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As Taiwan pushes back against China reunification call, a look at the 350-year-old dispute

China describes Taiwan as a breakaway province, but the latter identifies itself as a sovereign nation, complete with its own military and Olympics entourage.

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New Delhi: The tensions between China and Taiwan appear to be intensifying amid Taipei’s pushback against Beijing’s claims over the island nation.

China describes Taiwan as a breakaway province, but the latter identifies itself as a sovereign nation, complete with its own military and Olympics entourage.

Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed the need for Taiwan’s “peaceful reunification” with the country, amid reports of a record number of Chinese fighter jets near Taiwan’s airspace. “The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland… will definitely be fulfilled,” he added.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen was swift to hit back, promising to uphold and defend the country’s sovereignty and democracy. While she said the situation was “more complex and fluid” than ever in the past 72 years, the country’s defence minister described the tensions as the worst in four decades.

On 4 October, an editorial in the Chinese government mouthpiece Global Times said, “Time to warn Taiwan secessionists and their fomenters: war is real”. 

In recent months, multiple Chinese fighter jets have entered Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIF), an area over sea or land where a country monitors aviation activity in the interest of national security. This zone may extend beyond a country’s territory.

Between 1 and 4 October, a record 150 Chinese jets entered Taiwan’s ADIZ, 56 of which were observed on one day alone (4 October). 

The root of the dispute over Taiwan, which lies off the Chinese mainland, can be traced back several centuries, which saw a vast movement of people from China to Taiwan and decades of rule by two Chinese dynasties.

Also Read: Curious case of Taiwan and how it challenges the ‘One China’ policy

Colonisation of Taiwan

Until the 17th century, Taiwan was widely seen as a free island with little influence from outside. 

In 1624, the Dutch established their ports in Taiwan to do business and eventually colonised the island, like the East India Company did in India. But this was a rather short-lived colony, and China’s Ming dynasty took over in 1662

In 1683, the Qings, the last imperial dynasty of China, defeated the Mings and started establishing itself in Taiwan. According to the records of the Taiwanese government, in 1885, Taiwan was officially declared a part of Qing’s China.

A decade later, the Chinese were defeated by the then Japanese empire in the 1st Sino-Japanese war. Under the ensuing ‘Treaty of Shimonoseki’, Taiwan was ceded to Japan. 

During Japanese rule in Taiwan, China experienced the ‘1911 revolution’ and the Qing dynasty was overthrown to form the ‘Republic of China (ROC)’.  

Civil War & US recognition  

During World War 2, China sided with the US and Allies. After its defeat, Japan surrendered Taiwan, which came under Chinese rule.

In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party — led by Mao Zedong — overthrew the then government of China, the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT). 

The Chinese Communist Party subsequently formed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) or present-day China. The KMT-led former government fled to Taiwan the same year and occupied it, calling it ROC.  

At this point, the US recognised Taiwan (now ROC) as the only legitimate China and moved its embassy there. A 1955 ‘Formosa resolution’ — ‘Formosa’ is a moniker associated with Taiwan — passed by the Congress authorised the US president to use arms against any attack on the island. During this time, Taiwan officially represented China in the UN as well. 

In 1971, however, the PRC replaced the ROC in the UN following a vote. In 1979, the US officially recognised People’s Republic of China (Beijing) as the one and only China and shifted its embassy from Taipei (Taiwan’s capital) to Beijing. 

Since then, the US has maintained unofficial relations with Taiwan. The US makes it clear that it doesn’t support Taiwan’s independence, but sells weapons to the country under the Taiwan Relations Act so it can defend itself

In the 1980s, according to a report by BBC, China offered Taiwan a ‘one country-two systems’ framework, somewhat like in Hong Kong, promising “significant autonomy if it accepted Chinese reunification”. 

“Taiwan rejected the offer, but it did relax rules on visits to and investment in China. In 1991, it also proclaimed the war with the People’s Republic of China on the mainland to be over,” the report adds.

Currently, only 15 nations recognise Taiwan as a separate country. This excludes India.

Also Read: Here’s what could happen if China invaded Taiwan

Birth of Taiwan’s democracy

In 1987, Taiwan revoked nearly four decades of martial law, the first full elections to Parliament were held in 1992. Lee Teng-hui of KMT became the first democratically elected president of Taiwan. 

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the following election, leading to the appointment of Chen Shui-bian as president in 2000. The incumbent Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen is also a member of DPP.

While China is believed to see Tsai as a leader taking Taipei towards eventual independence, the DPP believes Taiwan to already be an independent country.  

Relations with China

Taiwan is one of the biggest investors in China.

In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade (China-Taiwan) was $149.2 billion, according to Taiwan government data, which says the country is one of the biggest investors in China. There were 26.8 lakh visits from China to Taiwan in 2019. 

China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, accounting for 26.3 per cent of total trade and 22.2 per cent of Taiwan’s imports in 2020, says the US government’s International Trade Association. 

Is the conflict the same as in Hong Kong?

No. Hong Kong works on the ‘one country, two systems’ framework.

In 1898, Hong Kong, then a British colony, was given to Britain on lease for 99 years. The lease expired in 1997. On the expiry of the lease, Hong Kong was given back to China with an agreement to allow Hong Kong to be a semi-autonomous state for 50 years until 2047. However, concerns over China’s growing influence in Hong Kong have triggered several protests, with citizens worried about losing their freedoms under Beijing’s rule.

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)

Also Read: China’s invasion of Taiwan will be a disaster for Asia. India must draw a red line


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