It was an historic day for the Chinese people; the People’s Republic (China) and the Republic (Taiwan) held high-level official talks for the first time since the Civil War ended in 1949. At the war’s conclusion, the defeated Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek fled the mainland for Taiwan where a rival government to that of Mao Tse-Tung’s communists in Beijing was established. Both sides have claimed to be the legitimate political representatives of the Chinese since, although it is the PRC that is internationally recognised.
Relations between the PRC and the ROC have improved steadily over the past few years, with economic and communications ties expanding significantly. Ma-Ying Jeou’s reign as Taiwan’s Prime Minister has been characterised by attempts to improve relations with Beijing. Certainly, we have come a long way since the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis when Beijing contemplated taking control of the island by force, something it has never ruled out doing. Only the American promise of assistance to Taiwan in the event of an attack on Taipei secured the status quo.
Whilst today’s talks are not completely shocking given the current atmosphere of peace and stability in Sino-Taiwanese relations, it is an almost unthinkable evolution when looking back several decades. As long as Mao and Chiang ruled their respective territories there was no chance of rapprochement and the possibility of a renewal of civil war lurked menacingly.
In addition, the Americans and much of the Western world continued to see Chiang as the legitimate ruler of China and refused to engage with Beijing. Such a possibility was only contemplated after the Sino-Soviet split when the potential to undermine a greater enemy diluted the bitter taste of Mao’s atrocities and communist virulence. Prior to the United States’ official recognition of the PRC in 1979, the worry that it might get involved in another anti-communist intervention, such as those in Korea and Vietnam, was very real. Having Chiang and his Kumointang as ready-made replacements heightened the tension.
The US abandoned its Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan in 1980, although close military ties between Washington and Taipei persist with American arms sales a constant source of frustration in Beijing.
Shortly before Richard Nixon’s visit to see Mao in 1972, American Earl Ravenal made the following observation:
The logic is that alliance with Taipei and relations with Peking are mutually exclusive. And the facts are that our military support is unnecessary for the immediate defense of Taiwan, and the island in turn is unnecessary for the security of the United States and its regional interests.
Therefore, the military value of Taiwan is not a sufficient reason for upholding the indefinite partition of China. Yet the consequences of ending the alliance would be more significant than is generally appreciated, for it would not only signal abandonment of the containment of China but threaten the concept of collective security. (Earl C Ravenal, ‘Approaching China, Defending Taiwan, Foreign Affairs, October 1971)
Whilst state-to-state relations between the US and Taiwan no longer exist, unofficial ties between the two are strong enough to mean that the above statement still applies today.
Beijing may have softened its approach and rhetoric in dealing with Taipei, yet its ultimate goal of ‘One China’ remains. Without American vigilance and implied support for Taiwan’s sovereign integrity, the warming relations would soon freeze over.