The United States and China have both accused each other of changing the status quo on Taiwan, leading to a standoff. They are both correct because each country has a different perspective on what the status quo is.
The China-U.S. relationship has been deteriorating over the past decade. The recent visit of the U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan—Pelosi was the highest-ranking US official to visit the island since the 1990s—brought relations to a new low. China had been warning of dire consequences if Pelosi were to undertake the visit, and responded with military drills around the island, live fire exercises, anti-submarine attacks, and sea-raid rehearsals. The United States and China have each accused the other of changing the status quo on Taiwan, leading to the standoff.
They are both correct because each country has a different perspective on what the status quo is. Washington sees Beijing’s encroachments in the South China Sea and its crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy activists as proof that Beijing is getting more belligerent and gradually eroding its commitment to “one country, two systems.” Beijing sees Washington continuing to sell arms to Taiwan under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) as violating U.S. assurances that it would gradually reduce the amount sold, and U.S. rhetoric on an “alliance of democracies” as proof that Washington wants to eventually erode the concept of a “one China.” Compounding the problem even more, the propaganda over Taiwan, particularly in China but also in the United States, bears spotty resemblance to historical fact. China claims Taiwan has been an inalienable part of China since “ancient times” as one white paper recently put it, and it is U.S. meddling that prevents reunification. The United States sees itself as the protector of Taiwan’s independence and democracy from Chinese authoritarianism. The reality is more complex.
For centuries, China’s influence on Formosa, as Taiwan was known, was largely limited to pirates, adventurers, and foreign traders. In the decades before formal Chinese settlement of the island in 1661, Taiwan was controlled by the Netherlands as a colonial base. Constantly hounded by Chinese pirates, the Dutch exploited the island but were unable to establish an enduring regime. This was also a time when the Ming dynasty empire in mainland China was crumbling, and the Qing dynasty was coming to power. The power struggles on both the mainland and Formosa created an opening for a Ming loyalist official and pirate, Zheng Chenggong, to expel the Dutch from the island, and settle it as a kingdom.
Fiercely loyal to the Ming, Zheng and his successor resisted the Qing empire—whose ethnic Manchu rulers were, unlike the Han Chinese Ming, seen as foreign invaders—until 1683 when the kingdom fell to a Qing invasion fleet.
For their part, even after the conquest and the end of the Zheng dynasty, the Qing were supremely unconcerned with Taiwan. One Qing official dismissed it as “a peripheral little mud ball…untouched by the wonder of the celestial deities.” The Qing largely left Taiwan undeveloped, and even tried to prevent Han migration to the island.
The Sino-Japanese War of 1894 was the catastrophic game-changer for China and Taiwan. China lost the war, a huge psychological blow for a country that saw Japan as a vassal state in the Confucian order. The 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki then forced China to cede Taiwan to the Japanese, who established an extremely brutal and exploitative colonial rule on the island. The loss of Taiwan was the first significant loss of territory for China in modern times, and inextricably linked to violent colonialism. Its recovery became a national goal for the Chinese Nationalist Revolution and Guomindang party led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
In the decades after, the Guomindang now led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Zedong, were engaged in a civil war, but their opposition to Japanese colonialism during World War II unified them. In 1943 and 1945, at the Cairo and Potsdam Conferences, the West agreed with Chinese representatives that “lost territories” needed to be returned. But when the Chinese civil war resumed at the end of the World War, the Guomindang was routed from the mainland and took refuge in Taiwan.
There, Chiang Kai-shek established one-party authoritarian rule, declared that Taipei was the capital of a Republic of China (ROC) that encompassed the mainland, and that the Guomindang was the sole legitimate government. He was supported by the United States, which by 1958 had placed Taiwan under its military protection. The result was the absurd spectacle of the tiny ROC occupying, for decades, all international positions allotted to China, such as its seat in the United Nations (UN), including the permanent seat with veto power on the UN Security Council (UNSC).
It’s worth noting here that there are credible reports suggesting that the United States offered India a permanent seat on the UNSC during this time, and Nehru turned it down to indicate disapproval of the exclusion of mainland China. Richard Nixon’s visit to China in the 1970s paved the way for China and the United States to acknowledge that there is only one China, and Taiwan is a part of China.
But the questions of which type of government is legitimate, how unification should happen and what it should look like remain wide open. Taiwanese politics has added to the complexity. Taiwan remained in the authoritarian grip of the Guomindang until the 1990s when it peacefully transitioned to a vibrant democracy. Today, many elements in the Guomindang still support a form of reunification, while the Taiwanese Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rejects it. Polls suggest that Taiwanese support for reunification is falling even while Pelosi’s visit was not universally welcomed by all Taiwanese.
Despite conflicting interpretations and the muddied history, neither the United States nor China wants full-scale war over Taiwan. But the potential for miscalculation is high. As one high-level official from an Asian country mentioned in conversation recently, the ocean area is currently crowded with armed military vessels. This greatly increases the chance of a simple mistake with catastrophic consequences, not just for the U.S.-China relationship, but for the world.