Taiwan Communiqué No. 87, August 1999

Taiwan - U.S. - China Relations

A Historical Perspective

by Doris Chang

In July 1999, Taiwan's President, Lee Teng-hui, announced that his government was abolishing the "One-China Policy" that had regarded Taiwan and China as parts of the same country. The Taiwan government also stated that any diplomatic contact between the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland and Taiwan would henceforth be between two separate and equal states. President Lee's change of policy was in response to the PRC government's attempts to isolate Taiwan internationally by trapping Taiwan within the "One-China" framework.

Some American foreign policy-makers and academics interpreted President Lee's change of policy as Taiwan's attempt to provoke the PRC. Contrary to this misconception, President Lee has expressed his goodwill toward the PRC and would welcome a constructive dialogue between the two states in the spirit of mutual respect.

In contrast to the PRC's one-party dictatorship, Taiwan has been a vibrant democracy throughout the 1990s. According to a public-opinion poll in Taiwan released on May 3, 1999, 89% of respondents indicated that Taiwan is not a part of the PRC. Over 94% of the respondents indicated that Taiwan is already an independent country.

As it is in the American democracy, it is the moral obligation of a popularly elected president to formulate foreign policies that would reflect the popular will of a nation's citizenry. Based on the result of the poll indicated above, it is evident that President Lee had decided to revise the Taiwanese government's policy vis-à-vis the PRC, in order to reflect the will of the Taiwanese people.

In 1997, The Wall Street Journal conducted an opinion poll to survey American public opinion toward Taiwan's national question. The result shows that 60 percent of Americans believe that Taiwan is an independent country, and only 30 percent believe that Taiwan is part of China. Evidently, the public opinion in both Taiwan and the U.S. strongly indicate that Taiwan is already an independent country.

Yet, the U.S. government still acknowledges that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of China. Contrary to this outdated and unrealistic "One-China" concept, Taiwan has had its own military forces, jurisdiction, population, territory, and democratic political system that are totally independent from its PRC counterpart. If the U.S. were to continue to support Communist China's claim that Taiwan is part of the PRC, the U.S. might unintentionally embolden Communist China to take over Taiwan by force.

Conversely, if the U.S. were to recognize the PRC and Taiwan as two separate and equal states, the PRC would think twice before attacking Taiwan, knowing that the U.S. might take military actions against its aggression toward another sovereign state.

For the past few years, the PRC's aggressive behavior has contributed to the instability in the Asia-Pacific Region. Rather than peacefully coexisting with Taiwan, the PRC conducted missile tests off the coast of Taiwan to disrupt the island's first-ever democratic presidential election in 1996. Since then, the PRC has repeatedly threatened to attack Taiwan if the island were to declare its independence from China.

To deter the PRC's possible aggression against Taiwan, the international community should take its military threat seriously and know its implication for Taiwanese people's human rights. Since the PRC invaded and occupied Tibet in 1950, it is estimated that 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed. In addition, many more are imprisoned or dispersed worldwide as the result of the Chinese Communist government's cultural genocide and religious persecution in Tibet. With this human rights record, it should not come as a surprise that most Taiwanese are committed to Taiwan's independence.

Historically, Taiwan and China have been under the jurisdiction of different governments for the past century. Hence, there is no logical reason to support Chinese Communist government's assertion that Taiwan is part of the PRC. In 1895, Taiwan was annexed into the Japanese Empire after China was defeated in the First Sino-Japanese War. When Japan was defeated at the end of WWII in 1945, Chinese Nationalist government (KMT) incorporated Taiwan into the Chinese Republic. By 1949, the Chinese Communist government won the Civil War in China and the KMT then fled to the island of Taiwan.

Thus, for more than a century, Taiwan and China were under the jurisdiction of the same government only for less than five years, i.e. from 1945 to 1949. According to P'eng Ming-min, Professor of International Law, the legal backing which supported Taiwanese people's self-determination was evident in the terms of the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1952; with the United States as one of its important signatories.

{short description of image}

President Clinton: "Yup -- it looks like One China to me"

Based on the terms of the treaty, Japan relinquished her control over Taiwan without naming a beneficiary. The fact that neither the KMT government on Taiwan nor the communist government on China (PRC) was named the beneficiary meant that the Taiwanese people should have the legal rights to national self-determination on the basis of international law.

Currently, China presumes that Taiwan should be part of China on the premise that the Taiwanese people are culturally and ethnically Chinese. Yet, Singapore has been an independent country for decades, notwithstanding the majority of her citizenry is culturally and ethnically Chinese. Likewise, the U.S. declared her independence from Britain, even though the break-away republic was by and large linguistically and culturally English in the 18th century. Ample historical precedence has demonstrated that people of the same cultural origin ought to have the right to forge separate countries, if they choose to do so.

Even though there is some truism in considering most Taiwanese as ethnically and culturally Chinese, Taiwan's unique historical development as an immigrant society has also set the Taiwanese people apart from the people in China. In the 17th century, most of the Chinese immigrants who had settled in Taiwan were young males. Consequently, many of them intermarried with Taiwan's indigenous women, who were Pacific islanders of Malayo-Polynesian stock. Based on a genetic study conducted by a group of Taiwanese doctors, around 70 percent of Taiwan's ethnic-Chinese population could trace part of their racial heritage to their Malayo-Polynesian ancestry.

Today, 85 percent of Taiwan's population are descendants of the Old immigrants who settled in Taiwan to escape poverty and persecution in China in the 17th century and thereafter. This experience was similar to that of the English immigrants who had settled in America to escape persecution and poverty in Europe during the 17th century.

By contrast, Taiwan's New immigrants who fled to the island with Chiang Kai-shek's KMT government in 1949 amounts to 15 percent of Taiwan's current population. As permanent settlers in Taiwan since 1949, many New Immigrants have increasingly identify themselves as "New Taiwanese." Just as the U.S. was a nation founded by immigrants who had identified with their newly settled land, Taiwan is a country of immigrants who have claimed the island to be their home.

Contrary to the PRC's assertion that people of the same ethnic and cultural origins ought to belong to the same country, Taiwan's vision of statehood would include all the immigrants and indigenous peoples of Taiwan who would consider the island as their home, regardless of their cultural or racial origin.

From a historical perspective, Taiwan had been a maritime commercial island since the Dutch colonized it in the 17th century. Due to Japan's colonial legacy on Taiwan in the first half of 20th century, Japan's cultural influence on Taiwan is still deeply felt in Taiwan today.

Thus, what sets Taiwan apart from China's historical experiences has been Taiwan's colonial experiences and her island status. Some say that Taiwanese people's cosmopolitan world view and maritime commercial culture have contributed to her rapid economic growth in the post-WWII era. In short, Taiwan's culture has been a creative synthesis of the cultures of Taiwan's indigenous peoples, ethnic Chinese immigrants, Japan, and Western influences.

Just as the U.S. achieved her independence from Britain in 1776, the Taiwanese people also aspire to determine their own national identity and political future. Without the French government's military and moral support during the American Revolution, it would have been more difficult for the U.S. to achieve her independence from Britain in the late 18th century.

As the world's leading democracy at the dawn of the 21st century, the U.S. has the moral obligation and the military resources to support Taiwanese people's rights to enjoy democracy and self-determination.

Back to: Table of Contents

Copyright © 1999 Taiwan Communiqué