China: does Taiwan have any right to independence?

With an ageing military capability and the US deciding what action to take to revitalise it, Taiwan's status question raises its ugly head.

After losing the Chinese civil war to the Communists, the Kuomintang government retreated to the offshore island of Taiwan. In 1949 Chiang Kai-shek and the rest of the republican party, their families, supporters and the paraphernalia of government shifted across the 160 km Taiwan Straits. They continued to operate as if they would return to the Mainland, even to the extent of MPs representing distant constituencies over which their government had zero control.

The Communist government was viewed by the world as a pariah state until US President Nixon in 1972 and UK PM Ted Head in 1974 built diplomatic bridges with Beijing through a programme of "Panda Diplomacy". Meanwhile the Americans continued to support Taiwan through trade and arms. 

Yet Taiwan lost its UN seat to China in the 1970s, since when it has had observer status only at the global body. Sabre-rattling and intermittent tensions surface from time to time, and the defence capability of Taiwan - particularly on its tiny islands nestling a few hundred meters off the Mainland - is stupendous.

The present Taiwanese government, under mainland-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou, has mended fences. This administration follows an eight-year independence-leaning government under President Chen Shui-bian. But the Taiwanese "Republic of China" remains a non sequitur. It is neither free to operate as a stand-alone state, nor an integral part of China. It might have succeeded in developing a thriving economy, one which has navigated huge change, and its society might have altered out of all recognition, as a result of immigration from China and South East Asia, but it has not dealt with its central question: its position in world affairs.

It seems to me to be ludicrous that the Republic of China could ever be considered to be anything other than a province of China. I can't imagine a civil war ever taking place in Australia, but if one were to occur and the defeated government and army fled to Tasmania, only to expect to be treated as a distinct and independent entity some sixty years later, how untenable would that appear? Or the equivalent occuring in the UK to the Isle of Wight?

At some stage Taiwan will undoubtedly revert to China proper. It might have serious misgivings right now due to the lack of a pluralistic liberal democracy on the Mainland. And the young, or even middle aged, in Taiwan might view themselves as distinct, as they've never known any other way of life, yet the reality - surely - is that independence for Taiwan is based on a shakey central premise, that the island is due its freedom by virtue of recent history.

However, Taiwan became part of the Fujian province of China in 1683 and remained under Chinese rule until the First Sino-Japanese war resulted in the ceding of Taiwan to Japan at the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki. After the defeat of Japan at the end of WWII on VJ Day 1945, Taiwan reverted to Chinese rule. Four years later Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang arrived.

As people's living standards gradually rise on the Mainland to match those on Taiwan, the gap in spirit and aspiration between these two rivals will narrow. Whether the Taiwanese can bite the bullet of realism and accept that re-integration is inevitable will depend not only on American support, but also on the level of friendship rapidly being developed through cross-Strait tourism.

I expect it's only a matter of time before these two re-unite, as the third way pursued now by the Taiwanese is a road with no destination.

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