Taiwan’s History Shows Why We Need a Global Democratic Order

Taiwan has been subject to the machinations of great powers for much of its history. A better international order would ensure that all nations, big and small, have an equal voice in the global arena.

Chiang Kai-shek and his wife walk past government officials, military leaders, and servicemen in Taipei, Taiwan, after attending the rally marking the 60th anniversary of the Republic of China. (Getty Images)

Taiwan. The Republic of China. Chinese Taipei. Taiwan, Province of China. Formosa. All of these names refer more or less to the same place, though that’s not immediately obvious. What gives? Why is Taiwan only sometimes known as “Taiwan”?

Taiwan’s international status, or lack thereof, traces back to its occupation under the Chinese Nationalist government, and to a decades-long international political conflict that played out in the United Nations and in private agreements among great powers.

Taiwan Before “Taiwan”

Beginning in the seventeenth century, Taiwan was often a part of larger empires. European empires, like the Dutch and Spanish, briefly claimed and administered parts of the island, taking lands from Indigenous Taiwanese and encouraging migration of Chinese laborers to the island. Under the Qing, the last of China’s imperial dynasties, Taiwan was administered as a frontier territory — first a prefecture, then a province. In 1895, the Japanese took control of the island as a prize of the First Sino-Japanese War. Japan sought to turn Taiwan into a model colony for the rest of its empire, while ascribing second-class status to Taiwanese citizens. For a few months before the Japanese secured control of Taiwan, there was a short-lived “Republic of Formosa” (borrowing the name given to Taiwan by Portuguese sailors, who called it Ihla Formosa or “beautiful island”) declared by remnant Qing officials who resisted the handover of Taiwan to Japan. Aside from those few months in 1895, Taiwan was in effect a colonial holding.

This began to change with World War II. Taiwan’s current international conundrum finds its roots in the diplomatic dealings and transformations that upended the international order during this period. During the war, the Allies laid the groundwork for a postwar international order should they achieve victory over the Axis powers. At the 1943 Cairo Conference, Allied leaders promised Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Republic of China, possession of Taiwan. Chiang was the autocratic ruler of China and head of the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT; pinyin: Guomindang), which had nominally unified China under the Republic of China government based out of Nanjing. In addition to being a Chinese Nationalist (upper case), he was a (lower case) nationalist. Chiang saw Taiwan as a Chinese territory that was forcefully taken by Japan from a weak Qing empire and that was rightfully a part of the Republic of China.

After their victory, the Allies forced Japan to relinquish its claims over Taiwan, which was then occupied by the Republic of China (ROC) in 1945. It is debatable whether this legally transferred control of Taiwan to the ROC, since the Treaty of San Francisco does not include China as a signatory. There is an argument to be made that, from the perspective of international law, Taiwan was never formally handed over, leaving its status undetermined. Still, international law has no ultimate court or arbiter, and more often than not power, not law, is what matters in the international system. Because the ROC put boots on the ground, Taiwan was in effect ROC territory from 1945 onward, a claim backed by the Chinese military presence above all.

In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party defeated the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War and established a new state, the People’s Republic of China. Chiang Kai-shek retreated with remnants of the Nationalist government and one million soldiers to Taiwan, reestablishing a government based in Taipei. Yet, even though Chiang was defeated in war, he and the ROC government continued to claim sovereignty over all of China, including the vast majority of the mainland that was controlled by the new Communist regime. In Chiang’s political rhetoric, the “Maoist bandits” (maofei) were usurpers and would be driven out when Chiang’s forces launched their inevitable counterattack.

On the ground, this political imaginary translated into a governmental structure that treated the ROC as if nothing had changed in 1949. The Kuomintang ruled Taiwan as if it were merely one province in a larger nation. In the National Assembly, a parliamentary body supposed to represent all counties of China, representatives elected in 1947 continued to serve in Taiwan for over four decades until democratization. By the time constitutional reform allowed for a new round of elections in 1991, many of its representatives were octogenarians who had not seen their homes in China in decades, much less represented their political interests. Maps published during this period continued to color all the provinces of China as if it still belonged to the ROC. This even applied to Mongolia, which the ROC claimed as a province by virtue of it having been a territory of the Qing empire.

