International Relations

Though Taiwan is one of the world’s most dynamic economies, and the island maintains trade relations with virtually every nation and territory on earth, it has diplomatic relation with only a handful of countries. This paradox results from the KMT’s long-standing claim that it remains the legitimate government of all China, of which Taiwan is but a province and the equally long-standing claim of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that Taiwan is an integral part of its territory. Until quite recently, when the KMT initiated its "flexible diplomacy" policy, both government have insisted that the world community must choose between them, and have denounced any effort to craft a "two China" or "one China, one Taiwan" solution. Supporters of self-determination argue that international law is on their side; they also note that almost every country which has extended diplomatic recognition to the PRC has merely "taken note of" or "acknowledged" China’s claims of sovereignty over Taiwan.

The "Taiwan question" is not just a struggle between two Chinese governments over a Chinese province, however. Though the KMT and PRC alike condemn efforts to make Taiwan into an independent country, the idea has support on the island and among Taiwanese living abroad. Just how widespread independence sentiment may be in Taiwan is difficult to judge, since the KMT continues to jail those who speak out in favor of independence. However, pro-independence candidates received substantial support in the 1989 elections, and since the June 4, 1989, massacre in Beijing, hardly anyone in Taiwan has an interest in "reunification" under the banner of the PRC. At a minimum, the idea that the future of Taiwan should be decided in a manner acceptable to the people who live on the island has gained growing support.

By 1979, when the United States, the KMT’s key foreign backer, switched its recognition to the PRC, Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation became nearly complete. In 1990, longtime KMT supporter Saudi Arabia recognized Beijing, and South Korea, the only remaining Asia country to recognize the "Republic of China" may soon open relations with Beijing as well. Most of the countries maintaining ties with Taipei are small, poor countries in the Pacific, Central America, and the Caribbean which seek foreign aid from the KMT, or have established ties on the basis of anti-Communist ideology (notably South Africa).

In the 1970s, the PRC demanded Taiwan’s expulsion from the United National (UN) and most other international organizations as the price of China becoming a member. The KMT government’s representatives walked out of the UN in 1971, refusing to test the strength of the PRC’s rejection of the U.S. –backed "two seat" option.

More recently, the PRC has permitted Taiwan to participate with it in a few forums, but only under a name that acknowledges Chinese sovereignty over the island. The KMT government has its own stake in such a charade, since insisting that Taiwan is part of China has allowed it to control the pace of parliamentary and constitutional reforms and maintain power on the island. Thus, there are "Chinese Taipei" teams in the Olympics (featuring a number of non-Chinese Aborigine athletes), and Taiwan sits in the Asian Development Bank as "Taipei China." It appears that Taiwan will be able to join the world trade organization, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, under a similar formula. China’s Christian Council even tried unsuccessfully to make the World Council of Churches force the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan to put "China" in its name.

The government cheerfully insists that "substantive relations," i.e., trade and cultural ties through informal representative offices, are good enough. Yet the problems created by the lack of diplomatic relations are real. The KMT government has proved unable to negotiate the release of detained Taiwanese fishermen, and the issue of benefits for Taiwanese veterans of the Japanese armed forced during World War II remains unresolved because the KMT has tried to press Japan to make the payments through official channels. When Western Europe becomes politically unified in 1992, official relations will be increasingly important to remain economically competitive. Without membership in United Nations agencies, Taiwan cannot draw on their services and expertise in such areas as public health and environmental protection. Taiwanese professionals find it difficult to participate in international meetings, and Taiwanese tourists may find it difficult to travel to certain countries.

Most importantly, "substantive relations" have offered the international community a way of washing its hands of any role in resolving the question of Taiwan’s future. There are no guarantees that other countries would come to Taiwan’s defense should the PRC decide to use force to achieve "reunification."


Flexible Diplomacy

Following the death of Chiang Ching-kuo, the ruling party began talking about "dual recognition," whereby countries might maintain relations with both Taipei and Beijing. After all, it said, recognition of two Germanys or two Koreas by some nations has not precluded eventual reunification. In 1989, with generous offers of foreign aid, the Taiwan government convinced a number of small countries, including Belize, Grenada, and Liberia, to pursue this option, but Beijing promptly broke off ties.

The policy is generally considered to have failed, since Saudi Arabia went ahead and switched recognition to the PRC. After a 25-year rupture, Indonesia announced that it would resume relations with Beijing in 1990. And Singapore, which has important unofficial links to both Taiwan and China, announced that same year that it would soon open an embassy in the PRC.


ROC Policy Toward China

In the 1980s, the contradictions of the KMT’s policy regarding mainland became increasingly sharp. The authorities insisted that they maintained a policy of "no contact, no compromise, and no negotiation" with the "Communist bandits" across the Strait. At the same time, trade and investment relations were growing. By 1989, Taiwan-China trade, supposedly conducted via third parties (mainly through Hong Kong, where the KMT still has a large presence) reached nearly 43.5 billion, with the balance heavily in Taiwan’s favor. Taiwanese investors, in their search for lower labor costs and more lax environmental regulations, have invested about a billion U.S. dollars in ventures on the mainland; again, they have theoretically gone through intermediaries. Taiwan, in effect, provides China with aid through the Asian Development Bank, and in 1989, Taiwan’s finance minister attended the Bank’s meeting in Beijing.

