Taiwan: Expandable?

June 25 2023_In today’s ongoing tensions between the U.S. and China over Taiwan, the world is living with the consequences of the fraught framework Nixon and Henry Kissinger agreed to over 50 years ago. The US president and his national security advisor clearly viewed Taiwan as expendable. In secret they made deals with the Chinese leadership concerning the future of millions of Taiwanese and their relationship with the PRC in the name of so called ‘political realism’.

Nixon and Kissinger were convinced that ‘playing the China card’ and the resulting normalization of ties with Beijing would give the US leverage in achieving détente with the Soviet Union and a face-saving withdrawal from Vietnam: to secure this leverage they made several pre-emptive concessions to Beijing, particularly on Taiwan, by agreeing that the US would shift its recognition from the Republic of China (ROC) to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As a consequence the ROC lost in 1972 its seat in the UN to the PRC as well as its related international recognition.

2 China’s

It was the US that liberated Taiwan as well as Korea from Japanese colonial rule and helped China end a prolonged military occupation. With the withdrawal of the Japanese, the supreme commander of the allied powers in the Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, immediately entrusted Taiwan’s post-war administration to Chiang Kai-shek’s government. Thus the ROC government began exercising jurisdiction over Taiwan from 1945.  

When the UN was created in 1945, the state of China was one of its original members, represented by the ROC government. In 1949 the ROC government under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek retreated with ~1.2 million people (representing less than 15% of the population of the island)  to Taiwan after the proclamation of the People’s Republic by Mao Zedong. Both the ROC and the PRC claimed to be the sole legitimate ruler of all of China including Taiwan, continuing their civil war in this way on the international stage. Chiang Kai-shek remained convinced his retreat would just be temporary, dreaming of a recapture of the whole mainland…

Japan’s renouncement of sovereignty over Taiwan was officially confirmed with the signing of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty. However, the treaty did not designate a specific country as the recipient of the renounced sovereignty.  De facto, however, there were  2 China’s after 1949, Taiwan under ‘the ROC  government in exile’ that had taken over the island and the PRC under Mao Zedong that controlled the mainland.

To the ‘realists’ Nixon and Kissinger Taiwan simply equaled Chiang Kai-shek’s government in exile. Furthermore, in their exchange with China Nixon and Kissinger mainly focused on the question who ruled the mainland.  But much of Beijing’s focus revolved around the other question, namely the future of Taiwan, a major priority for Mao Zedong. 

At a time when China was extremely weak following Mao’s Cultural Revolution as well as very afraid of a Russian nuclear attack, Nixon and Kissinger decided to placate Mao on Taiwan. The Americans pledged to the Chinese leadership that the US would not support independence for Taiwan. In the final Shanghai communique of 1972 the Americans even stated that the “US acknowledged that  all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but One China and that Taiwan is part of China”.   

However, the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese residents had not come to Taiwan during the KMT retreat, nor did they have any say in the communique or the One China question under the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek. As a matter of fact, starting from the early  ‘70’s a movement blossomed among these native Taiwanese to free themselves from Chiang’s dictatorial government: this movement wanted to emphasize a Taiwan-centered view of history and culture rather than one which was China-centered. In the end this would culminate in the formation of the DPP a year prior to the end of martial law, in 1986.


When the Dutch East India Company (VOC) arrived in Taiwan (‘Formosa’) in 1624, it found no evidence of any Ming imperial administrative structure, while before that time, it was only inhabited by native aboriginals of Polynesian descent,  estimated to be around 70,000 souls. Between 1624 and 1662 the VOC built the foundations for large-scale immigration of Han Chinese to Taiwan. In 1650, the number of Han Chinese had increased to 25,000.