The ROC claiming sovereignty over all of China was part of its efforts to maintain an imagined “geobody,” to borrow from geographer Thongchai Winichakul. After 1949, the ROC only ruled Taiwan and a few small islands around the shores of mainland China and in the Taiwan Strait, such as Kinmen, Matsu, and Pescadores (Penghu). In reality, from 1949 onward, the ROC and Taiwan, geographically speaking, were one and the same.

The “One True China”

In diplomatic matters, Chiang Kai-shek was also adamant that the ROC was the only legitimate government representing China. Controlling just a fraction of what the ROC claimed as theirs, Chiang needed the support of the international community in order to ensure his government’s continued existence. Thus, he insisted that other countries recognize the ROC and not the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the rightful “China.”

Early on, several countries immediately recognized the newly founded PRC. But most followed the lead of Western nations, and in particular the United States. As the Cold War began to heat up, the Korean War was a watershed moment. Convinced that preventing the spread of communism in Asia was vital to the interests of the United States, US policymakers recognized the Republic of China (on Taiwan) as a natural ally in the global battle against communism. The United States, for much of the Cold War, encouraged its other allies to continue recognizing the ROC as the only Chinese government, thus isolating the PRC internationally. For several decades, there was only one China — for most countries in the world, it was the Republic of China on Taiwan.

“One China”: Not “Two Chinas,” Not “One China, One Taiwan”

Cracks began to emerge in this façade by the 1960s. A global wave of decolonization from the dismantling of European empires led to the emergence of newly independent nation-states in Africa and Asia. These new states carried votes in the United Nations (UN), the body that emerged in the postwar era as a de facto forum for the resolution of international disputes.

Since the 1960s, the PRC — through its ally, Albania — lobbied the UN to replace the ROC with the PRC. For decades, with opposition behind the scenes from the United States, Albanian-introduced resolutions on this issue failed to garner the two-thirds majority required for decisions on a nation’s membership in the UN. Yet, by the late 1960s, the votes were steadily rising in Beijing’s favor. More and more nations, especially those in the Global South, saw that Beijing governed hundreds of millions, compared to tens of millions governed by the ROC in Taiwan, and recognized that omission as a problem.

In 1971, when it became clear that UN Resolution 2758 replacing the ROC with the PRC would pass with a two-thirds majority of the UN General Assembly, the United States presented Chiang with several options. Two alternatives were raised: a “Two China” solution that would allow the ROC and PRC to coexist in the UN, or a “One China, One Taiwan” solution that would allow the ROC to exist internationally as Taiwan. Chiang, ever the nationalist, summarily rejected both alternatives. There could only be one China, and that was the Republic of China. So the ROC left the UN, and as a result became increasingly marginalized in the international community.

The same year, Henry Kissinger’s secret negotiations with PRC premier Zhou Enlai, followed by President Richard Nixon’s famous visit to Beijing in 1972, set off the next phase in Taiwan’s international status. Whereas the ROC’s ouster from the UN signaled the beginning of Taiwan’s exclusion from the international system, the ROC still had the backing of a global superpower in the United States. Kissinger and Nixon changed that.

The 1972 joint US-China Shanghai Communiqué signaled a new US policy acknowledging that there is only “One China.” Naturally, both the PRC and ROC believed that they were that China, and the other was illegitimate. But the Joint Communiqué framing acquiesced to Beijing’s preferred language regarding Taiwan, choosing to acknowledge the “One China” position and “not challenge” it. Kissinger and Nixon were concerned more with achieving a breakthrough in US foreign policy vis-à-vis China and the Soviet Union, and “rarely reflected on Taiwan at all.”

US president Richard Nixon greeted by Chinese premier Zhou Enlai upon his arrival in Beijing, China, in February 1972. (Wikimedia Commons)

As early as 1959, when the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations began exploring a solution to the “China problem,” they discussed having the ROC “re-recognized as the Republic of Taiwan,” in effect a “One China, One Taiwan” solution. By accepting a “One China” solution, Kissinger and Nixon closed off paths to having both the ROC and PRC be internationally recognized. Most consequentially, Nixon and Kissinger ensured that the possibility of Taiwan, recognized as such (and not as the ROC), was also closed off, as both Beijing and Taipei continued to insist Taiwan was a part of “China.”