In 1987, following the lifting of martial law, the KMT ended a longtime ban on travel to the mainland, and thousands of people from Taiwan (not all of them mainlanders) have since gone to visit. Most visitors report negative impressions of the poverty and lack of freedom in China; the new travel policy has increased "Taiwan consciousness" among many older mainlanders, including retired soldiers who had longed for the day they could return "home." Now, many see Taiwan as their home. More recently, the KMT has begun to allow people from the mainland to visit Taiwan under heavily controlled circumstances; illegal immigration from the mainland has become a serious problem.

The KMT insists that it wants to see democracy and free enterprise established on the mainland as a prelude to "reunification." This suggests some desire to overthrow or at least erode the communist system. However, Taiwan’s trade, aid, and investment are helping to prop that system up. Premier Hau has established an agency and foundation under his control and funded by pro-KMT business to promote "substantive relation" across the Strait, i.e., to strengthen economic ties. At the same time, the KMT has provided funds to groups of PRC exiles opposed to the Beijing government and to Tibetan opponents of the PRC (the KMT claims sovereignty over Tibet and even over Outer Mongolia). In 1990, though, the government bowed to pressure from Beijing and refused to allow the ship Goddess of Democracy to dock in Taiwan and make broadcasts to the mainland. In short, current government policy toward the mainland seems like an effort to have one’s cake and eat it as well.


ROC Military Policy

In view of the military threat from the PRC, Taiwan maintains armed forces of over half a million active duty personnel, with 1.5 million reservists; a fleet of 57 warships; and 576 military aircraft. The government is co-producing a modernized fighter plane with the Northrop Corporation. As the PRC has pressed arms suppliers not to sell to Taiwan, the government has developed its own facilities to produce naval vessels, tanks, and missiles. It has long been rumored that Taiwan’s military research and development institute is conducting nuclear weapons research; there is some concrete evidence to support this (an article in The New York Times of March 23, 1988 gives details).

Most Taiwanese support the maintenance of a deterrent to the PRC’s threat, though there is much debate about whether Taiwan’s forces are appropriately deployed with firepower concentrated off the Fukien coast and on the Pescadores. Also, the military budget has considerable fat, with funds for propaganda, campus "military instructors" and internal repression. DPP and liberal KMT legislators have repeatedly pressed for reduced military spending that concentrates funds on genuine defense.

Moreover, there is considerable apprehension in Taiwan that despite all the armaments, some Chinese KMT hardliners have had secret contacts with the Chinese Communists. Given the two parties’ past "united fronts" and mutual commitment to "reunification," this is not as far-fetched as it might sound.


PRC "Reunification" Policy

Since 1984, when China signed agreements which will lead to its regaining control of Hong Kong and Macaus, PRC strongman Teng Hsiao-ping has made "Taiwan recovery" a personal crusade. He has stated that he favors a similar process of negotiations with the KMT which exclude popular participation, and has offered Taiwan the same "one country, two systems" arrangement, which would preserve the local economic and government systems for at least 50 years. Critics in Taiwan point to the rapid collapse of such an arrangement between the PRC and Tibet.

According to press reports, in the summer of 1990, PRC officials developed a new version of this plan, calling for negotiations between the Communist Party and the KMT beginning in 1992, leading to "reunification" by 1995. If Taiwan continues to resist by that time, then the PRC would use force to achieve its goals. The proposal seems to indicate that the PRC no longer believes most Taiwanese want reunification, as Beijing frequently claimed; the growing influx of visitors from the island amid the cries for Taiwan independence has made this abundantly clear.

The PRC authorities have also made it clear how they feel about the right of the people of Taiwan to self-determination. "We will never sit back and watch any act of separating Taiwan from China," said Beijing’s President, Yang Shang-kun, in response to the DPP adopting the Republic of Taiwan constitution. "Whoever plays with fire will perish by fire" he added. Beijing also condemned the effort to bring Taiwan back into the UN as "absurd and futile."

Aside from the profoundly anti-democratic nature of the PRC’s plan, it begs the question as to whether China really has the military capability to back it up, especially given internal political and economic troubles on the mainland. Taiwan can readily resists a limited attack, and Taiwanese soldiers might well resist a PRC assault even if the KMT agreed to reunification on PRC terms. The PRC does have a nuclear option, but this would invite condemnation and perhaps retaliation from other countries. An all-out conventional invasion of Taiwan would drain resources from modernization efforts—which are far more important to most Chinese people than reunification with Taiwan. Other powers might intervene even in the event of a non-nuclear attack, and Chinese action might encourage internal unrest in Tibet and other ethnic minority areas, as well as possibly stirring up other unrest in East Asia (notably on the Korean peninsula). So while the physical capability for military action exists, the costs to China would be extremely high.


