment and “the division of national territory.”[21]While Chiang Ching-kuo could not resist the people’s demands for political liberalization, Taiwan’s status as the rightful representative of China was still non-negotiable, and the law acted as a warning to native Taiwanese people not to challenge the KMT’s narrative.[22]

Juggling the people’s growing demands for further self-determination amidst the emerging distinct Taiwanese identity, and continuing to modernize Taiwan’s political structure was the daunting task first faced by Chiang Ching-kuo’s successor, Lee Teng-hui, upon Chiang’s death in 1988. Lee’s ascension to the ROC presidency was significant not only because it was the end of the Chiang dynasty governing Taiwan, but because he was the first ROC president to have been born on the island. He was not one of the KMT elites that came with Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan from the mainland and does not share the same attachment and nostalgia for the mainland as his predecessors did.[23]Originally, Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT’s legitimacy came from their claim to represent those from all of the Chinese provinces, including those on the mainland. A native-born Taiwanese’s ascension to the presidency meant that the rationale behind the ROC’s political structure in the Chiang dynasty era had lost its vital source of authority, potentially throwing the nation into disarray as open criticism against the government grew.[24]

If Taiwan’s domestic politic was the sole determinant of Taiwan’s future, pro-self-determination, pro-democratization, and perhaps even pro-independence would result. Throughout Taiwan’s history, the national goal has rapidly shifted from the ROC resolving to win back the mainland to seeking an aim of autonomy. While there has been no official relinquishment of the ROC’s claim to mainland China, a separate sense of Taiwanese identity has emerged that is stronger than a claim to the hostile mainland. Unusual to Taiwan’s case, its desire for sovereignty do not solely arise from the people, but also are borne of the international circumstances Taiwan finds itself in. However, one must not overlook the relevance of Taiwanese domestic politics in understanding whether democratization in Taiwan was a success or failure.

Based on the Three Peoples of the People, the KMT throughout its existence has committed to eventual democratization and pro-capitalist domestic and foreign policies, and shunned communism.[25]This led to the economic reforms that began under Chiang Kai-shek, and also led to the gradual loosening of political restrictions during Chiang Ching-kuo’s tenure, which was continued by Lee. An unintended side effect of the KMT slowly relinquishing its total control is that it led to the rise of a spirited opposition, which helped drive the calls for democratization and autonomy. 

Any such change would require a fundamental transformation of the country’s political system.[26]While Chiang Ching-kuo allowed a major opposition party to form, it was during Lee’s tenure that Taiwan “entered an era where sovereignty resides in the people,” and the country’s institutions truly democratized.[27]Whereas there used to be a contentious divide between the Mainlanders and the Taiwanese regarding Mainlanders forcing their will upon the Taiwanese and holding all power and privilege in society, that issue was greatly diminished as native Taiwanese began filling elected offices at the local and national levels as a result of political liberalization. The KMT mainlander elites who controlled the government throughout the Chiangs’ rules were sidelined, and the party’s commitment shifted from Chinese nationalism to the emergence of a unique Taiwanese identity. There remained, however, some influential KMT conservatives that were uncomfortable with the apparent move away from the foremost priority of reclaiming the mainland.[28]

What is important to remember is that Taiwan’s history did not begin when Chiang Kai-shek and his forces landed in Taiwan, nor is the Taiwanese population solely consisted of KMT mainlanders. As Lee identified, it is formed of “the offspring of early settlers from the continent, those who moved to Taiwan with the KMT and their offspring, and those descended from the indigenous people.”[29]Domestically, Taiwan’s separate identity and increasingly democratic system gradually emerged under sustained economic growth and social stability fostered by the Chiangs. It became increasingly clear that most people had had no wish to “‘return’ to [the] still-poor and authoritarian China.”[30]

Unlike the PRC, Taiwan has become a rare and recent democracy in Asia, which could have only been achieved after economic development stabilized and unified the country, as achieved by the two Chiangs. The reasoning behind that being that when the economy prospers, other problems can be dealt with.[31]Taiwan’s economic success is such it is commonly referred to as one of the four “Asian Tigers.” Not only has it been the catalyst for democratization domestically, it has been the means through which Taiwan has formed strong ties with numerous countries despite the lack of diplomatic recognition, through its pursuit of flexible diplomacy. Political reform has also been important in establishing these economic ties because Taiwan shares many political and economic similarities with many of the world’s nations and is far more stable and reliable than the PRC. Economic trade is also the main form of cross-Strait relations with the PRC – Taiwan’s economic feats are something that even the PRC cannot deny and wants to share in.[32]This will continue to be its primary means of developing relations and solidifying its relevance in its international community, until the Taiwan problem is resolved.

