Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 2

Three months ago, in November of last year, Hu Jintao was anointed leader of the People’s Republic of China. Until recently, leaders of China were emperors, the last of whom abdicated in 1912. Hu Jintao, like his communist predecessors who succeeded the emperors, resembles an emperor far more than he does a democrat. And, like some other emperors, in one important respect–in his claim that Taiwan is a rogue province of China and that any action by any country that even implicitly suggests that Taiwan is not part of China is provocative interference in China’s domestic affairs–he has no clothes.

In 1979 U.S. President Jimmy Carter withdrew his country’s recognition of the Republic of China, the government that in 1912 succeeded the imperial court on the Chinese mainland, was defeated by the communists in 1949 and established a government in exile on Taiwan the same year. Carter basically assumed that Taiwan’s noncommunist but authoritarian government would accommodate to some degree a “one country, two systems” arrangement with the mainland.

Carter was not the only leader to make that assumption. Other countries, both before and after him, switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing, leaving Taiwan recognized today by only twenty-four nations. Additionally, owing to China’s opposition and veto power, Taiwan is not a member of the UN, despite the fact that it has the seventeenth largest GNP in the world and chooses its chief executive and legislature in full and fair multiparty elections.

What happened to the Carter vision? It failed to take into account the will of Taiwan’s public, more than 80 percent of whose ancestors migrated to Taiwan from China about the time English, French and Spanish settlers were coming to North America. In contrast to the 20 percent or less who either came from the mainland with Chiang Kai-shek or are their descendants, the majority of “native Taiwanese”–that is, the aborigines who came to the islands before any Western or Chinese exploration, the Chinese immigrants who intermarried with them in the 1600s and 1700s and their progeny–were considered barbarians by most Chinese Imperial courts. When Japan defeated China in 1895 and asked for a port on the mainland, the Chinese refused and instead offered Taiwan in perpetuity, a fact Chiang Kai-shek misrepresented at the 1943 Cairo Conference when he asked for return of all Chinese territories Japan “stole” including Taiwan.

In 1945 Japan surrendered Taiwan to the United States. Taiwan’s status was left unresolved, a legal limbo that remains today. Even though Japan administered Taiwan severely, most Taiwanese credit Tokyo with helping to build the infrastructure that has made Taiwan the economic success it is today. Chiang Kai-shek’s rule of Taiwan before and after 1949 was more brutal than Japan’s. Few Taiwanese have anything but disdain for Chiang’s regime.

Communism, of course, was not what either Chiang Kai-shek or the majority of Taiwanese wanted, but for different reasons. Chiang and his Kuomintang (KMT) Party wanted to return to the Chinese mainland and re-establish a noncommunist government, but democracy was not high on their priority list. The Taiwanese wanted only to live freely and prosper on their home island. Chiang’s son and successor Chiang Ching-kuo did permit a degree of democratization in Taiwan and, though his motivation is unclear, allowed a native Taiwanese, Lee Teng-hui, to become his vice president. When Chiang Ching-kuo died, Lee succeeded to the presidency and began a peaceful revolution.

Under Lee Taiwan’s constitution was modified to acknowledge that the government of the Republic of China administered only Taiwan and a few small islands; legislators representing mainland provinces of China were retired; and, most dramatic of all, multiparty free elections–including a system for direct election of the president by the people–were authorized. China does not recognize democracy as a Chinese value and was so threatened by the prospect of seeing democracy work among Chinese people that it fired missiles into Taiwanese territorial waters during the run-up to the first truly democratic presidential election in 1996. The United States responded by dispatching two aircraft carriers to the region and a fair election, which Lee Teng-hui won, proceeded smoothly.

Taiwan’s democracy, along with its economic performance, are extraordinarily impressive to all but the PRC leadership, which maintains its straw man that Taiwan is a renegade province and tries to intimidate anyone or any country that argues otherwise.

Even were Taiwan not democratic, it would still be strategically critical. It sits astride the major sea lanes from the Indian Ocean to the Northwest Pacific. China, were it to control Taiwan, would be able to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake, even with a naval force inferior to Washington’s and Tokyo’s. Concern about a communist hegemon’s control of such an important strategic location is the major reason why President Truman ordered the U.S. Seventh Fleet to prevent a communist invasion of Taiwan in 1950. It is why the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) in 1979 when President Carter unilaterally withdrew recognition from Taipei. It is why Congress, by huge and bipartisan majorities, reaffirmed the TRA immediately after President Clinton visited China for nine days in 1998 and made a statement compromising Taiwan’s security against U.S. national interests.

Taiwan, which has never been a part of the People’s Republic of China, is engaging in provocative activity only if building democracy is provocative. As American China/Taiwan experts John Tkacik and Arthur Waldron wrote in the Asian Wall Street Journal on September 19, 2002, “By international standards, today (Taiwan’s) government has a far more legitimate claim to Taiwan than the government of the People’s Republic of China, which has avoided the remotest approaches to freedom and democracy, does to China itself.”

China also labels the U.S.-Japan security alliance that keeps the Pacific Ocean area including Taiwan peaceful and prosperous as provocative. Although some Americans do think it is too dangerous to formally recognize Taiwan as independent, an idea China labels as–surprise, surprise–“provocative,” they should at least not parrot the ridiculous Chinese charge that Taiwan is a rogue province of China and should, more positively, acknowledge that Taiwanese democracy is not provocative but laudatory. In the words of Secretary of State Colin Powell, Taiwan is not a problem, it is a “success story.” General Powell is correct and the Taiwanese deserve to know that Americans appreciate Taiwan’s democratic achievements, achievements accomplished by former Chinese immigrants to Taiwan despite formidable odds, something akin to the odds against some European immigrants to North America before and after 1776.

Holmes Liao is a director of the Taiwan Strategic Research Institute. James E. Auer is director of the U.S.-Japan Center at Vanderbilt University.