Updated: Jul 21, 2020
For most of its history, Taiwan’s relationship with Mainland China has been tense, but with Taiwan’s most recent election the conflict has been renewed. On January 11th, Taiwan voted to reelect President Tsai Ing-Wen, leader of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and staunch opponent of the “One China” principle. President Tsai collected 58% of votes against challenger Han Kuo-Yu of the Kuomintang Party (KMT) who is an advocate for Beijing’s continued control over the region.
Taiwain, or the the Republic of China (ROC), is an island nation just off the southern coast of mainland China, which is governed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The two land masses are separated by the Taiwan Strait which is only 110 miles wide.
The Republic of China has been governed independently from the PRC since 1949, however political leaders have differing views of how to negotiate the island’s sovereignty dispute. So while Cross-Strait trade relations have been improving, political tensions continue to rise, particularly after President Tsai’s reelection.
Taiwan has a long history of invasion, occupation, and colonization. Since the seventeenth century, ethnic Han Chinese settlers have been inhabiting the island, displacing the 13 distinct indigenous populations, who now only account for roughly 2% of the population. Now, the island is a majority Han Chinese, many of whom identify as Taiwanese. During the period between 1895 and 1949, following the Sino-Japanese War, the Island nation was ceded to Japan and governed as a colony. Then, in 1949 when the ROC lost the Chinese Civil War to the Communists, Chiang Kai-Shek and the ROC military fled to Taiwan becoming its governing body. Chiang’s party, the KMT, remained in power, ruling Taiwan from 1949 until 1987 under martial law. It was only after a ban on dissenting political parties was lifted that the political oppression lightened and the DPP formed. The KMT has historically supported the “One China” principle, while the DPP has not.
Beijing- the capital of the PRC- and Taipei- the capital of the ROC- are in the midst of a longstanding disagreement over the island’s status. While the PRC maintains there is only “one China” and that Taiwan is a province of the mainland. Beijing bases their claim on an understanding reached between the former government’s of both nations- the Chinese Communist Party and the KMT- known as the 1992 Consensus. The 1992 Consensus left the “one China” principle open to interpretation while maintaining the underlying agreement that Taiwan will not seek independence. The KMT party still acknowledges the Consensus’s validity, while President Tsai and the DPP have rejected it. Considering how Beijing has been handling negotiations with Hong Kong, it stands to reason that they will similarly reject President Tsai’s claims and take up a tougher, nationalistic stance.
Tensions between the two nations have been further complicated by U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, totaling more than $25 billion between the decade of 2007 and 2018. Moreover, President Trump’s administration has unveiled multiple new arms deals with Taiwan, including a new $250 million complex for the U.S. embassy in Taipei. These relations are of vital importance to Taiwan’s survival, however. Taiwan has deep economic ties with mainland China because of their proximity to one another, so to differentiate themselves and maintain some semblance of sovereignty, these formal diplomatic relations perform the important task of affirming the island’s independence. However, only 15 states currently maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan, meaning that each partnership is highly valued.
China continues to expand its reach and has stationed missiles along the Taiwan Strait where it also conducts drills using bombers, fighter jets, and aircraft carriers. While Beijing introduced the 2005 Anti-Secession Law as a means to strengthen Beijing’s approach to “peaceful national reunification,” the bill included language expressly stating that Beijing would “employ non-peaceful means” to protect its national sovereignty. In response, Taiwan continues to purchase arms, although the gap in military capability between the two nations is expected to continue widening in China’s favor.
Currently, China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, comprising roughly 30% of the island’s trade, with a total value of over $150.5 billion, a dynamic that complicates ideas of a Taiwanese national identity. Between 2008 and 2016, former KMT President Ma Ying-jeou’s government signed more than twenty pacts with the PRC, that brought Taipei and Beijing much closer together, a move that many found inappropriate. The backlash to Ma’s decisions were reflected in the exit polls of the 2016 elections, with President Tsai and the DPP taking nearly twice as many votes as the KMT candidate. Historians will point to the 228 incident as the root of a strong Taiwanese identity that galvanized the nation with a desire for democratic reform. The 228 incident was an uprising against the KMT led ROC government that was violently suppressed, with estimates that between 5,000 and 28,000 citizens were massacred. Generations of political engagement have bound the Taiwanese people and polity, creating a sense of national identity. According to a 2018 survey by the National Chengchi University, more than half of the island’s residents self-identify as exclusively Taiwanese, while only 4% consider themselves to be only Chinese.
The growing political identity of Taiwanese youth is being referred to as Taiwan’s “third force,” a liberal activist movement. Frustrations over financial and economic inequality, mixed with generational conflicts, have given rise to major progressive youth movements supporting the DPP and a newer, third party known as the New Power Party (NPP). Xi Jinping has emphasized the need for Taiwan to accept regulations prescribed under the “one China" principle, and analysts are interpreting President Tsai’s landslide reelection as a rebuke to Beijing. So although tensions are high on either side of the Taiwan Strait, experts have cautioned that both Beijing and Taipei are responsible for avoiding a crisis by seeking resolutions to a situation without a neat solution.