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Business News/ Politics / Policy/  Mint Explainer: Is Taiwan a breakaway Chinese province?

Mint Explainer: Is Taiwan a breakaway Chinese province?

Was Taiwan ever part of China, as Pink Floyd's Roger Waters has claimed?

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen who favours independence of Taiwan from China. Photo: ReutersPremium
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen who favours independence of Taiwan from China. Photo: Reuters

"They (Chinese forces) are not encircling Taiwan. Taiwan is part of China. And that's been absolutely accepted by the whole of the international community since 1948, and if you don't know that, you are not reading enough. Go and read about it.

That's rock band Pink Floyd's co-founder Roger Waters in a recent interview with CNN. Now, Waters is no stranger to controversy. The statement on Taiwan by the 78-year-old musician was slammed on social media, with many accusing him of being ignorant and falling for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda hook, line and sinker.

Celebrities often ignite a debate on contentious topics, and Waters did just that. But there is a furious debate on social media around the legitimacy of China's claims over Taiwan. Meanwhile, Beijing ended nearly week-long military drills around Taiwan following US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit.

China has vowed to "unify" Taiwan with the mainland, using force if required. But is China's claim of sovereignty over Taiwan justified?

Why is Taiwan so controversial?

Taiwan is a self-ruled, democratic island, with the Taiwan Strait separating it from China. Now, the Communist Party of China has always claimed Taiwan as its territory and seeks to merge it with the mainland. In Taiwan or the Republic of China, as it calls itself, the current government seeks to retain Taiwan's de facto independence.

Pelosi's visit to Taipei is being seen as a show of solidarity with the pro-independence group in Taiwan. Beijing has made its anger evident at the turn of events. In a hard-hitting official statement, China says the visit "would severely undermine China's sovereignty and territorial integrity… and send a seriously wrong signal to Taiwan independence forces."

Roger Waters has certainly got his facts wrong. Taiwan has been separate from mainland China since 1949..
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Roger Waters has certainly got his facts wrong. Taiwan has been separate from mainland China since 1949..

Pelosi is the first US Speaker to visit Taiwan in 25 years. She may also be seen by Beijing as a China-baiter of sorts. There is a history. In 1991, Pelosi made a trip to Beijing's Tiananmen Square–the venue of the pro-democracy movement in China, which was crushed by the administration a couple of years earlier–and displayed a banner supporting democracy in China. In recent days, Pelosi has been discussing the need to support Taiwan, asserting the world must choose between autocracy and democracy.

A furious Beijing retaliated by calling off dialogue with the US on a raft of issues from climate change to military relations. It also pressured the US by flexing its military might by firing ballistic missiles, launching its warships, and flying fighter jets and drones in the seas and airspace around the island. The military drills sent out a clear warning to the US and the world that China will resist independent diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Was Taiwan a part of China?

Roger Waters has certainly got his facts wrong. Taiwan has been separate from mainland China since 1949.

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Taiwan has a long and chequered history with the People's Republic of China. It dates back to the 17th century. It was then ruled by China's Qing dynasty. In 1895, China ceded control of Taiwan to Japan after its defeat in the Sino-Japanese war. But Japan returned Taiwan to China after its defeat in World War II.

Now, here comes the historical period Waters is referring to. In the late 1940s, a civil war broke out in China, and subsequently, Mao Zedong's Communist Party wrested control of mainland China from Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalist party Kuomintang (KMT).

Kai-shek and his followers shifted their base to Taiwan and ruled it for decades. Over the years, Taiwan gradually became a democracy and had its first non-KMT president in 2000, Chen Shui-bian.

Taiwan is self-ruled and has its constitution, with an armed force of 300,000 troops. Taiwan's current president Tsai Ing-wen was elected in 2016 and favours an independent Taiwan.

How the world and China see Taiwan?

Over the years, Beijing has asserted that there is only "one China" and Taiwan is a part of it. "Unification" of Taiwan with mainland China is its stated goal. Chinese President Xi Jinping asserts that "the two sides would work together to seek national reunification" as outlined in the "1992 Consensus", an understanding between them. But Taiwan has argued that the "1992 Consensus" lends itself to different interpretations.

Surveys in Taiwan have shown public opinion in the island is in favour of a status quo and only a small percentage favour unification with China.'

Xi has even suggested a "one country, two systems" model for Taiwan, promising it greater autonomy under "one China", the formula used for Hong Kong, but there is widespread public scepticism about this proposal.

Most of the world has avoided formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan in the face of strident opposition from China. Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, nor is it included in WHO forums. But it is a member of a few other multilateral bodies, such as the Asian Development Bank and the WTO.

Only 13-odd countries have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The US officially follows the "One China" doctrine but has a policy of "strategic ambiguity"–it favours the status quo in Taiwan but can come to its aid, including militarily, if required, without actually making any commitment.

India, like about 180 other countries, has followed the "One China" policy but appears to have gone beyond it. In fact, in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited the Taiwanese ambassador to his swearing-in ceremony.

China and Taiwan are close trading partners

Taiwan's business ties with China have flourished, growing by leaps and bounds, despite the political differences. Mainland China and Hong Kong account for a whopping 40% of Taiwan's exports (and 22% of imports). The US trails way behind at about 15% (and 10% of Taiwan's imports). Many of Taiwan's high-tech firms, such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd, the world's biggest chip maker, have factories in mainland China.

Indeed, Taiwan's trade with China has spurted over the past five years (2016-2021). While imports galloped about 90%, exports have surged 41%.

In many ways, China may have smartly pushed ahead with greater economic integration with Taiwan, perhaps hoping it's a precursor to a political unification at some point.

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Published: 11 Aug 2022, 03:46 PM IST
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