In January 1979, Jimmy Carter finished what Nixon started by switching official diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China. With the United States throwing in the towel, most nations, if they hadn’t already, also switched recognition to Beijing. The PRC’s opening and reform swung open the gates of China’s formerly socialist economy and its billion plus prospective consumers and low-wage laborers to foreign exporters and investors. The ROC struggled to compete with this massive economic enticement and began to lose diplomatic support.

International Organizations Take Up One China

As the consequences of UN Resolution 2758 reverberated across the international system, international organizations began to adjust to a world where the Republic of China would be erased from official registers. Canada had formally recognized the PRC in 1970. When Canada hosted the Summer Olympics in 1976, they accepted an Olympic delegation from Beijing, which had previously been excluded from the Olympics. The ROC objected, claiming that there was only one China, and that was Taipei.

Montreal’s proposed compromise, allowing the ROC to compete as “Taiwan-ROC,” angered both Beijing, which saw the continued reference to “ROC” as in essence a “Two China” statement, and the KMT regime in Taipei, which wanted to compete under the name “Republic of China,” not “Taiwan.” In the end, the ROC withdrew from the 1976 Olympics entirely. The issue persisted throughout the 1970s, until the 1981 compromise negotiated between Taiwanese representatives and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) resulted in Taiwan competing under the name “Chinese Taipei,” a newly invented term designed not to offend Beijing’s sensitivities around the “One China” issue. In other arenas, like the International Organization for Standardization, Taiwan is listed as “Taiwan, Province of China” — again in deference to PRC sensitivities.

Over time, much of the world realized that the ROC’s imagined control of all of China was just that, imagined. As a result, Beijing has become less adamant about asserting its claim to be China’s rightful government, a question which seemed to be a relic of the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, it has become more insistent about asserting that Taiwan is a part of China, which has increasingly become the key issue with respect to Taiwan’s status.

In part this was due to democratization during the 1980s and 1990s in Taiwan. As democratic activists challenged the authoritarian rule of the KMT, Taiwanese intellectuals and students also began to assert that KMT rule had imposed not just a regime of political repression and terror, but also a foreign, colonial program of Sinicization. “Nativist” literature and political movements swept through Taiwan after democratization, and today most Taiwanese citizens identify as “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese.” Expressed in nationalistic terms, younger Taiwanese no longer identify with the imagined community of a “Republic of China.” Many among the older generation, who grew up under authoritarian KMT education, might identify as both Chinese and Taiwanese. But overwhelmingly, young Taiwanese identify with Taiwan and only Taiwan.

For Beijing, enforcing their vision of “One China” today is no longer about a diplomatic battle against a rival regime, but rather about repressing the popular will of the Taiwanese people. Ironically, present-day PRC interests have aligned with historical KMT interests. Whereas in the past, it was Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT elite that would not stand for any notion of a separate Taiwanese identity under the ROC, today it is Beijing that feels threatened by that same Taiwanese identity.

An Equal International Order?

When the United Nations was founded during World War II, its architects claimed to imagine an international system where individual nations, big or small, would have an equal voice in matters of global governance. Yet Taiwan, today an island of twenty-three million with its own democratically elected government and military, has no representation in the UN, which also excludes it from a number of international organizations like the World Health Organization, International Monetary Fund, and International Civil Aviation Organization.

This places Taiwan in an unusual category of territories that have all the markings of a nation-state — exclusive power within a defined territory, self-elected government, laws and ability to enforce those laws, and a predominant national identity. What it lacks is external recognition of its sovereignty. It arrived at this situation because of a series of political events driven by a long-dead dictator and an authoritarian regime that was dismantled decades ago during democratization, and by the irredentist claims of a rising global power in Beijing.

Whether this will change in the future is largely dependent upon the international community, and its willingness to make changes to an international system that benefits great states at the expense of the small.