During Qing rule (1683–1895), the population of Han Chinese in Taiwan grew rapidly from 100,000 to ~2.5 million, while the aboriginal population was estimated to be at least 200,000 by 1895. In this period, Taiwan was formally administered as part of the province of Fujian, but in reality it was a very wild, remote and open frontier. More than 100 armed revolts took place during those days. Taiwan was hardly ever under any direct imperial control. Only in 1887, the imperial court would grant the island full status as a province of China, but this did not last long.

For Taiwan, together with the Penghu Islands, became a dependency of Japan in 1895, when the Qing dynasty was forced to cede Fujian-Taiwan Province in the Treaty of Shimonoseki.  Interestingly, in the 1920-1930’s  Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the ROC in 1912,  and his successor Chiang Kai-shek as well as Mao equated Taiwan’s situation to colonized Korea and Vietnam, and expressed sympathy and support for the island’s independence movement from Japan.

Between 1928 and 1943 Communist Party leaders consistently recognized the Taiwanese as a distinct “nation” or “nationality” (minzu).  The CCP also acknowledged the “national liberation movement” on Japan-occupied Taiwan as the struggle of a “weak and small nationality” that was separate from the Chinese revolution and potentially sovereign. This was expressed most clearly by Chairman Mao Zedong in his 1937 interview with American journalist Edgar Snow, who quoted Mao as saying: “…we will extend them (the Koreans) our enthusiastic help in their struggle for independence. The same thing applies for Taiwan”

Self Determination

But those opinions changed rather abruptly in 1942-43. When the tides of World War II began to turn against the Japanese after the Battle of Midway, Chiang’s Nationalists argued that after the end of the war, Taiwan should be “returned” to the ROC.  Not to be outdone by their rivals, the CCP also reversed its position. Mao too now began to assert that Taiwan should become part of communist China.

Despite the fact that the majority of the population of Taiwan had no association with the ROC nor the CCP, the UN after WWII didn’t regard Taiwan as a Japanese colony ripe to be decolonized through self-determination. The descendants of those early Han immigrants and of the indigenous peoples instead were subjected to the repressive rule of the KMT after the latter’s retreat from the mainland. This forms the historical foundation for the ongoing rivalry between the KMT and the DPP in Taiwan to this day.

In 1972 Nixon and Kissinger were not interested in any discussion about the right of self determination for the Taiwanese population just like the KMT and the CCP had never been after WWII. Though the US made a conscious choice to accommodate the PRC with its One China policy, it did not change the reality that the ROC still governed Taiwan. The West never accepted the PRC’s One China principle in which it claimed sovereignty over Taiwan.

Undoubtedly Kissinger must have believed that the Taiwan problem would just gradually fade away, with ‘peaceful  evolution’ uniting China and its ‘wayward province’. For him it must have been hard to fathom that the Taiwanese people would ever yearn to be freed from the KMT dictatorship. In return for America’s compromises, the real-politikers just expected the PRC to abide by its promise to resolve the Taiwan issue peacefully.     

These realists also underestimated China’s ability to  play ‘the US card’ to provide leverage with Moscow, which in the early ‘70’s was considered the most urgent, short term threat by Beijing. But the rapprochement to the US didn’t mean that the CCP had given up on the notion that America posed a long term, hegemonic threat to the  PRC’s security plus a formidable ideological foe. Yet Beijing concluded that the PRC could counter this danger better by drawing America in close.

The PRC leadership correctly perceived that the US’ focus to prevent an expansion of Soviet power would provide China an opportunity to rebuild its economy, society and military in the lee, while Washington and Moscow would be waging their battles. In other words, the Chinese calculated they could use the Americans just as they had used the Soviets, extracting military and economic help from one major rival in the name of countering the other.

The rapprochement accomplished the part of its geostrategic purpose that favored Beijing by keeping Moscow at bay vis a vis China, but it did little to immediately mitigate the Soviet global threat against the West. Moreover, Beijing quickly backed down on its promise to help the US manage an honorable withdrawal from Vietnam. It had pocketed the US concessions on Taiwan, nevertheless.

