The Decades Long Dance Between China and Taiwan


The past several months have seen a significant elevation of tensions in the western Pacific. The biggest event was probably the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) findings, which overwhelmingly favored the Philippines, the claimant, in its disputes with the People’s Republic of China regarding the South China Sea.

Yet as important, if less noticed, was the suspension of all formal communications between China and Taiwan’s government. After an eight-year period of relative tranquility in the Taiwan Straits, it appears that cross-straits tensions will soon be on the rise again. Indeed, these two events in combination are likely to significantly raise tensions from the Senkaku Islands to the Straits of Malacca.

Beijing suspended formal cross-straits communications in reaction to the new government in Taipei, as the Chinese leadership is intent on bringing this new government to heel. With the inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan saw the fourth democratic transition in the island’s leadership since the end of martial law in the 1990s. Tsai, head of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), had already scored a major victory over the Kuomintang’s (KMT) Eric Chu in presidential elections this past January. Riding Tsai’s momentum, the DPP also won enough votes to secure control of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s legislature, reflecting broad public support for the party.

Since a key raison d’etre of the DPP is a belief in Taiwanese independence (along with progressive social policies), tensions with Beijing are often focused on whether Taipei will push for independence from Beijing. But the rancor between the two sides of the Straits predates the return of the DPP to power. Instead, it has roots in the five decades between the waning days of imperial China and the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949.

The Impact of Japanese Colonialism

Taiwan had long been something of a land apart, following different paths from the Chinese mainland. After the Ming Dynasty was conquered by the Manchu invaders of the Qing dynasty, some of its loyalists, led by Zheng Chenggong (also known as Coxinga) based themselves on Taiwan. They hoped to use it as a springboard to restore Ming rule and waged a multi-decade campaign to that end.

This divergence became even more prominent after imperial China ceded Taiwan to Japan after the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). That war made Japan an imperialist nation, as Japan also came to dominate the Korean peninsula as part of its sphere of influence. For authorities in Tokyo, Taiwan was an opportunity to showcase that Japan could be as effective an imperial power as its European counterparts. Over the course of five decades, various administrative policies were implemented depending upon the attitude in Tokyo. These policies all sought to assimilate the island’s population into the larger Japanese empire, but differed in degree. Notably, the population on Taiwan was generally treated much less brutally than Koreans. Japan oversaw the expansion of local infrastructure (including transportation), public health measures (a reduction in the incidence of diseases such as malaria), and the establishment of a public school system.

As a result, Taiwanese perceptions of Japan were not only different from those of Koreans, but also from those of the Chinese on the mainland. Unlike their counterparts across the straits, many of the people on Taiwan did not see the establishment of Kuomintang (Nationalist) authority on the island in the wake of Japan’s surrender as an improvement. These differing perceptions led many Taiwanese to chafe at Kuomintang administration, often seen as corrupt. Issues came to a head in the “228 incident,” when KMT forces and Taiwanese protestors clashed on February 28, 1947. The subsequent crackdown led to thousands of Taiwanese casualties and the imposition of martial law, which was not lifted until 1987.

The Rise of a Taiwan Identity

After the Kuomintang regime fled the mainland for Taiwan in 1949, the island was essentially under political and sometimes military siege. For much of the next three decades, the KMT battled with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for international recognition, while maintaining the posture of striving to retake the mainland. The American opening to Beijing in the early 1970s, however, made it clear that these prospects were steadily receding.

When Chiang Ching-kuo, son and successor to Chiang Kai-shek, ended martial law on the island, it essentially marked the recognition that Taiwan was unlikely to retake the mainland in the foreseeable future. The end of martial law and the advent of free elections meant that the population on Taiwan would have more political options.

At the same time, a sense grew of a Taiwanese (as opposed to a Chinese) identity among the inhabitants of the island. Many of those born and raised on the island for generations had not given up their desire for independence, though this was muted by the strictures of martial law. Meanwhile, the children and grandchildren of those who had fled the mainland increasingly saw themselves as distinct from those who had stayed behind. In part, the founding of the DPP in 1986 reflected a coalescing of these diverse elements.

This growing sense of Taiwanese identity alarmed the CCP leadership. It was one thing to face a Taipei that believed it was the legitimate government of all of China. It was an entirely different problem to confront a Taiwan that rejected reunification and was interested in independence. Beijing’s concerns were exacerbated by the rise of Lee Teng-hui, Chiang Ching-kuo’s vice president and successor.

Although a member of the KMT, Lee had been born on Taiwan while it was under Japanese rule. Lee had served in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II and spoke Japanese fluently. Many in Beijing believed that he supported Taiwanese independence. His actions were therefore interpreted as efforts to establish a Taiwanese identity and create diplomatic space.

Things came to a head in 1995. Despite promises to Beijing by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher that Lee would not be granted a visa to visit America, U.S. congressional leaders intervened with the State Department to give Lee permission to visit Cornell University (his alma mater). The result was the Third Taiwan Straits crisis.

As the Republic of China prepared for the first direct election of a president in 1996, in which Lee the favored candidate, Beijing sought to intimidate the population by testing missiles in waters both north and south of the island. Their apparent goal was to force Taiwan to formally accept the formula of “one country, two systems” and effectively renounce any possibility of ever pursuing independence. The United States responded to the Chinese missile tests by dispatching two carrier groups to the waters off Taiwan, marking the nadir of Sino-U.S. relations since the Tiananmen Massacre only six years previously. The Chinese effort failed, as Lee was elected to the presidency in 1996, without acceding to the Chinese pressure.

