Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China: Two Chinas or One?

25 Juin 2013

Between April 27 and 29 1993, the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (China mainland) met in Singapore for the “Koo-Wang meeting”, three days of official bilateral negotiation over the “One China” dispute. 20 years after the talks, where are the negotiations heading between the two Chinas?

Shanghai (China) - Security during the opening of the direct sea traffic between China and Taiwan ¦ Photo Credit - Nir Elias/Reuters
Shanghai (China) - Security during the opening of the direct sea traffic between China and Taiwan ¦ Photo Credit - Nir Elias/Reuters
Both the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan (or the Republic of China) claim to represent China to this day – thereby laying claim to each other’s territory. At the 20th anniversary of Sino-Chinese talks on April, 29 2013, the Taiwanese President Ma Yung-Jeou reaffirmed his One China policy commitment stating that "No matter where we are, here or abroad, we'll by no means push for 'Two Chinas', 'One Taiwan, one China' or 'Taiwan’s independence ’”. At the same time the PRC continues to insist that Taiwan (as a “rebellious province”) is a matter of state sovereignty, which was reemphasised by the Chinese President Xi Jinping during his meeting with US-President Barack Obama, at the beginning of June in Washington DC.

From the 17th to the 20th Century

But where does the claim to represent China actually come from? Looking at Chinese history, we find that as a result of the Chinese civil war 1945-49, the former government of China (ROC) took refuge on the island of Taiwan with the intention to eventually reconquer the mainland. At the same time, the PRC was founded on the mainland in 1949 by Chinese communists, thereby effectively establishing a second claim to China.
This claim dates back to 1683 when the Qing Emperor Kangxi conquered Taiwan. However, Taiwanese nationalists point out that Qing rulers were not Han Chinese (predominant in the PRC today), but Manchus from the North East of China, distinct in culture and language from the Han Chinese predominant today. Therefore, according to the Taiwanese nationalists, Taiwan had never been ruled by China. In addition, the Qing dynasty ceded Taiwan to Japan “in perpetuity” under Article 2b of the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki. Therefore, even if we accept the PRC argument that the Qing dynasty constituted Chinese rule, we have to acknowledge the fact that it has been over 100 years since a Chinese ruler governed Taiwan.

In this state of "quasi-independence", the United-States continue to play a crucial role to this day. Following the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the United-States maintain their capacity to “resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan”. The Act also provides the legal basis for US-weapon sales to Taiwan, which was also one of the items on Xi Jinping’s agenda in his talks with Obama. In addition, more recently doubts have been voiced among the American public about the continuation of American support for Taiwan as this is often perceived to complicate if not jeopardise Sino-American relations.

Finally, the ambiguity surrounding Taiwan’s status is closely related to the lack of its representation in international bodies like the United Nations. Taiwan held the seat for China in the Security Council until 1971, when it was ousted and replaced by the PRC. All its subsequent applications for membership in both General Assembly and other UN-associated bodies like the WHO were vetoed by the PRC in the Security Council.

This PRC policy of international isolationism against Taiwan has not only led to what de facto are Taiwanese embassies being called “Taipei Representative Offices”, but also placed obstacles to international collaboration in response to crises thereby posing the question of a possible violation of human rights. Especially with regards to the outbreak of SARS, the failure of the World Health Organisation to provide access to its Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network stands in stark contrast to the WHO’s aim – “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health” and the international spirit the United Nations are supposed to stand in. 

The case of Hong Kong

Would it then not be better for Taiwan to consider the return to the PRC under negotiated terms? If such an agreement was to come about, the case of Hong Kong, which only returned to the PRC in 1997 might be used as a reference case.

Yet, Hong Kong also illustrated why Taiwan might not wish to cease power to the PRC. Hong Kong is ruled in accordance with the “1 country, 2 systems” regulation, as laid out in the Sino-British Joint communiqué of 1984. According to the communiqué, Hong Kong would retain its capitalist system and would allow citizens to keep the freedom and rights in place under the British system.

Yet, concessions made to the PRC, like the veto right with regards to changes of the political system, have frustrated parties advocating political reform and civil movements supporting a complete independence or criticising the PRC for not respecting the rights granted in the handover have gained in prominence. That Taiwan then has reservations about acceding to the PRC is reasonable – given that there is no ultimate guarantee that the PRC government would keep its word.