An important step in consolidating Taiwan’s democracy was the 1996 presidential election, the first direct election by the people in the nation’s history. While Lee still prevailed in the election, it was because the people willed it, and was not an inherited position.[33]This was a great shift from the martial law-era elections, that merely functioned as KMT propaganda. Thus, the KMT liberalized alongside Taiwan’s greater political liberalization, reflecting the KMT’s shift from a party comprised of elites to broad-based party based around reform and Taiwanese-domestic issues.[34]The election signified Taiwan’s political structure transitioning from a one-party authoritarian system to a multi-party system, with two major political parties, not unlike the United States.

Another sign of democratic consolidation was the peaceful transfer of power from the KMT to the DPP, led by Chen Shui-bian, in the aftermath of the 2000 election, which had the potential to plunge the country into volatility had the KMT not accepted the result. In doing so, the DPP for the first time, were the “administrators instead of the revolutionaries.”[35]This also marked the end of the KMT’s nearly fifty-year rule and was the first time in Taiwan’s history that the KMT was not in power. The DPP’s victory also indicated that the Taiwanese favored a further shift away from mainland reunification favoring the outlook that Taiwan was an independent nation. Historically, the DPP has been more liberal and pro-independence leaning as compared to the conservative KMT.

A transfer of power once again occurred in 2008 with the victory of the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou, and again in 2016 with the victory of the DDP’s Tsai Ing-wen. Furthermore, in 2016, the DPP swept both the presidency and the majority in the Legislative Yuan for the first time.[36]This, without a question, confirms that Taiwan’s identity and focus has shifted from mainland China to Taiwan itself, affirming the popular Taiwanese belief that the Chinese Civil War is over. However, the threat of Beijing permanently hovering over Taiwan has prevented the nation from declaring independence. Despite that, Taiwan functions as an independent and sovereign state in every other way. Judging by Taiwan’s positive diplomatic relations, most countries would acknowledge Taiwan as a sovereign state, establishing full bilateral relations with the island if there would be no repercussions from Beijing in their doing so.

From the PRC’s perspective, the Taiwan issue is a domestic issue that does not, and should not, involve the rest of the world. The PRC maintains that it should not have to convince other nations of China’s intrinsic claim to sovereignty over. Unfortunately, that is not the reality. The most important aspect of the PRC’s claim to Taiwan is the “one-China” principle, with its interpretation being that Taiwan is part of PRC territory, and the Taiwanese government is not an autonomous government but a local one. Thus, Taiwanese officials are portrayed as the reason why cross-Strait tensions exist, and as obstacles in preventing peaceful reunification. 

The CCP leadership has long portrayed Taiwan as part of China citing its ethnically Chinese population as justification. However, this narrative is false and greatly limits Taiwan’s say in its own destiny. In fact, until the arrival of Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan had never been governed by Chinese rule, thus PRC rule is, too, alien to the island. In fact, throughout its entire history, the PRC has never possessed jurisdiction over Taiwan. Regardless, Beijing views itself as the ROC’s successor, and thus heir to all of its territory and roles in international organizations, including Taiwan. How the rest of the world views and deals with Taiwan reflects Beijing’s interests rather than Taiwanese interests and global stature, thus distorting the reality of the situation.[37]

Paramount to the PRC is how this issue should be resolved, as anything seen as failure could decentralize the centralized state. If Beijing were to agree to on Taiwan “leaving” China and becoming a sovereign state, it would be tantamount to the PRC, a tightly controlled nation, admitting failure. It would also leave the CCP vulnerable to losing its grip on the nation and to internal rebellion. Within the PRC, relinquishing Taiwan would be akin to failing to “protect the territorial integrity of China,” an essential responsibility of the Chinese government. A political leader doing so would be career-ending and almost certainly lead to political exile.[38]

