Since 1949, the history of Taiwan has been strongly intertwined, but also separate from mainland China’s. For decades after World War II, the island was under military dictatorship, an ally of the United States, and serving as a pawn in the larger Cold War. By the 1990s, the island had undergone a stunning economic growth, and made a transition into a democratic society.
Taiwan’s Place in the World
Despite operating as a sovereign political identity for decades, Taiwan’s political status in the international community is contentious and not clearly defined. While possessing all the common requirements of a sovereign nation (it issues passports, has its own currency, and even has its own flag), Taiwan is not an internationally recognized nation by most other countries and international organizations. Taiwan is not able to represent itself in the UN, World Health Organization (WHO), and World Trade Organization (WTO), amongst others. The reasons for its ambiguous international status are directly related to the island’s history and relationship with mainland China. More importantly, the explanation you get will be largely based on whom you ask. The Taiwanese perspective is that Taiwan is an autonomous nation, separate from mainland China, and thus should be recognized as such. However, the mainland Chinese perspective is that Taiwan is, and always has been, a province of China, and thus is rightfully and actually a part of China. China, being the larger and more powerful of the two entities, often has enjoyed greater influence in international politics since the 1980s. China has asserted that if any country wished to have official diplomatic relations in Beijing, they must not have any official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The same can be said for most major international organizations and events. With China’s economic importance in the world, there are few countries in the world willing to sacrifice diplomatic relations with China in order to maintain relations with Taiwan. To deal with this challenge, Taiwan has developed economic bureaus with other countries, which act much like consulates, but without the formal diplomatic distinction.
The Taiwan Balancing Act
This brings us to the core of why the 2012 election was an important decision for the Taiwanese people. Most Taiwanese people feel the issue of national identity is paramount to the future of the island. However, there are differing views on how to deal with this issue. Some see maintaining the current situation of increased engagement with China, while increasing Taiwan’s global profile, as the way forward. Others feel a more assertive government emphasizing Taiwan independence, as the path toward securing Taiwanese identity. Taiwan currently has two main political parties, the Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The KMT is associated with something known as the Pan-Blue Coalition, while the DPP is considered part of the Pan-Green Alliance. Often times, political discussions about Taiwan’s politics will be described in terms of Green and Blue. The KMT (and thus the Blue) are considered the stronger and more dominant party. Supporters of Blue often believe in a status quo identity for Taiwan. They argue even though Taiwan is not currently a fully recognized country, its citizens still receive many of the benefits of being independent. They are able to travel internationally, not as Chinese, but as Taiwanese citizens, and they have their own economic and political systems. Blue supporters believe this status quo dynamic allows them many of the benefits of autonomy, while giving them more time to figure out a long term solution with the Chinese mainland to the west. They also believe by opening up economic relations with the mainland, this will foster economic cooperation, helping to decrease the likelihood of China taking aggressive actions towards Taiwan. Critics of this approach argue this has allowed China to get too close to Taiwan, and has weakened Taiwan’s ability to act independently of China. They also feel, the international community’s perception of closeness between Taiwan and China, would further other countries support for Taiwan to re-assimilate with the mainland. These critics also feel specific factions of Taiwanese society prefer this approach, as it allows for short term financial gains for a select few, at the long term expense of the island’s autonomy. These critics, often DPP (Green) supporters, believe Taiwan needs to reassess its relationship with China. They believe a greater emphasis should be put on Taiwan identity and autonomy, perhaps by slowing and re-evaluating economic ties (which they argue often more heavily favor the mainland). Critics of the DPP feel they use too hostile and threatening of an approach in dealing with the larger and more powerful China. They worry this approach could lead to negative economic impact, diplomatic and possibly even military tensions. They argue a more antagonistic relationship with China would merely weaken Taiwan’s ability to assert autonomous decision making; possibly also alienating the island from foreign countries, as few countries are willing to risk their relationship with China, in order to stand up for Taiwan.
Looking to the Future
On January 14, 2012, Taiwanese voters answered the question we’ve all been waiting to know: is the currently ruling KMT’s approach to relations with China acceptable, or is the DPP’s more independence focused approach what the Taiwanese are looking for? While it was a close election, by Saturday evening the votes had been tallied, and the KMT under President Ma would be given four more years to further develop their approach to cross-strait relations. Now we will have to wait and see what this will mean for the future of Taiwan.