The Case for Self-Determination

In the 1970s and especially the 1980s, the call for open discussion of Taiwan’s future grew louder from grass-roots groups like the Presbyterian Church and the political opposition. The DPP put "self-determination" into its charter. On both legal and practical grounds, these groups have argued that the people of Taiwan—and they alone – should decide the island’s fate. Such a process of self-determination would not necessarily rule out "reunification" with China, but it would not occur through the top-down means favored by both Taipei and Beijing.

The right of all people to self-determination is well established in the UN Charter and other UN documents and resolutions. Taiwanese supporters of self-determination argue that the peace treaties between Japan and the World War II allied powers, including the KMT government, left Taiwan’s status unsettled, thereby requiring a plebiscite or some other such referendum to allow its people to determine their future. The treaties supersede the wartime Cairo Declaration, which promised to "return" Taiwan to China.

Supporters of self-determination also note that almost every country which has extended diplomatic recognition to the PRC has merely "taken note of" or "acknowledged" China’s claims of sovereignty over Taiwan.

Obviously, a meaningful act of self-determination cannot take place until Taiwan has a fully democratic political system in place. In 1990 the DPP passed a resolution stating that Taiwan does not exercise sovereignty over China or Mongolia. In 1991, the party established a committee to promote the notion that sovereignty over Taiwan lies with Taiwan’s people, not with the KMT or the PRC. The hope of self-determination advocates is that if Taiwan becomes fully democratic and renounces its claims over China, this will increase international support for self-determination and make the idea less threatening to the PRC. In addition, there is hope that continuing people to-people exchanges and economic relations will offer the PRC incentives for allowing the Taiwanese people freely to decide their fate for themselves, with the option of choosing independence.


Taiwan and the United Nations

The Republic of China was a founding member of the United Nations and a permanent member of the Security Council. However, in 1971, a debate over the representation of China in the UN occurred, resulting in resolution 2758, to "restore all rights to the People’s Republic of China" and to "expel the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek." At the time, it was widely recognized that the PRC was the legitimate representative of China, but many in the international community advocated their concern for the rights of self-determination and self-representation of the Taiwanese people, knowing that the PRC had never governed Taiwan before. Despite this concern, Chiang Kai-shek insisted on his policy of "never co-existing with the bandits" and was forced to leave the United Nations. To this day, the KMT still strives to regain its lost seat, but their one-China rhetoric continues to isolate them from the international community.

Although Taiwan has trade relations with most nations of the world, Taiwanese men and women engaged in business and trade have had trouble obtaining visas when traveling since Taiwan has diplomatic relations with so few nations. In international financial and political organizations, Taiwan has little or no representation. The people of Taiwan believe that their efforts and their achievements deserve more recognition than this and this year started to take concrete steps toward attaining membership in the UN for Taiwan. Following a KMT congressional recommendation to the government to reapply to the UN "when appropriate under the name of R.O.C.," the Alliance for the Promotion of UN Membership for Taiwan, initiated and chaired by Lu Hsiu-lien and co-sponsored by fourteen other civil, political, social and educational groups, openly recruited members through independent newspapers, and formed a group of "people’s diplomats" who staged a rally in front of the UN General Assembly building in New York. The recent entry to the UN of seven nations, including the newly independent Baltics and the two Koreas further intensified the desire of the Taiwanese people to be part of this international body. The Alliance’s return to Taiwan coincided with the first televised political debate over the UN issue between a DPP legislator and the deputy foreign minister. It was generally agreed that the Taiwanese should be represented in the UN but the question over what name should be used remains under debate. The KMT still insists on the Republic of China or names such as "Chinese, Taipei," avoiding names containing any association with Taiwan. The DPP, on the other hand, insists that the only legitimate name to enter under is the Republic of Taiwan.

On October 25, 1991, members of the Taiwanese American community in New York visited over one hundred national embassies to the United Nations, lobbying for support. Congressmen in the U.S. and Japan have proposed resolutions in support of Taiwan’s representation in the UN, and the President of the Unrepresented Peoples Organization, Dr. Linnart Mall, a congressman from Estonia, has also voiced his support. Despite positive responses to the lobbying efforts, however, the people still face two main obstacles in obtaining membership in the world body. One of these comes from the PRC, which holds veto power in the Security Council, and has repeatedly threatened the use of force against the desire of the Taiwanese to join international organizations. The second is the KMT'’ refusal to submit an application. While the latter, it is hoped, shall be overcome through an internal, democratic process, the former will require moral support from the international community to counter attack the PRC’s hegemony.

In order to overcome these hurdles, large scale rallies for a plebiscite to join the UN and "UN Nights" at individual candidates’ election campaign rallies in December have been implemented to pressure the KMT to formally apply to the UN. As for international lobbying efforts, classes will be held next year to educate and train more Taiwanese to take collective lobbying action.