Relations across the Taiwan Strait have proven to be dynamic over time. Mainland China currently follows a “one China” policy, stating that Taiwan is a part of the mainland, which constitutes one united China. And, in the past, Taiwan’s policies towards the mainland followed a similar logic, as leadership stated that the Republic of China is the legitimate government of the region and includes both the mainland and Taiwan. Such mentalities and subsequent actions are rooted in China’s history: the KMT-CCP split on mainland China and successive historical events have greatly affected rhetoric and ideologies across the Taiwan Straits. Furthermore, as the Cold War escalated, the US increased its involvement in the region, giving cross-Strait relations more of an international component. However, in recent years, new developments such as domestic changes in Taiwan and large international events such as 9/11 have caused and also implied possible changes in Cross-Strait relations moving forward.
In the early 20th century, the Communist and Nationalist parties formed a fragile alliance in an un-unified China. However, as time went on, the Nationalists began to become more and more anti-communist, in essence breaking the already fragile alliance and forcing the Communists to move north as they began the Long March. Such an act proved to be fateful, as the Communists developed their party under the leadership of Mao Zedong, growing their membership while simultaneously strengthening the Party. Mao began to invoke nationalistic rhetoric, as the CCP desired to demonstrate its effective performance over China. The KMT meanwhile was waning, as its losses in the Sino-Japanese War drained the KMT of many military and financial resources. The KMT began to rely on US aid to continue fighting, and after World War II, the KMT’s external struggles were coupled with internal corruption. The Communists mobilized and easily expelled the already-weak KMT troops, forcing Chiang Kai-shek to flee across the Strait, as he established the Republic of China. However, Chiang maintained his desire to re-take the mainland. The Communist Party used nationalist rhetoric in order to establish itself on stronger footing in the mainland, as it was constantly concerned about legitimacy consequences: the two main pillars for the Communist Party were performance and nationalism. The existence of the ROC across the Taiwan Straits called into question such Party legitimacy, and the CCP took action.
Further complicating matters was the fact that each side was founded on different ideologies: the CCP of mainland China followed Marxist-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought while the Nationalists were essentially anti-Communists with aims to eventually democratize. This seemed to place Taiwan Strait relations into the ideological conflict within the Cold War, and the US and USSR gradually involved themselves as a result: the USSR almost immediately recognized the PRC and formed an Alliance of Friendship in 1950, and the US initially continued its support for the KMT, refusing to recognize the PRC. History seemed to tie the US to its KMT ally. This in and of itself caused conflict, as foreign state actors began to become involved in the Taiwan Strait split, placing it into a Cold War framework.
Both the PRC and ROC continued to press the idea that there was only one China with the aims of bolstering legitimacy. For the PRC this meant that the mainland would have to re-take Taiwan, and for the ROC, this meant that the mainland must be recovered. For both the PRC and ROC, these were the only methods to achieving legitimacy. As such, the idea of “territorial unification and integration constituted the primary objective in Chinese foreign policy.” This idea was rooted in history. For example, in 1954, Mao created the first Taiwan Strait Crisis out of fear that the world could treat Taiwan as a separate state following the two Korea and two Vietnam solutions. US involvement further fed into this fear, as the US sent a patrolling fleet during the Korean War, a consequence of the Cold War climate.
Similarly, the PRC created the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis with the goal of domestic mobilization in mind. Such actions reflect how deep-rooted the question of Taiwan was in the PRC, and Mao believed that using limited force would create the tension necessary to achieve self-strengthening . This resulted in greater US involvement and intervention in support of an anti-communist KMT, as the US blockaded and isolated mainland China. However, China was growing suspicious of the USSR, as it failed to understand the importance of Taiwan, causing a fracture in the alliance, which later distanced Straits relations from the Cold War struggle. There were now hints that the Soviet threat was causing the US and China to view each other more sympathetically, yet the US continued relations with the KMT and sanctions on the CCP.
The Straits Crises opened negotiation channels with the United States and demonstrated China’s determination to reunify the country, as such an action was essential to the Party’s legitimacy. The US, for its part, began to realize that the CCP was there to stay and that relations in the area could not be improved without acknowledging that Taiwan was an integral part of China. This realization began to guide US-China diplomacy, as negotiations during the Nixon trip in 1972 revolved around the question of Taiwan. In talks, the PRC’s emphasis on legitimacy across the Strait led it to assert that the US should end relations with Taiwan, remove forces, and cancel military sales. The resulting Shanghai Communique shifted the international narrative, as the US stated that there was in fact only one China but that Taiwan’s status remained undetermined. And, as time went on, the PRC seemed to gain more and more legitimacy, officially restoring relations with Japan in 1972 and later with the US in 1979.