 Taiwan Relations Act

The Shanghai  Communiqué of 1972 thus laid the groundwork for the weakening of Taiwan’s position by formalizing the “One-China” concept. 

The U.S. gradually withdrew all troops and military installations from the island and the US president ordered the withdrawal of all nuclear weapons.  In 1979 the US recognized the PRC and established diplomatic relations with it as the sole legitimate government of China. Other Western governments had already done the same years earlier.  

Fortunately for the people of Taiwan  the American Congress quickly passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) which restored almost all the attributes of statehood to Taiwan in its relations with Washington and committed the US to a permanent interest in Taiwan’s security through the sale of defensive weapons.

The ROC relinquished its claim to be the sole legitimate ruler of all of China in 1991. In effect, Taiwan declared peace, abandoning its stated policy of unification through force, and aligned its policy with geopolitical realities. Chiang Kai-shek’s dream of reconquering the mainland was officially buried. Beijing also pocketed these Taiwanese concessions as it had done with the American concessions in 1972, without making any substantial concessions of its own.

Via the so called ‘Consensus Agreement’, the KMT government and Beijing are believed to have just agreed to disagree on the exact meaning of ‘One China’, while keeping the One China concept and the related ambiguity surrounding the real status of the island alive. Beijing made adherence to this Consensus Agreement a pre-condition for positive cross-Strait relations and more economic cooperation. But the CCP not much later began to make claims that the reached consensus in fact equaled Beijing’s One China principle, in which Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. This 1992 “Consensus”, which is meanwhile heavily disputed in Taiwan itself, is a symbolic last vestige of the island’s one-party dictatorship, when Taiwan still wasn’t a full democracy.   

Chinese intimidation campaign

By the mid 1990’s PRC started its campaign to coerce the Taiwanese into accepting unification with China on Beijing’s terms in a time when the PRC still enjoyed very friendly relations with the West. After the first direct presidential elections on the island in 1996 during which Lee Teng-hui, leader of the KMT,  was chosen as the first Taiwanese born President, the PRC conducted a series of missile tests in the waters immediately surrounding the island, while engaging in all kinds of other military maneuvers.

This Chinese behavior should have served as another warning to the West about the intrinsic aggressive nature of the CCP in case the violent crushing of the student demonstrations in 1989 had not made that  already sufficiently clear: the Party feared that free elections in Taiwan would discredit the CCP’s core belief that democracy is unsuitable for the Chinese. Moreover, the existence of a legitimate, constitutional government actually ruling Taiwan completely undermined the CCP’s claim to speak for all Chinese people.

The Chinese intimidation campaign failed to stop the appeal and growth of the DPP in Taiwan. But after China’s entry into the WTO big business took over from politics: the PRC’s intimidation of the island seemed to become accepted as a fact of life by Taiwanese and Western politicians and business people. Above all everybody wanted to grab a share of the vast and rapidly expanding Chinese market. Many were convinced more economic ties and interdependency with China would ensure responsible behavior in Beijing and eventually result in political reform.

Obviously the CCP expected that by offering the market bait, it would get more and better leverage over Taiwanese entrepreneurs to ensure their support for unification with the mainland. By tying Taiwan economically to the PRC, it would become increasingly difficult for the island to ever separate.  


However, another ominous Chinese sign was the adoption of a law in 2005 which, while insisting on a peaceful reunification of China, allowed for the use of force if Taiwan’s ‘independence forces’ would accomplish the separation from China, if a major event would lead to a separation of Taiwan from China or if all possibilities for a peaceful reunification would be lost. Naturally, it would only be up to Beijing  to judge and decide if those possibilities for peaceful reunification should be considered beyond hope.

