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A Historical Look at China-Taiwan Relations

China-Taiwan relations are at their “worst in 40 years.” There are “confirmed US troops in Taiwan.” And 150 mainland aircrafts entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone in four days…

The continuous rise of hostility across the Taiwan strait has again seized international attention. Surging Chinese military activity in the region has revived the debate over the possibility of an impending military conflict. Western speculation over a total invasion has so far tended towards either realistic calculations over the immense cost of an attack or a more urgent alarm, with some even considering the fall of 2022 as the earliest possible date. This mix of opinions then complicates current relations by deemphasizing the larger historical context and previous political standing of the issue, making it difficult to view the situation independently from the narrative of Chinese expansionism. With President Biden’s recent statement that the United States “has a commitment” to come to Taiwan’s defense in case of a Chinese invasion, an apparent mistake that was later rectified to maintain United States’s “strategic ambiguity,” a sense of anxiety over a war between the United States and China has returned. To regain clarity during the height of tensions, I argue that maintaining a historical view on the issue is the best way forward. Specifically, realizing that both China and Taiwan are historically responsible for escalating tensions will help us understand the ideologies of both parties behind the current antagonism.

It is important to remember the bi-directional reasons for the decline of relations between mainland China and Taiwan. In Taiwan, the fundamental political atmosphere has changed from the “Guidelines for National Unification” during the Lee Tunghui era (National Party) to Tsai Ingwen’s consecutive victories (Progressive Party) in 2016 and 2020. In mainland China, however, all levels of government emphasize the 1992 Consensus, maintaining the objective to establish unification with the agreement over the “one country, two systems” policy first envisioned by Deng Xiaoping as an attempt to reach an agreement with Taiwan. Although Taiwanese politicians and activists have proposed numerous alternative theories as criticism towards the Chinese blueprint, during the Kuomintang (KMT) rule in the 90s, the Taiwanese government embraced the “One China” doctrine based on the 1994 “Guidelines for National Unification” document that aimed to clarify Taiwan’s basic approach to unification.

However, ever since its conception, the “One China” doctrine suffered from major interpretive differences across the strait. While Mainland refrained from giving a precise definition of a unified “China,” Taiwan understood the concept based on the wider historical, geographical, and inherited meaning of “China.” This difference underpinned deteriorating hopes towards further practical measures of unification within the governments. It was not until the victory of the pro-Taiwanese independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led by Chen Shuibian at the turn of the century, however, that the policy was completely reversed. DPP refused to accept the 1992 Consensus, proclaiming that “One China” is meant by the mainland as one PRC rather than the broader sense of the word which allowed Taiwan to maintain its sovereignty and national identity. At that time, his policies reversed his promise made during the inauguration to not declare Taiwanese independence or abolish the Guidelines for National Unification. However, in 2006, instead of leading an “abolition,” a “case to apply” policy was declared on the guidelines, effectively ending governmental attempts at maintaining the position on conceptual unification. 

This trend of hardening Taiwanese pro-independence opinion is not a purely internal phenomenon—mainland China’s clarification on their position regarding Taiwan’s attitude and the nature of their envisioned unification exacerbated the ideological split too. Major discrepancies between the countries arose when the PRC’s Anti-Secession Law was passed in 2005, which clearly states that Taiwan is a province of the PRC and further formalized that the PRC does not promise to abandon the choice of non-peaceful measures against Taiwanese independence if peaceful unification becomes impossible. This legislation, although short, contributed immensely to the popularity of Chen Shuibian’s promise of change, leading to an over 90 percent public rejection of the law in Taiwan and its specific declarations about the use of force. Although the KMT returned to power from 2008 to 2016 and maintained the status quo in order to strengthen ties with the Mainland again, the Tsai Ingwen-led DPP achieved landslide victories since 2016 that entrenched the pro-independence attitude across Taiwan. Despite major controversies within the Taiwanese population regarding independence, the ideology of independence has been firmly established throughout Taiwanese society and government in firm rejection of the PRC’s push for unification under its own definition.

Furthermore, by recognizing historical facts of how attitudes on both sides changed due to mutual political actions, it becomes clear how Xi Jinping and Tsai Ingwen’s recent speeches have also further inflamed public attitudes with their displays of broad and steadfast political determination in polar opposite attitudes towards the future. In celebrating the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution that ended the Qing dynasty and founded the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping again declared that “the complete unification of the homeland has to be realized” and that separatists “have never had good endings” and will “face the judgment of history.” In Taiwan, Tsai Ingwen again asserted Taiwan’s sovereignty with the warning “never think that the Taiwanese people will surrender under pressure.” Her emphasis on further strengthening Taiwan’s defense force as deterrence against the PRC remains consistent with the defense minister’s claim that Taiwan will “meet the enemy full-on.” In the context of the Chinese military showing high levels of preparedness, this inflammatory language only intensifies anxiety and demolishes hopes for a detente. 

However, this is not the first time that relations have soured. After all, the first waves of pro-independence were also met with fierce denunciations and mobilization from China and vice versa. The history of Chinese military intrusion of Taiwanese defense identification zones has long made the military threat a default state of affairs in which it is hard to say whether the recent rise of aircraft disturbance necessitates a move towards war. It could just as well be interpreted as a way of pressuring Taiwan to rank up its defenses, thereby inciting fear to dissuade Taiwanese public opinion and test the United States’s reaction. Conversely, using a fundamentally historical perspective to observe current strait tensions may prevent fear-mongering and help people understand China-Taiwan relations independently from highly politicized narratives. Public discourse can therefore reintroduce the Taiwan question as something still negotiable, reduce partisan moralizing, and recreate a room for peace across the Taiwan Strait.

The Quatrain of Seven Step《七步诗》said it best:





(Beanstalks are ignited to boil beans,

In the pot the bean weeps.

[We are] born of the same root,

Why in such a rush to fry me!)

Photo by Liam Read on Unsplash