The Strait of Affairs Between China and Taiwan
By RAMSAY BADEN | August 14, 2017
In Asia, two sister-societies exist. They share a common history, speak the same language, and exist in the same region. However, a decades-old civil war has created a divide between the two that runs much deeper than the body of water that separates them.
The countries in question are China and Taiwan, two entities that sit on either end of the Taiwan Strait. As the decades have gone by, cross-Strait affairs have begun to fade from the public eye. To understand the current relationship between China and Taiwan, it is important to understand the history of the region as well as what is happening today.
On October 1st, 1949, the flag of the People’s Liberation Army, which was backed by the Chinese Communist Party (CPC), was raised over Beijing. The defeated armies of the Republic of China (ROC), backed by the Kuomintang (the previous government in China before the CPC), fled to the neighboring island of Taiwan. Since then, the flames of war have cooled, but these two nations remain perched on either side of the thin Taiwan Strait, waiting for the waters to stir again. For 68 years, this has been the status quo with cross-Strait relations – both sides refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of either as a regional entity, but neither has eradicated the other. This impasse eventually gave rise to the CPC’s “One China” policy, which simply states that there is one legitimate China and that Taiwan is part of it. The ambiguity of this policy has allowed both states to coexist, making their own claims to sovereignty without having official power over one another.
These societies have only become more distinct and separate during the past 68 years. Following a more progressive route, Taiwan elected its first female president of the (opposing) Democratic Progressive Party on January 16th, 2016. Taiwan’s supreme court also legalized same-sex marriage on May 24th, 2017, making it the first in Asia to do so. At the same time, China has worked to separate its culture from ROC’s Nationalist influence, developing Simplified Chinese characters and structuring its government and economy around a single Communist Party of China. China has taken a decidedly different approach to governing, developing an internet firewall that has censored content for almost 700 million users and slowly reneging on a “one country, two systems” promise in Hong Kong (which was originally developed for Taiwan) by cracking down on protesters. While both China and Taiwan have seen incredible growth, it remains clear that their societies have only grown further apart.
Both sides have changed their approaches to the tension that divides them. Taiwan officially scrapped its “Project National Glory” (a plan to retake the mainland militarily) in 1972, shortly after the United Nations officially recognized the PRC instead of the ROC. China has also toned down some of its rhetoric, proposing infrastructure projects (such as highways and underwater tunnels) that would seek to link the island to the mainland, although it remains unlikely that this will happen under the current status quo. Both entities have gone great lengths to improve their economic relationship; direct flights between the two began in 2009, boosting tourism in both nations. In 2016, the value of imports and exports between the two was over $127 billion according to the PRC’s Ministry of Commerce. By all measures, trade between the two cross-Strait entities has skyrocketed, signaling that the Chinese and the Taiwanese are very willing to do business with one another.
All of this being said, military action has never been ruled out by China. Its vast army has more than 2 million personnel in all of its branches, and it currently has more than 1,600 missiles pointed at Taiwan. The reclaiming of Taiwan as an official territory has been a tenant of the PRC's constitution. The preamble explicitly states that “Taiwan is part of the sacred territory of the People's Republic of China” and that “it is the lofty duty of the entire Chinese people, including our compatriots in Taiwan, to accomplish the great task of reunifying the motherland.” China has continued to pursue Taiwan’s few remaining official diplomatic allies, with its most recent success in courting Panama (the largest Latin American economy supporting Taiwan); thus, sending a strong signal to Taiwan as China continues to isolate the island. Taiwan has, in turn, continued to rely on its support in the United States – the Trump administration approved a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan at the end of June.
Because of these factors, unification is arguably less of a possibility than ever before. More people in Taiwan identify as Taiwanese than Chinese, according to a survey from Duke University’s Program in Asian Security Studies conducted through National Chengchi University. In addition, a paltry 9.2 percent of Taiwanese constituents support reunification, further illustrating the political reality that these two countries will never become one peacefully.
So far, the status quo has been maintained, and the Strait remains undisturbed. But while the waters are less muddied than they have been in the past, they have never fully cleared. The Taiwan Strait may be disturbed again in the coming years.