Fortunately, the Chinese perspective has a very different outlook regarding time as compared to the American perspective, its main rival. American leaders tend to view events with a more short-term and urgent lens due to presidential elections occurring every four years, thus necessitating the need for progress in order to remain in office. On the other hand, Chinese leaders view events with a far longer-term perspective, especially as its rule is not subject to popular elections like the Americans. Therefore, they are far more willing to wait for things to resolve themselves and operate under the belief that Taiwan will eventually come back to them.[39]When KMT forces initially fled to Taiwan, Mao and his forces lacked the military capacity to take Taiwan back.[40]Additionally, Beijing believed that were an independence movement to gain traction, Chiang Kai-shek would take the appropriate steps to immediately subdue it.[41]Consequently, the Chinese have since settled for a strategy of establishing a credible threat for which one day could justify invasion if necessary, and to focus on modernizing the nation and improving its global position. As Mao stated, “we can do without Taiwan for the time being, and let it come after one hundred years.”[42]

What was more pressing is how the PRC could achieve its goal of restoring its international stature and pre-eminence in an era of globalization, where it has become almost impossible for one to isolate itself from the rest of the world. As the Cold War progressed and it became increasingly clear the Soviet Union was falling apart, the PRC’s primary focus shifted towards gaining superpower status and filling the void left by the Soviet Union, and this was the logic behind its diplomacy and foreign relations. For it to attain superpower status, it first had to focus on developing its economic strength, requiring decades to do so.[43]

Modernizing the Chinese economy was no easy feat and included many missteps along the way, not allowing the PRC to dwell too much on the Taiwan issue, save for ensuring it did not declare independence and continue to isolate it diplomatically. If anything, over time, with Taiwan’s economic affluence, it becomes even more beneficial for the PRC to successfully reabsorb it, affording the PRC access to Taiwan’s economic and technological advances and their ability for use to aid the PRC’s own expansion.[44]Under Mao, the PRC relied on a principle of self-reliance, leading to the disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution to consolidate its power. Eventually, this thinking was discarded in favor of the “open door” policy initiated by Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, allowing China to open its doors to the rest of the world for foreign investment. Foreign capital and support were critical in China’s modernization and industrialization.[45]

Similar to in Taipei, Beijing leaders thought that economic development had to be dealt with first, both for domestic and foreign policy reasons. Domestically, economic development would unite the Chinese population behind the Communist ideology. In terms of foreign policy implications, China’s international position and bilateral relations would be strengthened. While Beijing and Taipei may have shared similar goals around economic reform, they do not share similar values regarding political reform. Throughout China’s opening up to the world and implementation of economic reforms, it seemed to the rest of the world that China possessed the potential to follow Taiwan’s political path towards liberalization, in turn facilitating reunification and resolving the Taiwan issue. Yet, as the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre proved, while China might be willing to liberalize its economy, it was unwilling to tolerate any talk of democracy and decentralization.[46]

In the aftermath of the Tiananmen crisis, China still worked to maintain friendly relations and economic ties with other nations to limit damage to its reputation. Simultaneously, the PRC worked to reimagine Taiwan as an enemy and splitist, in order to further isolate it diplomatically. Particularly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, China felt even more pressured to reincorporate Taiwan. Otherwise, losing Taiwan could spur Tibet and Xinjiang to leave China as well, which could very well lead to the PRC’s own disintegration, and the loss of its emerging superpower status.[47]

China has so strongly emphasized to the world the illegitimacy of Taiwan and the danger it poses to regional security in order to build the credibility needed if it ever carried out an invasion. It is important for it not to be seen as the aggressor to avoid any retaliation from other countries, yet still dangles the possibility of military invasion against Taiwan. However, it must be alarming as China today is positioned in a world where international law and norms evolve in a direction where humanitarian intervention is justification enough to intervene militarily, even if state sovereignty is acknowledged, as seen in the 1995 NATO intervention in the Bosnian War. Realistically, if Beijing were to invade Taipei, it would attract the intervention of other nations, particularly from Washington.[48]

From a US perspective, Taiwan is an important ally in the region, yet its importance must also be considered in geostrategic terms. Maintaining a balance of people in the region has long been an essential interest and responsibility for America. The US is Taiwan’s most important and powerful ally, as Taiwan overwhelmingly depends on American support. Each time the US adjusts policy toward Taiwan, there is a palpable effect on both the Taiwanese leaders and the public.

