27 April, 2008

Phantom Countries: Taiwan

New Series! I thought I would take you on a trip round the world, visiting some funny locations housing unrecognised states or areas that some are trying to turn into new countries. This follows a pub conversation with some of my old spymates, where the unrecognised country of Somaliland was mentioned. I will return to Somaliland later, but first up we have Taiwan (or the Republic of China on Taiwan, which is I think its official title). Taiwan's origins come from the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s. The defeated Kuo Min Tang forces retreated to the island of Taiwan, and set up their own administration there.

Taiwan has often had an anomalous relationship to the rest of China. In the 19th century, it was colonised by Japan, and only came back under Chinese control with the end of the second world war. In an earlier period, it was where the Ming dynasty hung on for a while after losing the rest of China to the Manchurian Qing. The rule of the KMT there under Chiang Kai-Shek continued this tradition, with the regime initially claiming that they were the legitimate government of all of China. More recently, the island's rulers have given up that legal fiction, claiming only to rule a geographically constrained Chinese republic. The rulers ot Taiwan have also been careful never to provoke war with communist China by declaring their island formally independent. At the same time, they do not in any sense acknowledge the overlordship of the Beijing government, and they have cultivated as much of the trappings of an independent state that they can.

Taiwan now is in a strange position. It is effectively an independent country, with its own government, state administration, diplomatic corps, army, flag, and so on. And in many respects, it has been a very successful country. Its economy has performed well over a long period of time, and the fruits of economic growth have been dished out in a relatively egalitarian manner. It has also managed an effective transition from KMT one party rule to a multi-party democratic system in which opposition candidates have been able to win elections and take office. For all that, very few other countries recognise its sovereignty, mainly because it is impossible to retain formal diplomatic relations which China and Taiwan simultanaeously. Its security is underwritten by the USA, but even the USA does not recognise it as a state. The countries that maintain diplomatic relations with it are mostly Central American states. I suspect that the USA leans on them to do this, as a way of giving Taiwanese diplomats someone to play with. Unfortunately for the island's rulers, the rising importance of China proper in world affairs has meant that many of these countries are thinking about transferring their diplomatic recognition to Beijing. It is quite possible, therefore, that Taiwan will have no formal diplomatic recognition in years to come.

My expectation is that Taiwan will nevertheless continue to exist as a de facto country. One could imagine a scenario in which Beijing decides to forcibly resolve the issue, at a time when the USA has given up on supporting its erstwhile unrecognised friend. However, my reading of the balance of military forces is that China would not be able to land an invasion force on the island, and that any attempt to do so would be a costly and humiliating failure. In any case, economic links between the island and mainland are now so strong that a war between them would be patent folly. The continuance of "Panda Diplomacy" between the island and mainland suggests that relations while continue to be relatively cordial.

One possible utopian future outcome would be that if China ever starts to seriously democratise, then Taiwan might be able to mount a reverse takeover of the mainland. Taiwan's experience of democratising while retaining social stability could prove useful to China, and the KMT's continued importance after the transition on Taiwan would be reassuring to people within the CCP who fear that democracy could lead to their extinction.

Taiwan flag from Wikipedia


rener said...

Ah, so that's the Taiwanese flag. Someone on our road has the same flag up in their window.

Michael Turton said...


Taiwan doesn't have an anomalous relationship with "the rest" of China because it isn't part of China. The Ming did not hang out here when defeated -- that was the Chengs who retreated here on a "restore the Ming" ideology but went ahead and set up a state on the island, much like the Chiangs 4 centuries later. Taiwan was not "back under Chinese control" after WWII because Japan still owned it until 1951, after which its sovereignty was given up under the terms of the San Francisco Peace Treaty. That sovereignty was not awarded to any nation and today the US position, along with that of several other nations, is that Taiwan's status is undetermined.

ian said...

Cursory investigation suggests you are correct with your comments on Taiwan in the 17th century, when it seems to have been a base for Ming Jacobites rather than the Ming themselves. Your claim that Taiwan was still owned by Japan in 1951 is somewhat outlandish, as that would mean that Japan still ran it after their forces there surrendered to the KMT and after Chiang Kai-Shek retreated there following his defeat in the civil war.

The thing that is fascinating about Taiwan is that it is in almost all essential characteristics an independent country, yet it is not acknowledged as such de jure by the international community, while even its own political elite are careful to never declare the island's independence.

Ken said...

It looks like things continue to go poorly for Taiwan on the international recognition front. According to the Economist its foreign minister and vice premier both resigned over the loss of $30m in a bungled attempt to gain diplomatic recognition from Papua New Guinea.
In a way one wonders why they bother with this sort of chequebook diplomacy.It must be obvious at this stage that any country that they would actually gain from having diplomatic relations with will not recognise them for fear of pissing China off. It's probably to do with national pride but that hardly comes from being political pals with the likes of Tuvalu and São Tomé and Príncipe.

ian said...

One thing with Taiwan is that it is an economic powerhouse, and might still do more trade with many countries than the PRC does, so they could still be in position to buy recognition from many fine countries. It is probably worth their while having at least some recognition, even if it is only from lolcountries.