Monday, June 13, 2016

What's the Deal with Taiwan?

Given that last month I went on a trip to Taiwan, I thought it would be cool to discuss today what exactly Taiwan is. Is it a country? A part of China? Or something else entirely?

To understand the situation with Taiwan, we have to go back in time to 1949. The Chinese civil war is raging, between the nationalist Republic of China and the communist People's Republic of China. The communists are gaining ground every day as they advance southward. The nationalists have but one final hope: to retreat from the mainland to the island of Taiwan, there to regroup and someday stage a comeback. The relocation is successful, and the ROC establishes Taipei as its provisional capital. To this day, Taiwan, along with a few islands off the Mainland's coast, continues to call itself the "free area of the Republic of China", and has developed politcally and economically apart from the Mainland. Although initially a pseudo-fascist regime under the despotic Chiang Kai-Shek, the ROC has developed into a modern multiparty democracy with a first-world standard of living. The ROC claims to be the legitimate government of all China. Some countries, such as Swaziland and the Vatican, accept this claim, and maintain ROC embassies rather than those of the PRC.

Meanwhile, back on the Mainland, the People's Republic of China declared victory in October 1949, and continues to refer to Taiwan as a province, using scare quotes in news media when referring to the ROC and its government organs. As each republic claims the territory of the other, the two sides to have to toe a careful line to avoid a war of catastrophic proportions, especially as the US has vowed (in theory) to support Taiwan in such a conflict. As J. Maarten Troost said in his excellent book Lost on Planet China, there are probably no more than a dozen people in the US who could muster up any enthusiasm for an apocalyptic war with China over Taiwan, but all twelve of them probably have jobs at the White House.

Basically the status quo, sometimes called the "1992 Consensus", is that China is one country with one legitimate government. That government, depending on your opinion, is either the ROC or the PRC.

All of this would be a much simpler matter if there were only two sides to the debate, but there's a third: the Taiwanese independence movement. Basically, before becoming the last redoubt of the ROC, Taiwan had been inhabited for hundreds of years by speakers of southern Chinese varieties, and for thousands of years before that by Austronesian speakers—the Austronesian language family being widely spoken arcross the South Seas. As you might expect, both the southern Chinese and Austronesian-speaking populations were none too happy about Mandarin-speaking mainlanders suddenly showing up and setting up camp on their island. This led to the claim that Taiwan is in fact a nation unto itself. Their slogan is "Taiwan is Taiwan, China is China". They want Taiwan to shed its Chinese trappings and become the independent "Republic of Taiwan". Such a move would alienate the descendants of the 1949 refugees who have—rightly—come to see Taiwan as their home. Also, it would trigger an invasion from the PRC, which would be less than fun.

Fortunately for everyone, I have a plan. I have an awesome idea for solving the ROC-vs.-Taiwan dispute that, even if it doesn't make everybody happy, at least it pisses everyone off equally. I told my idea to a girl working at the hostel in Taipei, and she said it was "a good idea...just really stupid".

My proposal hinges on an important, but often-overlooked fact: the free area of the ROC doesn't only comprise Taiwan. The ROC also controls Matsu and Kinmen, two archipelagoes along the mainland's coast:

Apparently, from Kinmen it's even possible to see the mainland on a clear day. Matsu and Kinmen form a separate province within the free area of the ROC, Taiwan being the other. So, while administered by the ROC, the archipelagoes are not part of "Taiwan", geographically or even politically.

This in mind, here's my proposal: first, the ROC grants Taiwan Province—i.e. all of the free area of the ROC except for the three archipelagoes—regional autonomy. Perhaps something could be worked out similar to the relationship between Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Greenland and the Faroes are essentially independent countries that are diplomatically represented by the Danish crown. In return, Denmark is responsible for Greenlandic and Faroese national defense. A similar situation could be worked out between the ROC and Taiwan. While the ROC manages foreign relations and national defence, Taiwan could be a de-facto independent country-within-a-country. Having given Taiwan self-rule, the ROC could relocate its seat to Kinmen and Matsu. While these islands are quite small, it's not as if they're uninhabited rocks. They have cities. People live there.

Of course, this relocation is only a temporary measure until Chinese reunification. At that time, the government relocates to the mainland, and Taiwan is granted formal and complete independence.

As far as I can tell, this proposal seems fair to all parties involved:

1. The ROC continues to exist, and maintains its presence in Taiwan, at least formally, until it reunifies with the mainland.

2. The Taiwan independence movemeent gets autonomy now, and independence later. The promise of independence is a motivation to support the ROC in Chinese reunification. As an added bonus, the ROC relocates its government off of Taiwan proper.

3. The PRC can continue, technically speaking, to make the claim that "Taiwan is part of China". As long as they can do this, they have promised not to bomb Taiwan back to the stone age.

So, what do you think? Good plan, or should I keep my day job? If you're Tsai Ing-wen (the ROC president) and you want me in your cabinet, let me know by leaving a comment!


  1. Actually according to international law, Taiwan status is undetermined and currently all Taiwanese are "deemed to be" citizens of ROC.

    There are de-classified reports from govt of United States and UK and Japan and even from ROC ministry of Foreign Affairs itself to tell their respective congress/parliament members that Taiwan wasn't officially handed over back to ROC at the end of WW2 as ROC and PRC love to claim. ROC was just authorized by US (leader of Pacific theater ) to occupy Taiwan as US occupy Japan. Hence Taiwan status is undetermined and still awaits final settlement.

    If you spend time to attend think tank seminars like Hudson, Brookings etc they'd tell you the same.

  2. Hello, regarding the legal status of Taiwan, you may refer to this url for simple explanation:

    Simply put, the sovereignty of Taiwan (Formosa) and Penghu (the Pescadores) are not determined after WW2, and what the ROC government doing now is administering Taiwan (including Penghu) according to a document called General Order No. 1 issued by the Japanese government under the SCAP's order.

    Nevertheless, your plan is actually what the ROC government should do, at least part of: yes, the ROC government should move to Kinmen & Matsu, because these are the only land under the ROC's control that the ROC can legally claim as her territory. As for Taiwan (including Penghu,) the residents who lived on Taiwan and Penghu as Japanese nationals and their descendants shall hold a plebiscite to determine the future of these lands.