When KMT forces initially fled to Taiwan in 1949, then-US President Harry Truman did not care to directly associate the US with Chiang Kai-shek’s regime by providing military support to aid it in the Chinese Civil War. However, this changed with the outbreak of the Korean War when Truman ordered the US Seventh Fleet to patrol the Taiwan Strait, asserting American global policing power and imposing the US military directly between the mainland and Taiwan to maintain peace between the PRC and ROC.[49]

Over the course of the Korean War, the US saw the geostrategic importance in supporting the ROC, especially as the PRC entered the war on the enemy’s side in November 1950. Thus America resumed bilateral relations and provided Taiwan with economic and military support to guarantee its security. This was strongly influenced by strong anti-communist sentiments within the US, present within Truman’s successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower.[50]While the ROC benefited from US support, the ROC provided the US with a regional ally to contain communism. As a promoter of democracy, the US saw it as its duty to contain the spread of communism, prevent Chinese aggression, and to maintain the balance of power in the region. 

The shift in the global political climate in the 1970s came at a time when the PRC was becoming a growing regional threat. Thus resulting in the ROC possessing more relevance to the US when considered mainly in the Sino-American context. Nixon’s visit to the mainland marked the beginning of a radical departure in American policy toward Taiwan, culminating in the de-recognition of the ROC as the sole representative of China, and the normalization of diplomatic relations with the PRC by the end of the decade. 

American de-recognition gave new meaning to Taiwan’s democratization in the international sphere, providing a basis for continued (unofficial) American support; the US saw in Taiwan a regional ally with shared values and a symbolic success of American democracy in Asia, exemplifying the benefits of its presence in the region. It also gave the KMT party in Taiwan continued motivation to continue the democratization process because they know that this shared bond would be crucial in continued US support, no matter its form.[51]While it may have appeared that the US abandoned its ally by switching recognition to the PRC, it has openly supported the ROC and taken steps to ensure the survival of the island. When switching recognition, it simultaneously adopted the Taiwan Relations Act to ensure the continued security and survival of the Taiwanese people, unthreatened by PRC aggression.[52]

However, Taiwan’s democratization put the US in a unique position where it is supportive of a democracy while simultaneously rejecting it officially in favor of a volatile, authoritarian regime as it has to consider its priorities in terms of geopolitical considerations. Additionally, the very democracy it supports is the direct cause of the increase in cross-Strait tensions. Thus, while democratization has strengthened US-ROC relations, it has also complicated them. Ideally, the PRC would follow Taiwan’s path and become a stable, liberal and democratized power. Realistically, however, it may be a while before that hope is realized.[53]

Despite the switch in recognition, the US remains committed to defending Taiwan in the event of an unprovoked PRC invasion. Not only does the US protect Taiwan’s security and democracy, but it also protects the balance of power for the entire region. It is evident that were it not for the American protection of Taiwan, China would handily try to invade not only for reunification purposes but to assert its power and influence. Were it not for the threat of PRC aggression, the US may have never inserted itself into the situation and it would truly have been the domestic issue that the PRC has viewed it as all along. From an American perspective, Taiwan is certainly closely tied with China in terms of culture, history, and geography.[54] Its issue is how readily the PRC is to use force to attain its goals.

Throughout the ROC’s existence in Taiwan, America has reinterpreted their relationship numerous times, whether it be a strategic island worth defending against mainland aggression and to maintain a regional presence, to being part of the larger Cold War battleground. America’s involvement in Taiwan has enlarged the Chinese Civil War to that of a global scale. 

While the PRC and the US both claim a stake in the direction of Taiwan’s future, the reality is that neither can have its way entirely, and accommodations must be made. When placed into the larger global context, the reality is that Taiwan’s future is determined by the nature of the Sino-American relationship and ever-evolving balance of international power. Furthermore, the reality is that Beijing has evolved greatly since the beginning of the Chinese Civil War into a global superpower that acts as a geostrategic rival to the US.

As Taiwan so crucially determines the state of Sino-American relations, the US has learned to deal with the Taiwan so as to minimally provoke the mainland and and ensure stability for Sino-American relations. Whereas the US emerged from World War II and the Cold War as a dominant global superpower, China has increasingly stepped up as a replacement superpower for the dissolved Soviet Union to challenge the US and ensure the world is not unipolar. Accordingly, the PRC has also had to make accommodations to the US leading to a stalemate regarding Taiwan. It is to Taiwan’s great misfortune that it has found itself in the middle of this situation, with seemingly no end in sight.