The highly esteemed strategic thinker, consultant and politician turned celebrity Kissinger shrug off the Tiananmen slaughter and the 2005 law. Deng had simply acted as any world leader would when confronted with such a massive public gathering in June 1989, he said. And in 2011 he admonished Taiwan to move forward in submitting to Chinese communist rule because “China will not wait forever.” Tellingly, Kissinger has all his life avoided visiting Taiwan despite his scores of shuttle trips to China, where each time he has been received as an ‘old-friend’.

His former boss Nixon, the defamed President, did have second thoughts towards the end of his life about the deal he struck with China. “We may have created a Frankenstein  (mistaking the monster for its creator) by opening the world to the Chinese Communist Party”, he is recorded to have said. Taiwan’s democratization process greatly impressed Nixon, who in 1994 stated that China and Taiwan “are permanently separated politically.”


Fast forward to 2023. Xi Jinping clearly sees the US as his major foe and systemic rival. The president for life has been preparing his people for a long struggle with the West since his rise to power in 2012. He has also intensified the intimidation, coercion and aggression campaign towards Taiwan, especially after the DPP’s leader Tsai-Ing wen was elected in 2016 (and re-elected in 2020) as president. Xi considers her ‘a separatist’ because the DPP does not recognize the 1992 Consensus Agreement and calls Taiwan a sovereign entity.

The difference with 1972 is that Xi can rely on a modernized army and a much stronger global economic and political influence than Mao, not in the least owing to a staggering amount of investment as well as transfer of economic, scientific and military know-how by the West that helped his country develop. As China’s strength and confidence have continued to increase, especially over the last decade, Beijing has become less willing to allow for any ambiguity regarding Taiwan. Beijing will use any excuse to blame anybody but itself for the rising tensions. Under Xi China has completely militarized the South China Sea and intensified worldwide its long running campaign of intimidation, coercion and disinformation regarding the Taiwan issue. Xi has been relentlessly pushing the One China principle globally.

Though China has benefitted enormously from the entrance into the WTO, Xi nonetheless has decided to embark on a road of selective economic engagement with the West and a high degree of self sufficiency. It has also fostered close ties with Russia. While Beijing has so far held back from providing lethal aid to Moscow, the forms of (economic) support it provides as part of the ‘Sino-Russian partnership without limits’ have positioned China as one of the chief enablers of the war in Ukraine. It has declared neutrality, supported Putin and so far paid no price, whereas Russia has changed from a threat into a docile neighbor for the PRC. Mao would probably have been proud, though Xi’s bet on Putin could still end very badly. Yet even a Russian defeat in the war is more likely to deepen Xi’s strategic mistrust of the US rather than lead to greater diplomatic or economic accommodation with the West.

Xi Jinping

The PRC is daily threathening Taiwan and refuses to negotiate with the DPP government about the Taiwan issue.  It tries to wear down Taiwan’s resilience, sabotage DPP rule, and convince the Taiwanese electorate to follow leaders who will give in to China’s demands. Xi has created an environment of fear, trying to coerce foreign politicians and entrepreneurs into curtailing their relations with Taiwan, and to succumb to the CCP’s One China principle. He aims for an increasingly isolated Taipei that will eventually be forced to give up its sovereignty without the PRC even having to wage war. This approach initiated by Mao in 1972 is now being pushed to the max by his big admirer, Xi Jinping, who is hoping that the fear he is spreading will already be enough to deliver the results he wants.  

Sticking to his one China principle, Xi keeps on rehashing China’s long-standing proposal for Taiwan, first promoted by Deng Xiaoping: that it be incorporated into the mainland under the formula of “one country, two systems.”  This was the formula used for Hong Kong in 1997 and supposed to preserve its political and economic systems and grant a  high degree of autonomy up to at least 2047. Xi killed the last few remnants of hope about this never very popular formula among the Taiwanese by his de facto annexation of Hong Kong in July 2020.

Strikingly this annexation was largely left unnoticed and unanswered by the West.  It must have strengthened Xi in his beliefs that he can achieve the same result with Taiwan with his campaign of coercion and compellence. If not, the 2005 law still leaves him the violent option.

