Shortcuts / 08 April 2021

What’s Happening in Taiwan

China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province that will eventually be part of the country again. This dispute has been running for years, but China’s recent push for regional power means there is the possibility of a war. In this episode of Squiz Shortcuts we’ll take you through the background on how Taiwan came to be, it’s complicated history with China, and Beijing’s recent moves to take control over it.

Give me my bearings – where exactly is Taiwan?
It’s in East Asia that is bordered by China, Japan and the Philippines. There’s a main island and 166 smaller islands.

And it’s a country, right?
Well, hold your horses… Whether Taiwan is a sovereign nation or a territory of China depends on who you talk to. There are also differences of opinion over what it should even be called, but its official name is the Republic of China.

Geez, that is complicated…
Nothing’s simple, right?

So clearly, there’s a history with China?
And it’s a long one. The first known settlers were the Austronesian tribal people, who are thought to have come from modern-day southern China. The island was first mentioned in Chinese records in 239AD when China sent an expeditionary force to explore the region. This is something Beijing uses to back its claim to Taiwan.

And in more modern times, was it part of China?
And after a brief spell as a Dutch colony – during which Taiwan was called Formosa – it was then administered by China’s Qing Dynasty from 1683 to 1895.

Why do I get the feeling something notable happened in 1895?
You got an astute radar… In 1895 after Japan’s victory in the first Sino-Japanese War, China ceded Taiwan to Japan. But after its defeat in WW2 in the mid-1940s, Japan relinquished control of the island.

So China took control then?
Yes, but at that time, China was governed by the Kuomintang, also known as the KMT. It administered Taiwan from the mainland. But over the next few years, a civil war broke out in China between the KMT, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party. To cut a long story short, the communists won, and Chiang and his supporters were exiled to Taiwan. Meanwhile, in mainland China the People’s Republic was proclaimed in 1949.

So the KMT took control of Taiwan?
They did, and Taiwan then operated under a harsh military dictatorship via the KMT for many years. An estimated 140,000 people died during what became known as the White Terror.

And when did that period end?
Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, began the nation’s transition to democracy during the late 80s/early 90s, which eventually led to the 2000 election of the island’s first non-KMT president, Chen Shui-bian.

And what was China doing during all of this?
Good question. During this time, Beijing kept a close eye on the happenings in Taiwan and Hong Kong and Macau – other territories it lays claim to. And it was formulating a plan for bringing them back under Chinese control.

That plan was?
Under China’s Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping, a new governance system over its territories was proposed called ‘one country, two systems’.

That sounds familiar, but run me through what that is again…
‘One country, two systems’ was proposed by China during negotiations with the British, who controlled Hong Kong under a 99-year lease. And the crux of it is China ‘allowing’ what it considers its territories to run their own economic and administrative systems (even those with democratic features) and trade with other countries independently. But there would only be one sovereign state, that is China.

And that’s what happened with Hong Kong?
When it was handed back from the British to China in 1997 – exactly right. And it’s also in place in Macau.

But not Taiwan?
No. Taiwan said no deal.

Why’s that?
The majority of Taiwanese people aren’t interested in unification with China because of several factors, including a sense of a distinct Taiwanese rather than Chinese identity and their moves towards democracy.

China must be delighted…
Beijing has emphasised ‘Chinese reunification’ at every National Congress of the Communist Party when it comes to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. China, therefore, continues to see Taiwan’s government as illegitimate, and there’s little official contact between the two countries.

What about Taiwan’s relationship with the rest of the world?
Because of the estranged relationship between Beijing and Taiwan, most countries – wanting to keep up good relations with China – have no diplomatic ties with Taiwan. It has full diplomatic relations with 14 out of 193 United Nations member states and unofficial relations with 57 more UN member states, including Australia.

And where does the US stand?
Former US President Donald Trump broke with decades of diplomatic courtesy by forming a close relationship with Taiwan, notably as America’s relationship with China continued deteriorating in the light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Does President Joe Biden have the same approach?
He says America’s commitment to Taiwan is “rock solid”. But we’ll get into that in a sec…

Rightio… So how has China been trying to take control of Taiwan?
Yep. Over the years, China offered economic incentives, but that wasn’t much of a carrot because its own economy was rocking it thanks to strong export markets for electronics, chemical and machinery. In recent times, China’s been more focused on military might with “large incursions” of Chinese warplanes in Taiwan’s airspace and sending the navy into what Taiwan considers its part of the South China Sea.

That doesn’t sound good…
Pretty serious – war is the word that’s being used.

For realz.

Could Taiwan fight a war against China?
Hopefully, we won’t have to see but the US has been selling weapons to Taiwan in anticipation. And Taiwan says it’s begun mass production of long-range missiles that would allow it to defend itself against Chinese attacks.

So China’s serious?
US admiral John Aquilino reckons China sees taking control of Taiwan as its top geopolitical priority. That’s because Taiwan lies in a very strategic place near the world’s main shipping routes.

Ok, thanks. But that’s all a bit worrying.
It’s certainly a situation the world is keeping a very close eye on.

Squiz recommendations:

China steps up threats to reclaim Taiwan – ABC’s Between the Lines podcast

Yama Kitchen & Bar’s Taiwanese fried chicken recipe

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