Within the context of the Cold War between the Americans and Soviets, the US thought that the Soviets would be more responsive and cooperative to negotiations had they heard of an establishment of Sino-American diplomatic. From its perspective, the potential US-PRC relationship was also framed within the global Cold War context. Accounting for their mutual fear of the Soviet Union, American leadership assumed that their relationship would be an alliance of convenience.[55]

What the US never fully realized was how important the PRC viewed the issue of Taiwan. To the PRC, Taiwan was not one of several issues that obstructed a direct US-PRC relationship, but the most crucial issue, and one that had be resolved (in the PRC’s favor) before a relationship could be established. To the Chinese, it was as important to them as the USSR was to the Americans. As Chinese Communist mouthpiece, People’s Dailyestablished, Taiwan “has been China’s sacred territory since ancient times,” indicating that losing Taiwan would add to China’s humiliation at the hands of the Western imperialists, particularly after they had already once lost Taiwan to Japan in 1895.[56]

Therefore, the Chinese have refused to waver on the Taiwan issue, demanding the “principle” be resolved before normalization of relations could be discussed. Prior to the establishment of direct US-PRC contact, this message was sent through indirect channels. During the “Warsaw Talks” in 1970, Chinese diplomats repeated those demands, claiming it was their “oft-stated ‘principled position’ that Taiwan was the crucial issue preventing an improvement in the US-PRC relationship,” but left it up to the Americans to “create the conditions” to resolve the issue. Furthermore, in a later message delivered to the US by Romania, China reiterated its position, demanding the US withdraw its forces from Taiwan. From a Chinese perspective, if the Americans could not make this conciliatory gesture, it signaled a reluctance to build a relationship with them.[57]

However, as time went on and direct US-PRC contact was established, the PRC demonstrated an ability to be flexible if a “common basis in principle can be found,” particularly regarding the “timing with which a commitment to principle is given concrete expression.” While the US continually tried to broaden the discussion to a number of topics, the PRC continually insisted on Taiwan being the priority.[58] 

Both Kissinger and Nixon repeatedly reassured the Chinese, through their Premier Zhou Enlai, that they would not support an independence movement in Taiwan. Yet, Zhou was not entirely convinced about their stance, especially coming from a proclaimer of global democracy and from America’s historical willingness to support self-determination. At this point, Nixon had determined that while America did support democratization, for the sake of geostrategic stability, Taiwan could not stand in the way of his rapprochement with the PRC. In the end, “we have to do what’s best for us.”[59]Evidently, this sufficed for the Chinese. While America refused to have the withdrawal of support from Taiwan be a precondition for their meeting, its reassurance about not supporting a Taiwanese independence movement was commitment enough in the meantime for the Chinese.[60]

Both the Americans and Chinese had so much at stake in their discussions that both were prepared to compromise, and Taiwan, for the most part, was pushed aside in favor of developing Sino-American relations. The Chinese came to accept that the US would not leave Taiwan alone overnight, but the American concession of withdrawing part of its troops, especially after peace had been brokered in Vietnam, had Mao exclaiming that the US was evolving. China’s position on the resolution of the Taiwan issue changed from being a precondition for the establishment of direct US-PRC relations, to one that could proceed in parallel to the normalization of relations. China’s concessions were made with the understanding that America’s Taiwan policy would eventually evolve. Behind the scenes, the Americans promised that further progress regarding Taiwan’s resolution “within the framework of one China” and full restoration of diplomatic relations with the PRC was to come after Nixon’s re-election.[61]Unlike the Chinese who were willing to wait, American officials had to think in terms of election cycles. What they did not consider, was the change in power that was to come in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.[62]As a result, the Chinese held Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, at arm’s length over the normalization process until progress was made on the Taiwan issue.[63]

The PRC was also placated by the issuance of the joint 1972 Shanghai Communiqué, where the US, carefully with its wording, “acknowledged” that “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.”[64]It was the issue of Taiwan that nearly prevented the communiqué from being issued at all. With this communiqué, America was publicly changing its policy towards China, which is inseparable from its Taiwan policy. Washington was extremely careful to avoid using the word “recognize,” which would have implied that it accepted Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan.[65]While US policy was drastically changing, it could not go so as far as to publicly abandon Taiwan altogether. Not only would this have been unpopular for Nixon domestically, it would have also damaged America’s global reputation and its relationship with allies.[66]The issue that prevented further progress, as Kissinger articulated to Zhou, is that the Chinese sought “clarity, and I am trying to achieve ambiguity.”[67]

