The bilateral ties between the United States of America and Taiwan or the Republic of China (ROC) have developed through a peculiar and complex course. The relationship, however ambiguous, continues to form a crucial aspect of security relations in East Asia.
When the Communist forces led by Mao Zedong expelled Chiang Kai shek’s Nationalist regime, who fled to the isle of Taiwan in 1949, US President Harry Truman decided to accept the inevitability of the Communist victory in China and even planned to work out a bilateral relationship with the newly established People’s Republic of China without heeding much to the plight of his former ally Chiang. It was the eruption of the Korean War (1950-1953), which displayed the strength and danger of a Communist alliance between the Soviet Union, China and North Korea, that made President Truman realise the importance of supporting the staunchly anti-Communist regime of Chiang’s Kuomintang (KMT) as a bulwark against what became apparently the rising tide of Communism in the third world nations of Asia. The raison d’être of Chiang’s regime was to overthrow the Communist Party rule in Beijing and “reunify” Taiwan and Mainland China, an act that both the KMT and CCP believed would restore China’s historical rights over the island snatched away by the Japanese and would redeem the historical injustices it faced at the hands of the colonial powers. Chiang constantly insisted for the United States to help him in waging a war against Mao to achieve this objective. However, Washington was not ready to support another war in the region.
Chiang finally succeeded in framing Mao’s maritime offensive acts during the early 1950s as a growing threat and pursued the Eisenhower administration to sign with him the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty which promised military protection for his regime. The United States abdided by Chiang’s One China policy under which it recognised that Chiang’s Republic of China was the sole legitimate representative government of the one China that exists on the face of the earth.
It was by utilising Washington’s vast diplomatic clout that Chiang did not just earn non-socialist allies but also found place in the United Nations Security Council as a Permanent Member.
However, the golden days couldn’t last long. The growing differences between China and the Soviet Union became more apparent by the 1970s and gave way to clear enmity as border clashes and ideological tensions ensued. The United States saw this development as an opportunity to crack the socialist international alliance and decided to turn the dynamics of the security triangle between itself, Moscow and Beijing in its favour by recognising the People’s Republic of China. US President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972 and the Shanghai Communiqué that followed stated that ‘Chinese on both sides of the border believe that there is but one China’ and that ‘Taiwan is a part of China’. Washington left it to the CCP and KMT to decide which one represented the “One China” and promised not to intervene. In 1979, came a decisive shift as the United States established official ties with the PRC. Following Beijing’s non-negotiable One China Policy, Washington broke away all official ties with the ROC and officially recognised the PRC as the sole legitimate representative of the one China.
This came as a major setback for Chiang not just as a great betrayal but also as following Washington, several non-socialist allies like Canada shifted to recognise Beijing. Chiang refused to budge on his One China policy and broke away all ties with any country who recognised Beijing which costed him much of his diplomatic standing.
A major shock came when the issue of the permanent seat at the UNSC was raised. Washington asked Chiang to accept simultaneous representation of both ROC and PRC but the latter refused it and as UNSC Resolution 2758 was raised at the 26th United Nations General Assembly to oust ROC, Chiang staged a walkout thus leaving the space for the PRC to gain. What followed was a period of diplomatic isolation as by 1980s, the ROC was ousted from most major international organisations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as space was created for the PRC to be accomodated.
The only positive development for the Republic of China was the enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 by the US Congress as a response to the government’s decision to establish official ties with Beijing. Thanks to an active Taiwan lobby, many Senators opposed the government’s decision and claimed that Washington must retain unofficial ties with Taiwan. Under the TRA, Washington not only maintains robust socioeconomic and cultural relations with Taiwan which function through the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the US which function in more or less the same way as the embassy but also maintains that any resolution to the Taiwan issue in a way other than a peaceful measure would be considered by Washington as a threat on the Western Pacific, implying its security perceptions of an expanse covering the concerns of the United States of America.
Democracy hues: Reunification to Independence
While the TRA brought some respite, Chiang Kai shek’s son Chiang Ching kuo, who took over the reins of governance after his father, realised the importance of democratisation in order to not just enhance Taiwan’s soft power among the liberal West but to also make it appeal to the Mainland Chinese who had presented the demand for civil freedom and democratic rights in the Tiananmen Square Movement of 1984. Hence, in 1987, the martial law was removed. Chiang’s successor, Lee Teng hui declared a unilateral end to the Chinese Civil war in 1991 thus, establishing socioeconomic and cultural ties with the Mainland and breaking away from the old KMT tradition of No Contact, No Negotiation and No Compromise with Communist China.
