Taiwan is a de facto independent nation that perfectly fits the four chief criteria of statehood required by the Montevideo Convention. Namely, it has a permanent population, a defined territory, a functioning government and the capacity to enter relations with other states.
Although the convention does not require that an independent nation enter relations with others, Taiwan has and continues to do so.
Once that is accepted, it becomes complicated, and quickly reveals the 50 shades of Taiwan independence that resulted in the post-World War II world and the ideological struggles of the Cold War.
Start with the US, the San Francisco Peace Treaty, and Taiwan’s name. One could say that a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, and Taiwan by any other name would be just as independent, but the US, the treaty, and the Cold War is where the problems begin.
In 1945, the US and the Soviet Union were ideologically opposed; they had been even before the war, but had temporarily united to face the more pressing threat of fascist Germany and its Axis allies.
Once Germany and Japan were defeated, the focus in Asia turned to China, where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) remained locked in a civil war to take over what was once the Manchu Empire.
The KMT was allegedly pro-democracy and the CCP was allegedly pro-communism, but a closer examination shows that both were driven more by the dream of restoring a “one China” chauvinistic Han empire that they would rule. Each sought this, even though Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians had no desire to be part of it.
The Chinese Civil War, which began in 1927, had been interrupted by Japan’s aggression, forcing both sides to call a temporary ceasefire. This struggle resumed after World War II and the CCP won out in 1949.
By the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty, the US as the chief victor in Asia found itself facing many decisions.
One was what to do with Taiwan. It had been a Japanese colony since the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki between Japan and the Qing Empire.
Unable to occupy all that had been part of Japan’s empire, the US occupied Japan and allowed its ally, the KMT, to occupy Taiwan.
Still in China, the KMT would in 1947 adopt the Republic of China (ROC) Constitution shortly before it lost all in its “civil war” with the communists, who then established the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Thus in the treaty, Japan surrendered Taiwan, but it did not name a recipient, and the US did not insist on one. This has made some claim Taiwan is still not independent; it technically belongs to the US military government. That could be why the US says it is still “undecided” on Taiwan.
On the other hand, with the US’ approval, Taiwan was occupied by the diaspora one-party state KMT, which denuded it to support its losing war in China.
Although Taiwan lacked the experienced leadership to be independent, the US also did not want to gift Taiwan to an ideological enemy, the CCP nor even a suspect KMT.
In 1950, the PRC intervened in Korea and the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union expanded from Europe into Asia. Independence remained on the back burner for Taiwan, which was usually referred to as Formosa.
By 1979, the US officially gave up any hope that the KMT would regain or even represent China. It dropped the name ROC from all documents and moved its embassy to Beijing; it also finally started calling the nation by the name Taiwan.
It was not yet independent and stood without status as the US wished to exploit the possibility of China’s aid in its struggle with the Soviets.
Taiwan remained as both a product and victim of the Cold War era; as far as independence was concerned, as late as in 1992, anyone who advocated for it was forbidden entry to Taiwan by the KMT rulers. Pro-independence supporters were blacklisted as persona non grata.
On the other hand, the US now addressed Taiwan as Taiwan and never agreed to it being part of China. Taiwan became Taiwan for some, but bore the ROC name for most others.
Even now it is difficult for the US to officially declare that Taiwan is independent; it would have to explain how and why for more than 75 years it has maintained its “undecided” position.
Yet, throughout the 1980s, Taiwanese factories produced a majority of goods for the US and the US continued to sell it arms. Taiwan was accepted, but not officially and independently acknowledged.
Admitting to Taiwan’s independence, especially once it became a democracy from 1992 onward, remains a key issue.
Meanwhile, the US helped create the economic powerhouse of present day China, but in doing so it has created its own monster, whatever good intentions or dreams it had.
As the PRC grew, so did its hegemonic ambition. To maintain this, it must deny Taiwan’s independence ideologically and practically. Taiwan is its key to dominating Asia and the South China Sea.
Ironically, as a contrasting sign of Taiwan’s independence, Taiwan is granted visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 146 countries, while China is only granted such access to 78. Of all those countries, only 15 officially recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, and when they do so, they still do it under the outdated name of the ROC.
Today, alliances are being built outside Taiwan, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue of Australia, India, Japan and the US is recognizing that it might have to front this nomenclature problem and agree with Taiwan’s independence sooner rather than later. The countries need to tell Beijing that it is pushing too far.
Among the KMT, there are different shades of independence; some reject it because they would have to admit to their past anti-democratic rule, and how after losing to the CCP they became the beggars who took over the temple of Taiwan.
Other KMT members are dreamers who somehow hope that a god would wave a magic wand and suddenly the world would see that the KMT had good intentions and should be welcomed as heroes.
Some even still foster the Han chauvinist dream of building “one China” out of the splintered Manchu Empire. They would rather join their old enemies, the CCP, than promote independence and democracy.
Even average Taiwanese are divided. The majority certainly see Taiwan as an independent nation, but hesitate to officially declare it, as the PRC has made it a red line.
They dislike the ROC name and flag, but changing them is not of prime importance. The ROC is like a bad nickname that people pick up as children and is still used by many out of habit. They ignore it and put up with it.
For them, economic issues are more pressing than changing the name and Constitution; those issues remain on the back burner.
They say: “We already enjoy our independence, there is no need to rock the boat and declare it.” Like a mistress who has all the benefits of home, money and support, but not official recognition, they are content.
Others of course are fiercely independent, they hate the name ROC and have put up with this nonsense for too long.
These all contribute to the 50 shades of Taiwan’s independence. Life is always in the process of evolving, and more nations might imitate Lithuania, which now uses the name Taiwan and thumbs its nose at the economic threats of China, and the number of countries that do so will grow.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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