Taiwan is a disputed territory in the South China Sea. Whilst Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, functions as an independent nation state with its own government, the People’s Republic of China considers it a renegade province rightfully theirs. Given Beijing’s greater strength and international clout, few countries recognise Taiwanese statehood. It is the world’s most populated non-UN member state.
Formerly known as Formosa, Taiwan is the ancestral homeland of the Austronesian people, a linguistic family which today dominates Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Polynesia and Madagascar. It is a land of fertile valleys, tropical jungles, dramatic elevation and picturesque mountains.
Starting with the Dutch and the Spanish in the 1620s, Taiwan witnessed a series of foreign rulers. In 1662 Koxinga, a Ming Dynasty loyalist, conquered the Dutch colonies and established the island’s first Chinese state. Twenty years later Koxinga’s kingdom acquiesced to the Qing, China’s new rulers. Slowly but surely, Han Chinese immigrants replaced the aboriginal tribes, who retreated to the island’s mountainous interior. Comparable to the displaced natives of Australia or the USA, today aborigines make only 2.3% of Taiwan’s population.
The Japanese ruled Taiwan from 1895 – 1945. They aggressively subdued the remaining aboriginal tribes and industrialised the island. Japanese rule was harsh and resented by Han Taiwanese and aborigines alike. Taiwan returned to China after WW2.
The new rulers were the Kuomintang, or Chinese Nationalist Party, who had overthrown the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and established the Republic of China (ROC). The ROC was plagued by unrest, however, and their hold on China tenuous. After the Japanese defeat in 1945 civil war resumed with Mao Zedong’s Communists. Despite American financial support the Nationalists, under generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek, lost the war. In 1949 the ROC’s leadership and two million nationalists fled to Taiwan.
Like Koxinga before him, Chiang dreamed of one day retaking the mainland. Taipei was established as the ROC’s ‘war time capital’ and a Chinese identity asserted over a Taiwanese one. Mao would have invaded Taiwan too was it not for US president Harry Truman who, in the context of the Korean War, signed a mutual defence pact with Taipei. Thus two rival governments prevailed, the communist Peoples Republic of China in the mainland, the nationalist Republic of China in Taiwan.
The Kuomintang ruled Taiwan as a dictatorship under martial law until 1987. Despite brutal suppression of dissent, during the 1960s and 70s the Taiwanese free market economy boomed, ranking it one of ‘Four Asian Tigers’ alongside Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea. It became a global manufacturing hub.
Taiwan democratised in 1992 . Politics today are dominated by the ‘Green’ and ‘Blue’ coalitions. Blue parties, like the Kuomintang, emphasise the Republic of China and maintaining the status quo while Green ones assert a distinct Taiwanese identity and seek formal independence from China. This would, however, mean war. Beijing operates on the ‘One China Policy’ and denies Taiwan the right to secession. The incumbent Tsai Ing-Wen of the Democratic People’s Party, is of the Green.
As both Beijing and Taipei claim to be China’s sole legitimate government, other nations can only recognise one or the other. The ROC held the Chinese seat on the United Nations until 1971, when President Nixon opened diplomatic relations with Beijing. Today only 19 governments, mainly poorer nations in Central America and the Pacific, recognise the Republic of China. Beijing is steadily isolating Taiwan diplomatically by buying off its allies. On April 30th 2018 the Dominican Republic switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing in exchange for 3.1 billion dollars in aid, with Burkina Faso following suit on May 24th. Beijing is currently enticing Haiti and Swaziland to do the same.
Now only the following 19 nations recognise Taiwan, most of which are too small to be shown:
- El Salvador
- Marshal Islands
- Saint Kitts and Nevis
- Saint Lucia
- Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
- Solomon Islands
- Vatican City
Annexation of Taiwan by the Peoples Republic would be a critical blow to democracy. Today Taiwan is a proudly democratic and progressive state, which allows freedom of thought, expression and speech unknown in mainland China. As of June 2018 Taiwan, Singapore, Burma and Nepal are the only countries in Asia ruled by females and Taiwan is the only state on the continent to recognise same sex marriage. Whilst the People’s Republic flag in Taiwan might raise a few eyebrows, flying the ROC banner in the mainland would likely put you in jail.
Update 22/08/18: El Salvador has broken ties with Taiwan, and now recognises the People’s Republic of China instead. It is the third country to do so this year.