Unfortunately for the Taiwanese, the KMT government were woefully unprepared for the possibility that American allegiance would shift from it to the mainland. Stubbornly, Chiang Kai-shek refused to consider any alternative possibility that would allow the ROC and PRC to coexist peacefully, stating “there is no room for patriots and traitors to live together,” and assumed that the US would defend Taiwan and its interests always.[68]If independence had been a path the KMT wanted to pursue initially in the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps the US might have gone along with it, and with the US, much of the international community as well.[69]But by the 1970s, any possibility of pursuing this path was gone. It had not occurred to the KMT that the very same leaders that recognized Taiwan’s importance early on within the context of the early Cold War and the Korean War were being replaced by a new generation of leaders that were less affected by those events, and gone with it was Taiwan’s importance over China.[70]

The diplomatic isolation that Taiwan faced in the aftermath of derecognition and the change in US policy to favor China over it did not necessarily mean Taiwan was completely shunned by the rest of the world. Like America, most of the rest of the world used ambiguous language to accommodate China’s imposition of the “one-China policy,” which forced countries to recognize either Taipei or Beijing. However, Taiwan’s democratic consolidation, a rare occurrence in Asia, has made the island stand out and gain substantial diplomatic strength among the world’s key powers, many of whom are democracies as well.[71]As democratization occurred and a separate Taiwanese identity emerged, long-standing assumptions about its eventual reunification with the mainland became collapsed. However, due to the geopolitical constraints Taiwan finds itself in, it is unable to experience the benefits of democracy. It is especially disappointing that in the era dubbed the Third Wave of Democratization, a democratic Taiwan is not treated as a real nation diplomatically and is only treated so in terms of economic matters by all of the key democracies. Despite their shared democratic values, they chose the authoritarian CCP regime and accepted the CCP discourse that Taiwan was the “troublemaker.”[72]Evidently, what matters more is Beijing’s superpower status, essentially giving it veto power over Taiwan’s international status.[73]  

The tense stalemate Taiwan presents to US-PRC relations as a result of its democratization continues today, and leaves Taiwan unable to move closer to legal independence and autonomy due to the PRC threat despite already functioning as a de facto independent state. Although the PRC continually threatens military invasion and the US has committed to defending Taiwan under circumstances, at the moment, it would be a war that neither side wants. To Beijing, American support of Taiwan is the single largest obstruction to a stable US-PRC relationship, and raises suspicions about American goals in the region beyond maintaining peace. Reunification is a fundamental national interest, and a battle they cannot lose. Yet, the Americans have long had a vested interest in Taiwan’s history since the days of Chiang Kai-shek, and Taiwan’s democratization has been “a shining example of successful American internationalism,” and encapsulated its hopes for China to liberalize in the long-run.[74]Additionally, to both parties, Taiwan is important in maintaining the regional stability and balance of power. Thus, Taiwan is caught up between the two powers and is the core reason Sino-American relations are not better, and why compromise between the two superpowers are so difficult.[75]

While Beijing is willing to wait, if the improvement of cross-Strait economic ties as seen in the twenty-first century does not draw the Taiwanese back towards the mainland, the only option left is the threat of force. Unless dramatic changes occur within Beijing’s leadership, its structure, and its ideology, it will continue to dwell on the Taiwan issue, which also motivates retaliatory behavior on its part on other fronts.[76]America’s hopes for the PRC to liberalize as the ROC did is unlikely to happen anytime soon. While the PRC under the reform-minded Deng may have given hope to the outside world of it liberalizing, the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre more than illustrated that reforms were to be strictly limited to economic reform. Furthermore, China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, has taken steps in recent years to consolidate and centralize his and his party’s powers. Significantly, in 2018, he took the steps and successfully abolished the two-term limit on China’s (and his own) presidency and declined to name a successor. This signals Xi’s intention to remain in power, without opposition nor rivals, for potentially the rest of his lifetime, if not for a significant period of time.[77]

China under Xi has experienced a growing sense of self-regard, and brags that global problems cannot be solved without it, especially given its veto power on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). For example, it used its veto vote in 1999 to prevent the continuation of the UN peacekeeping mandate in Macedonia, in retaliation for Macedonia establishing diplomatic ties with Taiwan.[78]While China is still largely guided by the geopolitical realities of the world, it has grown increasingly assertive in its pursuit of regional hegemony in recent years. Traditionally, this would clash with the American need to maintain a balance of power. However, under the current baffling Trump presidency, there is no telling what could happen.

