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Political status of Taiwan

The political status of Taiwan is controversial. Not only is it controversial whether Taiwan should become part of the People's Republic of China, remain as part of the Republic of China, or become an independent nation, different groups have different concepts of what the situation is.

In addition, it can be confusing because of the different parties and the effort by many groups to deal with the controversy through a policy of deliberate ambiguity. The political solution that is acceptable to most of the current groups is status quo, which is to leave Taiwan's status the way that it is. This is acceptable in large part because it does not define what Taiwan's status is, leaving each group to interpret the situation in a way that is acceptable to it.

Table of contents

Question of Sovereignty

In the Cairo Conference of 1943 the allied powers agreed to have Taiwan be handed over to the Republic of China upon Japan's surrender. According to both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China, this agreement was given legal force by the instrument of surrender of Japan in 1945.

Some advocates of Taiwan independence argue that Instrument of Surrender of Japan did not transfer title of Taiwan and that when Japan renounced sovereignty of Taiwan in the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951, the sovereignty of Taiwan returned to the people of Taiwan. Although this was used to question the legitimacy of the Republic of China before the 1990s, the introduction of popular elections in Taiwan means that except for the most extreme Taiwan independence supporters, supporters of the popular sovereignty theory no longer see a conflict between this theory of sovereignty and the ROC position. In fact, Chen Shui-bian has often emphasized the popular sovereignty theory in his speeches.

The position of the PRC is that the ROC ceased to be a legitimate government upon the former's founding on October 1, 1949 and that it is the successor government of China, with the right to rule Taiwan under the succession of states theory based on the UN Charter which advocates states rights to territorial integrity.

The official position of the Republic of China is that it is a legitimate government with a general mandate over the people of Taiwan. (Whether it still has the legitimacy to retake the mainland is not widely accepted, but nevertheless disputed.) The ROC argues that it maintains all the characteristics of a state--population, territory, government, and sovereignty--and that it was not "replaced" or "succeeded" by the PRC because it has continued to exist long after the PRC's founding.

Position of the PRC

The current position of the People's Republic of China is that Taiwan is part of China and the PRC is the sole legitimate government of China, although the government has hinted that it would be willing to moderate the second part of the formulation if the ROC accepts the first part. The PRC is unwilling to negotiate under any other formulation than a one China policy.

Position of the ROC

The position of the current government on Taiwan (i.e., the Republic of China) is deliberately ambiguous. Until 1991, the ROC government maintained that it was the sole legitimate government of China, but it currently does not take this position. In 1991, President Lee Teng-hui claimed that the government would no longer challenge the rule of the PRC on the Mainland. However, the National Assembly has not officially changed the national borders, as this would be seen as a precursor to Taiwan independence.

In 1999, President Lee Teng-Hui proposed a two-states theory in which both the ROC and PRC would be considered separate states with a special diplomatic relationship. This drew an angry reaction from the PRC who believed that Lee was covertly supporting Taiwan independence.

The current presidential administration has been deliberately silent as to the issue of whether Taiwan is or is not part of China and the meaning of the term China and states that it is willing to discuss the issue. The PRC has stated that no political discussions are possible unless Taiwan agrees to the one China policy but has left it ambiguous as to exactly what one China means. At the beginning of his term, Chen Shui-Bian neither explicitly supported the two-states theory, nor rejected it. Since 2000, there have been thus far unsuccessful attempts to restart semi-formal negotiations through formulations that refer to the 1992 consensus or the spirit of 1992. After becoming chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party in July 2002, Chen appeared to move toward a two states theory and in early August 2002, he stated that Taiwan may "go on its own Taiwanese road" and that "it is clear that the two sides of the straits are separate countries." These statements were strongly criticized by opposition parties on Taiwan.

The position of supporters of Taiwan independence is that Taiwan is not part of China and the PRC is the sole legitimate government of China. The position of supporters of Chinese reunification on Taiwan is that Taiwan is part of China but the PRC is not the sole legitimate government of China. Within Taiwan support for Taiwan independence and Chinese reunification exists as part of a political spectrum with most people apparently in the middle.

Position of other countries and international organizations

Because of the Cold War, the Republic of China was recognized as the sole legitimate government of both Mainland China and Taiwan by the United Nations and most Western nations. However, the 1970s saw a switch in diplomatic recognitions from the ROC to the PRC. In October 1971, Resolution 2758 was passed by the UN General Assembly, expelling the Republic of China and replacing the China seat on the Security Council (and all other UN organs) with the People's Republic of China. It declared "that the representatives of the Government of the People's Republic of China are the only lawful representatives of China to the United Nations" and thus labeled the Republic of China a renegade authority. Multiple attempts by the Republic of China to rejoin the UN have not made it past committee.

The PRC refuses to maintain diplomatic relations with any nation that recognizes the government in Taipei, and most nations have diplomatic relations with Beijing while maintaining offices in Taipei that are diplomatic in all but name. For example, the United States maintains the American Institute in Taiwan. Similarly, the government in Taiwan maintains quasi-diplomatic offices in most nations under various names, most commonly as the "Taipei Economic and Cultural Office."

The ROC still maintains formal diplomatic relations with 27 countries, mostly in Central America and Africa. Interestingly, the Holy See also recognizes the ROC, mainly out of protest of the PRC's suppression of the Catholic faith on the mainland. During the 1990s, there was a diplomatic tug of war in which the PRC and ROC would attempt to outbid each together for diplomatic support of small nations. However, by 2001, this effort seems to have ended as a result of the PRC growing economic power and doubts on Taiwan as to whether this aid was actually in Taiwan's interest.

Most major countries have policies toward this issue that use very careful language which is deliberately ambiguous. International organizations also have different policies toward this issue. In some cases (such as the UN) the ROC has been completely shut out while in others, such as the World Trade Organization and International Olympic Committee the government on Taiwan has a special name--"Chinese Taipei" in the case of APEC and the IOC, and the "customs territory of Taiwan, Kimmen, and Matsu" in the case of WTO.

Naming can also be a contentious issue in non-governmental organizations. One organization which faced a huge controversy in this area was the Lions Club[?].

Future Prospects

Although the situation is confusing, most observers believe that it is stable with enough understandings and gentlemen's agreements to keep things from breaking out into open warfare. The current controversy is over the term one China, which the PRC insists is necessary to begin negotiations. Although the ruling Democratic Progressive Party has moderated its support for Taiwan independence, there is still insufficient support within that party for President Chen Shui-Bian to agree to one China. By contrast, the opposition Kuomintang and People First Party appear willing to agree to some variation of one China, and many observers believe that the current position of the PRC is designed to sideline Chen until the 2004 Presidential election where it is hopes that someone who is more supportive of Chinese reunification comes to power. Partly to counter this, Chen Shui-Bian in July 2002 announced that if the PRC does not respond to Taiwan's goodwill that Taiwan may "go on its own Taiwanese road."

When given a choice between the three options of independence, status quo, or unification, typical results of recent polls show 20% in favor of independence, 15% in favor of unification, and about 50% in favor of status quo. Poll results also tend to be extremely sensitive to how the questions are phrased and what options are given, and there is a tendency by all political parties to spin[?] the results to support their point of view.

There is also a rise in pragmatists who would support either unification or independence based on the situation, 72% polled said they would fight to defend the country from a communist invasion. The Taiwanese localization phenomenon appears to have taken root with a larger percentage identifying as Taiwanese or Taiwanese first Chinese second, although majority still identify themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese.

For historical context of this conflict, see: Chinese Civil War



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