While the rhetoric of abiding by the “One China Policy” was maintained, Taiwan inched closer to an independent status, thanks to the democratisation process which made it important for the regime to reflect on the popular opinion which turned heavily anti-unification. With a proliferation of governmental and indigenous non-governmental organisations such as civil societies and political parties; deregulation of media and educational reforms among other changes led to the emergence of a new islander Taiwanese identity as distinct from Chinese ethnicity. For instance, in the 1994 White Paper Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan dissociated Republic of China from One China for the first time while maintaining the rhetoric of abiding by the policy. Such sentiments further developed as the leader of the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) (which calls for Taiwan’s independence from the Mainland), Chen Shui bian, became the first non-KMT President in Taiwanese history. The growing strength of such sentiments is reflected in the eruption of the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan against President Ma Ying-jeou’s “viable diplomacy” with Mainland China which the protestors saw as making Taiwan increasingly economically dependent on Beijing which hampered the prospects for its independence as well as in the election victory of DPP’s Presidential candidate Tsai Ing wen who remains a major pro-Independence figure.
Thus, during the Cold War itself, Taiwan’s Foreign policy has changed from pressing the United States to recognise it as the One China to the one of being recognised as an independent sovereign nation which historically developed distinctly from that of China. Ever since the fall of the USSR in 1991 and the end of the Cold War which made Washington the undisputed hegemon in the international order, the United States has shifted its focus away from Taiwan to other regions such as Afghanistan where it finds its national interests served best. Taiwanese foreign policy in such a scenario has been to hold onto the United States as much as it can so as to ensure regime survival.
Is Taiwan still important to the United States?
While the dilution of ideological politics and increased communication with China since its Reform and Opening up (改革开放) in 1978 and the fall of the USSR has decreased Taiwan’s relevance for the United States, it still remains important.
First and foremost is the strategic reason as access to Taiwan presents a wide maritime defense depth for launching both offensive and counteroffensive measures.
Second, Taiwan is a region rich in natural resources particularly coal, oil and gas.
Third, as a democracy which has remained favourable to it since the very beginning, the United States does not just feel obligated to protect Taiwan for ideological reasons but also Taiwan’s presence as a flourishing democracy poses a major domestic political challenge to the CCP led PRC where the regime has taught its people that Western style democracy is unfit to Chinese culture and civilisational history.
Fourth and most importantly, the United States’ hegemony rests on its control of the Asia-Pacific region and though it might seem to be reducing its expanse, leaving China to take over Taiwan and the vast strategic importance it holds would be the last nail in the coffin of the era of US hegemony. The US hence, would fight till the last to maintain its relevance in the region by keeping Taiwan independent.
Is it important enough to go to war?
Though Taiwan is important to Washington, it puzzles many analysts if it would go to war with China in case Beijing tries to take over the island.
While the nuclear nature of both the nations is a huge deterrent which would, if at all, lead to a pyrrhic victory; the vastly enmeshed Sino-American economic relations is also a major reason where any hard blow on the Chinese economy would also hit Washington’s. If the United States loses the war, it would not just be immensely destroyed but would exit the world stage with a bang rather than a whimper making it harder to stand back as a world leader. Moreover, even if the United States wins, there would be no guarantee that China would not recuperate its forces and try another time to occupy the territory leading to more hostility and instability.
At the turn of the century, the United States realised China’s rise as an indisputable fact which meant that whether Washington liked it or not, it would constantly find Beijing on its way at every juncture. While such a development does not always mean confrontation or ensure cooperation, it shows the importance of dialogue and compromise in order to maintain stability which is mutually beneficial. Hence, while the United States would not sit back and watch Beijing take over Taiwan, it is also true that it would not rush to wage a war. Even though Beijing has stepped up its rhetoric of absorbing Taiwan with force if necessary, it realises that such a move would not be a cakewalk and hence is likely to consider other options before using force. The hard part of such developments is that it has reduced the central focus of Taiwan’s Foreign policy to holding onto the United States and by putting all its eggs in the American basket, Taiwan can hardly do anything substantial rather than wait for the two superpowers to decide on its future.
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