At least for the foreseeable future, the mainland will continue to deny the legitimacy of Taiwan as a sovereign state, leading to a denial of Taiwanese sovereignty by the rest of the world. Its failure for recognized lies not in its democratization’s rejection by the international community, but in external, international factors beyond Taiwan’s control such as the shift in the international power and the role of Taiwan in the context of Sino-American relations. 

As long as Beijing maintains its hegemonic position and its Chinese Civil War-era mentality, peace is unlikely to come to both the region, and to Taiwan. Without the recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty, its survival as an autonomous nation in the long run cannot be guaranteed. While its democratization has allowed Taiwan to maintain substantial commercial and economic relations with much of the world and given Taiwan legitimacy in the eyes of key democracies, it falls short of full bilateral diplomatic ties. While China still hopes Taiwan will return to the mainland, the DPP’s success in the 2016 election reflects otherwise. For now, Taiwan’s democratization leaves its status in the crossfire of ongoing geostrategic stalemate between the US and the PRC and as an unsettled issue because no one is willing to compromise; from Taiwan’s perspective, “it is neither independent nor is a part of China.”[79]

[1]Collinson, Stephen, Nicole Gaouette, Elise Labott, and Laura Smith-Spark. “China Lodges Complaint over Trump-Taiwan Call.” CNN. December 04, 2016. Accessed April 08, 2019.


[3]Shelley Rigger. 2011. Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 63-65.

[4]Hung-mao Tien. 1989. The Great Transition: Political and Social Change in the Republic of China. Stanford, Calif: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 217.

[5]Rigger, 64-65.

[6]Denny Roy. 2003. Taiwan: A Political History. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 103-104.

[7]Rigger, 64.

[8]Rigger, 63-65.

[9]Ibid, 66.

[10]Ibid, 64-68.

[11]Roy, 103-104.

[12]Rigger, 69-70.

[13]Thomas Omestad. “Taiwan Democracy’s Next Step.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Jan 18, 1988. February 13, 2019).

[14]Rigger, 69-70.

[15]Margaret MacMillan. 2006. Nixon in China: The Week that Changed the World. Toronto: Viking Canada, 292-311.

[16]Ibid, 289-291.

[17]Ibid, 291.

[18]Ibid, 289-291.

[19]Telegram to AIT Washington D.C. from AIT Taipei. “Taiwan’s International Position.” 23 Oct. 1989. Found U.S. State Department Freedom of Information Act site.

[20]Rigger, 70.

[21]“Taiwan Loosens the Reins.” New York Times, Jul 18, 1987, Late Edition (East Coast).


[23]Yun-han Chu and Hyug Baeg Im. “The Two Turnovers in South Korea and Taiwan.” In Democracy in East Asia: A New Century. 2013, ed. Larry Jay Diamond. 2nd edition. ed. Baltimore : John Hopkins University Press, 108-109.

[24]Tien, 216-217.

[25]Ibid, 1.

[26]Ibid, 216-217.

[27]Teng-hui Lee. 1999. The Road to Democracy: Taiwan’s Pursuit of Identity. Tokyo: PHP Institute, Inc, 60.

[28]Roy, 225-226.

[29]Lee, 62-63.

[30]Robyn Lim. “Taiwan and Asia-Pacific Security.” In Taiwan’s Security in the Post-Deng Xiaoping Era, edited by Martin L. Lasater and Peter Kien-ong Yu. London: Portland, OR, 2000, 98.

[31]Lee, 126.

[32]Edward Friedman. “Chineseness and Taiwan’s Democratization.” American Journal of Chinese Studies 16 (2009)., 61.

[33]Lee, 197-199.

[34]Roy, 225-226.


[36]“Tsai Ing-wen Elected Taiwan’s First Female President.” BBC News. January 17, 2016. Accessed April 08, 2019.

[37]Friedman, 58.

[38]Roy, 241-242.

[39]Richard H. Solomon. Report on “Chinese Political Negotiating Behavior, 1967-1984.” December 1985. Found on U.S. State Department Freedom of Information Act site, 124-125.

[40]Lim, 95.

[41]MacMillan, 247.

[42]Solomon, 124.

[43]Telegram to White House Washington D.C. from American Embassy Beijing. “Looking Forward: Your Return to China.” 13 Feb. 1989. Found U.S. State Department Freedom of Information Act site.

[44]Friedman, 61.

[45]Maurice J. Meisner. 1986. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic, 471.