Despite the appeasement of the West towards China since 1972, the PRC has never really seriously abided by its promise of peacefully resolving its differences with Taiwan.

The Taiwanese continue to pay the price for the ‘real-politik’ of folks like Nixon and Kissinger,  the delusions of Chiang Kai-shek, the implacability of a merciless CCP leadership and the disinterest of a big part of the world.

In 1972, leaders in Beijing, Washington or Taipei did not anticipate the transformation of tiny Taiwan from a one-party state to a flourishing multiparty democracy and a leading high-tech nation, a global powerhouse in semiconductors. Today we should at least know and understand that trading Taiwan’s interests for better relations with Communist China is not the wisest exercise of realpolitik.  

Europe and Taiwan

The question is if all American and European politicians and business people have learned that lesson. Mijngroeve.nl fears there are still many who think Taiwan is expandable or who consider the Taiwan question as purely a Cold War left-over between the PRC and the US. Or who are willing to sacrifice Taiwan just for the sake of continuing business with the PRC. Who are not hesitating to act as a kind of spokesperson for the CCP to retain their market share.    

Taiwan still faces serious challenges while engaging with Europe. On trade, the European Commission has been reluctant to begin negotiations for a bilateral investment agreement with the island, again purely out of concern about retaliation from Beijing. “Europe cannot ignore Taiwan’s desire for better relations if EU countries such as Germany are keen to acquire advanced microchip-making technologies from the island”,  Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu recently stressed.

The official position of the Dutch government, and of the EU, is that the Taiwan issue should be resolved peacefully, taking into account the wishes of the Taiwanese people.  The efforts of the Netherlands and the EU are aimed at “preserving the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. All parties are requested to refrain from unilateral actions, intimidation or violence aimed at changing the status quo.”

The problem is that the circumstances are very different from 1972, when China was in disarray and Taiwan ruled by one party. The stakes and risks have become much higher, not just for Beijing and Taipei, but for the whole region and the world. The  European public’s preference of ‘staying neutral’ in the event of a U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan is self deceiving and not much more than wishful thinking.

The biggest headache is that Xi wants to go down in history as the leader who united Taiwan with ‘the motherland’, either peacefully or by force. Few in today’s Taiwan want unification with Beijing and few are willing to embrace the risk of attack that declaring independence might bring. The US and the EU should make  a much more concerted effort to call on Xi to return to the negotiating table and not escalate his disagreements with  Taiwan’s government through coercion and diplomatic pressure. As a matter of principle, the West should repeat to the Chinese leadership that Beijing does not get to choose which elected leaders of the ROC it deals with.     

While the EU and The Hague have abided by their promises not to unilaterally confer diplomatic recognition on the ROC, they never agreed to limit Taiwan’s international political and economic identity. The Hague and Brussels can push for Taiwan’s participation in any international organization for which statehood is not a requirement.  This would make the island less expandable, also for the global south.

‘Playing the China card’ has in the end not provided the US and the West the desired leverage versus Russia because Xi – just like his predecessors Mao and Deng Xiaoping- continues to view the US as essentially a hegemonic power and to  treat democracy as a substantial threat to the survival of the CCP.  There is no longer any need for appeasement towards Beijing and certainly no need to play the China card with the CCP leadership at the cost of the 23 million people of Taiwan.

In a time in which Western governments repeatedly proclaim that democracy and human rights will take a prominent role in their foreign policies and in their relationship with the PRC, obviously the only correct conclusion should be that the renounced sovereignty over Taiwan of 1951 has de facto already fallen into the hands of the Taiwanese, morally as well as legally, according to UN self-determination, as the island nation has been able to built a vibrant, modern and democratic society,  despite decades of bullying by its  big neighbor. Unfortunately Taiwan’s international status can’t really be called a matter of fairness, though that surely won’t bother the CCP.

That’s another reason why the island deserves our attention, sympathy and support.

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