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  • Writer's pictureStuart Jeffery

ANALYSIS: Why Taiwan? Civil War, Cold War and Democracy

All eyes are on China to see how they'll react amid Nancy Pelosi's visit.

As Taiwan prepares to receive a potential visit from the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, all eyes are on the region, to see how the People’s Republic of China will react. China has already imposed more bans on Taiwanese imports and ramped up its propaganda. As tensions mount, with Pelosi to be the highest-ranking US government official to step foot in Taiwan in decades, the world waits to see what else China is will do. But why is China hostile towards Taiwan in the first place?

To answer this question, we must look back to the early decades of the 20th century. Although the Republic of China was established in 1912, following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, it remained a nation divided among various local warlords. In August 1927, just two months after nominal national unity was established, the Chinese Civil War broke out between the Republic of China (ROC), under the control of the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalists, and the Chinese Communist Party. This would last for a decade before Japan’s invasion in 1937, which forced an uneasy truce.

By this time, Mao Zedong had established himself as the leader of the Communists, while Chiang Kai-Shek effectively controlled the Nationalist government, despite the nominal rule of Chairman Lin Sen. By the end of World War II, Chiang had established himself as Chairman, Premier, and head of the military.

When the civil war resumed, the increasingly-popular Communists, armed with captured Japanese weapons funneled to them by the Soviet Union, managed to kick the Nationalists off the mainland by the end of 1949. Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on 1 October 1949, while the Nationalists, still under Chiang, fled to Taiwan. Without a strong navy, the PRC could not finish them off.

Until the 1970s, the non-communist world recognised the ROC government on Taiwan as China. The ROC, not PRC, held the Chinese seat on the United Nations Security Council. But in 1966, the Sino-Soviet Split between the USSR and PRC separated the communist world in two. With the USSR, not the PRC, being the main supporter of North Vietnam, the West could now improve relations with the PRC. Although it took a couple of years for the West to realise this opportunity, by the end of the 1970s, most major Western nations recognised the PRC, not the ROC, and France, the USA, UK, and USSR agreed that the PRC should take the ROC’s spot on the Security Council.

A consequence of recognising the PRC was the creation of the ‘One China Policy.’ The PRC, now simply ‘China,’ was recognised as the legitimate ruler of Taiwan. If other countries wanted to benefit from trading with China, they had to make that concession. And as China’s economic influence grew after Mao’s death in 1976, the incentive for trade increased.

In July 1971, Gough Whitlam flew to Beijing to meet with members of the Chinese government. With the association between communists and the Australian Labor Party from the 1950s still in Australians’ minds, many criticised Whitlam for this. However, just days later, Henry Kissinger, the US National Security Advisor to Richard Nixon, faked being sick while traveling to Pakistan, and used that time to talk to the Chinese government. He returned in October, and then Nixon himself visited in 1972. These events greatly improved Labor’s image in Australia, and Whitlam’s electoral victory in 1972 is often attributed, in part, to this.

Chiang Kai-Shek died in 1975, one year before Mao. His regime was renowned for its oppression and undemocratic nature, with martial law imposed from 1949 until after his death. But, like post-Mao China, the death of Taiwan’s wartime leader allowed for some political reform; however, the reform went much further in Taiwan. In 1986, Chiang Ching-Kuo, who had succeeded his father as president, allowed the Democratic Progressive Party to form as an opposition party to the KMT, although they ran in elections as independents, meaning that Taiwan was no longer a one-party state. One year later, he ended martial law, and when he died in 1988 he ensured that his successor would not be a member of his family. His Vice-President and successor, Lee Teng-hui, held the first proper, multi-party elections in 1996.

However, there is now a growing call to recognise Taiwan and abandon the One China policy. There are many reasons for this.

China is currently trying to expand into the South China Sea. Under international law, owning coastal land grants control of up to 22 kilometres of sea past low-tide mark, known as territorial waters, and then an exclusive economic zone beyond that, which grants special rights over that water. China is building artificial islands in the South China Sea to increase its territorial waters. If China controls Taiwan, then it also controls Taiwan’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone.

Since losing its UN membership in 1971, Taiwan is not a de jure independent nation. This means that it does not have all the formalities that come with being a recognised sovereign state. However, it does have de facto independence, as in practice it acts as an independent nation. But one wrong move by Taiwan or the West, and China goes to war. China past the Anti-Secession Law in 2005, pledging to use “non-peaceful means” to enforce its control over Taiwan if Taiwan formally declares independence.

Even if Taiwan does not formally declare independence, China may still attack. If any country gets too friendly with Taiwan, and looks like it will be closer with Taiwan than with China, China may treat that as an act of war, because it violates the sovereign rights that China claims over Taiwan. Sovereign states receive certain sovereign rights under international law, and this includes ‘state sovereignty,’ meaning that no other state can interfere with how a state governs its own land. As China sees Taiwan as its own land, if another country tries to undermine Chinese control, then war may break out.

China has never been a naval power. Prior to the 21st-century, China and the United States both had their ‘spheres of influence’ in the region. China controlled the mainland, as it was able to repel any US invasion. But the US controlled the Pacific Ocean and the air, limiting what China could do in the Pacific. However, China now has security alliances with Samoa and the Solomon Islands, and pressured Kiribati to leave the Pacific Islands Forum. At the same time, China is building up its navy. Although not able to challenge the US yet, it can challenge regional players, including the US allies of South Korea and Japan. And Taiwan would give China even more control.

Finally, public opinion has shifted against China, especially after the reports of human rights violations and tyranny in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. In particular, Taiwan’s relationship with the mainland government is somewhat similar to the relationship between Hong Kong and China, and Hong Kong has been subjected to repression by the Chinese government.

Yet trade relations with China are important to most nations around the world, including the United States and Australia. Given China’s status as a military and economic power, war with China would have drastic consequences for any country. China knows this, so live-action military exercises and threats, combined with trade sanctions, have been used to give other countries a taste of what would happen if war did break out.

So as the world waits to see what China will do if and when Pelosi lands in Taiwan, it is all quiet on the eastern front, but hopefully that is not because it is the calm before the storm.

Stuart Jeffery is a freelance researcher & digital editor for 6 News. His views on personal social media pages are his & his only, and do not reflect the views of 6 News or our journalists. He abides by 6 News' editorial standards relating to fairness & accuracy.

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