[46]Lim, 98.

[47]Friedman, 61.

[48]Lim, 113-115.

[49]Tien, 228-230.

[50]Ibid, 230-232.

[51]Jocelyn Coffin. “Rhetoric and Reality: Taiwan’s Democratization and Its Effects on US-Taiwan Relations.” American Journal of Chinese Studies 24, no. 1 (2017), 2-3.

[52]Lee, 129.

[53]Ibid, 131.

[54]Lasater, 287.

[55]MacMillan, 239-240.

[56]Ibid, 240.

[57]Solomon, 32.

[58]Ibid, 37.

[59]MacMillan, 249.

[60]Ibid, 247-249.

[61]Ibid, 250.

[62]Ibid, 248-251.

[63]Solomon, 17.

[64]Ibid, 89.


[66]MacMillan, 295-296.

[67]Ibid, 252.

[68]Ibid, 288-289.

[69]Tien, 232.

[70]MacMillan, 288-289.

[71]J. Bruce Jacobs (2018) Myth and Reality in Taiwan’s Democratisation, Asian Studies Review, DOI: 10.1080/10357823.2018.1543253, 2.

[72]Friedman, 59.

[73]Ibid, 63.

[74]Roy, 243.


[76]Ibid, 243-244.

[77]Chris Buckley and Adam Wu. “Ending Term Limits for China’s Xi is a Big Deal. Here’s Why.” New York Times, Mar 10, 2018.

[78]Lim, 102.

[79]MacMillan, 326.


Buckley, Chris and Adam Wu. “Ending Term Limits for China’s Xi is a Big Deal. Here’s             Why.”New York Times, Mar 10, 2018.            explainer.html.

Chu, Yun-han and Hyug Baeg Im. “The Two Turnovers in South Korea and Taiwan.” In Democracy in East Asia: A New Century. 2013, ed. Larry Jay Diamond. 2nd edition.        ed. Baltimore : John Hopkins University Press.

Coffin, Jocelyn. “Rhetoric and Reality: Taiwan’s Democratization and Its Effects on US-  Taiwan Relations.” American Journal of Chinese Studies 24, no. 1 (2017): 1-12. 

Collinson, Stephen, Nicole Gaouette, Elise Labott, and Laura Smith-Spark. “China Lodges          Complaint over Trump-Taiwan Call.” CNN. December 04, 2016. Accessed April 08,        2019.

Friedman, Edward. “Chineseness and Taiwan’s Democratization.” American Journal of    Chinese Studies 16 (2009): 57-67.   

Jacobs, J. Bruce. “Myth and Reality in Taiwan’s Democratisation.” Asia Studies Review  (2018): 1-14. DOI: 10.1080/10357823.2018.1543253

Lasater, Martin L., and Peter Kien-hong Yu. 2000. Taiwan’s Security in the Post-Deng     Xiaoping Era. London: Portland, OR.

Lee, Teng-hui. 1999. The Road to Democracy: Taiwan’s Pursuit of Identity. Tokyo: PHP Institute, Inc.

MacMillan, Margaret. 2006. Nixon in China: The Week that Changed the World. Toronto:           Viking Canada.

Meisner, Maurice J. 1986. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic.

Omstead, Thomas. “Taiwan Democracy’s Next Step.” New York Times (1923-Current     File), Jan 18, 1988.          (accessed February 13, 2019).

Rigger, Shelley. 2011. Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse. Lanham:             Rowman & Littlefield.

Roy, Denny. 2003. Taiwan: A Political History. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Solomon, Richard H. Report on “Chinese Political Negotiating Behavior, 1967-1984.”     December 1985. Found on U.S. State Department Freedom of Information Act site.

“Taiwan Loosens the Reins.” New York Times, Jul 18, 1987, Late Edition (East Coast).

Telegram to AIT Washington D.C. from AIT Taipei. “Taiwan’s International Position.” 23          Oct. 1989. Found U.S. State Department Freedom of Information Act site.

Telegram to White House Washington D.C. from American Embassy Beijing. “Looking Forward: Your Return to China.” 13 Feb. 1989. Found U.S. State Department            Freedom of Information Act site.

Tien, Hung-mao. 1989. The Great Transition: Political and Social Change in the Republic of      China. Stanford, Calif: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University.

“Tsai Ing-wen Elected Taiwan’s First Female President.” BBC News. January 17, 2016.    Accessed April 08, 2019.