The Rise of the DPP

During his term as president, Lee promoted “Taiwanization,” a broad effort to instill a sense of identity for Taiwan distinct from that of China. These efforts gained further impetus after the 2000 election won by DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian. Chen was a fervent supporter of Taiwanese independence, so much so that he managed to alienate the United States by suggesting that the United States would have no choice but to support Taiwan. While the United States has opposed any use of force to resolve the Taiwan Straits issue, it has simultaneously avoided encouraging a deliberate Taiwanese effort to alter the status quo. Any outright Taiwanese declaration of independence would constitute precisely such a unilateral step.

Nonetheless, Chen embodied the debate that was ongoing in Taiwanese society. As the generation that fled the mainland died from old age, a growing sense of a distinct, Taiwanese identity has taken hold, even among those whose ancestors were not born in Taiwan. Many on Taiwan in the 1950s and 1960s had presumed a single China, but argued over whether the KMT or the CCP was its rightful government. By contrast, there has been a growing sense among many born on Taiwan since then that Beijing is welcome to China, but not to Taiwan.

Chen’s presidency marked a low point in cross-Straits relations, as Beijing felt it difficult to work with Chen. This was exacerbated by divided government in Taipei, as the KMT still dominated the Legislative Yuan, leading to legislative gridlock. While Chen won reelection in 2004, the political pendulum swung back to the KMT in 2008, when Ma Ying-jeou won the presidential elections and the KMT retained the legislature.

Ma sought to reduce tensions with Beijing and made a point of avoiding discussions of independence. Cross-Straits relations improved, including the passage of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which eased a number of restrictions on trade and other interactions, such as allowing direct flights between China and Taiwan. A variety of domestic political missteps and a general economic downturn led to plummeting approval ratings for Ma, and in 2016, the KMT decisively lost to the DPP in elections that saw the DPP take control of not only the presidency, but also the Legislative Yuan.

Tsai Ing-wen

While the DPP has generally stood for Taiwan independence, Tsai has been very careful in her comments and remarks not to push for separation. During her campaign and in prior visits to the United States, she has avoided antagonizing Beijing by openly advocating independence. Nonetheless, Beijing has insisted that she must explicitly acknowledge the “one-China” principle, in effect formally and publicly rejecting the idea of Taiwan independence. This would include publicly accepting the “1992 Consensus,” a framework reportedly reached by semi-official representatives from the two sides in 1992, whereby both sides agreed that there was only one China with a government in dispute, and that Taiwan was part of it.

President Tsai did not explicitly endorse either the “one China” principle or the “1992 Consensus” in her inauguration speech — hardly surprising given both the centrality of Taiwanese identity and independence in the DPP, as well as the overwhelming victory the party had achieved. Nonetheless, her speech and various comments have not challenged the status quo.

Yet China still warned that failure to acknowledge the “one-China” principles would lead to the suspension of cross-Straits dialogue, a threat that it has now fulfilled. Chinese officials tied the ending of talks directly to Tsai’s failure to explicitly acknowledge that Taiwan is part of China or otherwise formally reject any move towards independence.

Taiwan and the South China Sea Issue

China’s actions towards Taiwan, coupled with its possible reactions to the PCA findings, raise the likelihood of greater tension in the East and South China Seas. Indeed, the PCA’s conclusion that Itu Aba, the largest natural formation in the Spratlys, is not an island aroused a reaction from Taipei as well as Beijing. Taiwanese authorities rejected the PCA’s conclusions, and noted that Taipei was not consulted in the case, even as the court ruled on the status of Itu Aba (which is held by Taiwan).

The break in formal communications between Beijing and Taipei, in this regard, is likely to exacerbate the situation, as Taiwan holds the original documentation regarding the “nine-dash line” that Beijing has used as the basis of its claims. If Taiwan were to reinterpret its position, such as by only claiming the land features within the South China Sea but making no formal claims regarding the waters, this would leave China even more isolated than it is now. Chinese efforts to isolate Taiwan under the DPP may therefore actually backfire if the Tsai government were to conclude that there was no reason not to differentiate itself further from the mainland. This is an especially powerful argument, given the importance Taipei, and especially the DPP, has given to acting in accordance with international law and norms.

Should Beijing pursue a South China Sea air defense identification zone (ADIZ), as some have posited, then the pressure on Taiwan to distance itself from Chinese actions would likely grow. Taiwan is unlikely to want to alienate its southeast Asian neighbors, and further isolate itself, by supporting such a unilateral Chinese act. On the other hand, acting like a responsible player may expand Taiwan’s limited relations and diplomatic space—but at the cost of further alienating China. If, however, Beijing has already decided to limit its interactions with Taipei, then its ability to bring further pressure to bear will be limited.

For China, then, its decision to reduce contacts with Taiwan, even as it finds itself more isolated on the South China Sea issue, is creating a conundrum. China needs Taiwan to bolster its position regarding the South China Sea, but its suspension of interaction gives the authorities in Taipei little reason to cooperate.


Dean Cheng is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. He specializes in China’s military and foreign policy.