However, such actions need to be understood in a historical context: in this Cold War era, the US began to see the USSR as more and more aggressive and was thus more willing to make compromises on Taiwan to gain China’s allegiance and support. This was further reflected in the 1982 Communique, as the US seemed to shift support to the mainland. However, policies towards the Taiwan Straits included lawyer-like phrasing that gave the US great flexibility, allowing it to maintain its historical affinity to the KMT, evident in the US continuation of arm sales to Taiwan. Such ambiguity has persisted in the region.
The KMT originally showed resolve through this period, as Chiang expressed the fact that Taiwan was willing to fight alone against the PRC. However, as US support seemed to further waver with the Three Communiques, Taiwan began to fear the possibility of a PRC attack: the US seemed less committed to Taiwan’s existence. Taiwan lifted Marshall law in 1987, possibly to garner international support: it was inferred that the US would not allow the PRC to attack a budding democracy, and the US became more involved in the Straits.
Following the Cold War, Taiwan’s leadership began to change: Lee came to power, and he seemed to be moving in the direction of making Taiwan a permanent separate state, reflected in his statement that the political situation was a “state-to-state relation.” The possibility of an independent Taiwan ran counter to the historically shared “one-China” narrative of the CCP and KMT. This commonality made the KMT a sort of necessary evil in cross-Strait relations, as it somewhat ensured the eventual creation of one China. The PRC shifted its defense posture to ensure the continuation of the one China mindset, focusing its attention on the navy and air force as coercive tools to be used towards Taiwan. The PRC accelerated this military buildup towards Taiwan with the deployment of 100,000 troops and firings at the island. Later on, the election of the DPP candidate Chen Shui-Bian seemed to further underscore cross-Strait tension, as Chen pushed new policies that implied he could seek populist means to create permanent separation from the mainland. He also described Taiwan Strait relations as one country on each side, which took Lee’s state-to-state comment a step farther. When Chen was reelected, the PRC responded by having drafting an anti-secession law, which implied China could use force.
The United States, meanwhile, had recently announced the sale of a large arms package to Taiwan, causing more ambiguity in the US role in the region. Furthermore, George W. Bush stated that the US would “do whatever it takes” to help Taiwan defend itself. However, following the 9/11 attacks, US-China relations began to thaw: such an event led to more US-China cooperation, as the attacks underscored the common interest of maintaining global stability. Yet, distrust remained, and the US needed to credibly signal its commitment to the PRC. Chen’s reelection provided such an opportunity to assure the PRC both of US support for the PRC and desire to avoid fighting: Bush criticized Chen’s actions and opposed Taiwan’s plan to apply to the UN. This proved to further complicate Taiwan Straits relations, as the US supported the PRC yet hoped to deter the mainland from using force in the name of its anti-secession law, something that proved to be a balancing act.
Later on, the election of Ma created a cross strait détente, as the PRC and Taiwan began to deepen their economic and social ties, culminating in a historic summit in 2015. Viewed through a historical lens, such actions make logical sense: a close PRC-Taiwan relationship could bolster CCP legitimacy and lead to eventual re-unification. Furthermore, Ma explicitly supported the recognition of one China, which bodes well for the mainland: with its increasing power, the PRC would no doubt become the leader of this one China.
However, one key historical fact is missing from this equation: there exists an identity problem in Taiwan. Many feel separated from the mainland and thus have limited to no affinity to it. As such, it may be difficult to convince citizens in a democracy to agree to uniting with the mainland. And, with the election of President Tsai and DPP, the prospect of conflict may be poised to re-emerge.
We are now forced to ask the critical question: will such an administration cause the PRC to increase economic, diplomatic, or even military pressure on Taiwan? By looking at history, we can see that China does have a record of using such methods to create a reaction. Furthermore, China’s recent actions within the region, specifically use of force in the South China Sea, imply that it is willing to take on an activist role in order to get what it wants. As such, under KMT leadership, China could expect Taiwan to become closer and closer to the mainland, as the PRC holds more and more of an influential role in the world order. If, however, Taiwan continues a path towards independence, it may run into conflict: the mainland, especially with its recent track record, may use coercive measures both through hard and soft power to prevent such an action.