Taiwan was first settled tens of thousands of years ago.
Over the course of its history, this collection of 168 islands has rebuffed attempts to colonise it; it’s been swapped as a makeweight in peace treaties; and, in the mid-20th century, became the refuge for a government-in-exile which claimed authority over mainland China.
Now, in 2022, it stands as one of the wealthiest and most developed countries in the world. Yet its political status remains uncertain.
This uncertainty is rooted in ideas of ownership.
Following the end of the Chinese civil war 1949 – in which the Mao Zedong-led Communists emerged victorious over the Nationalists – the remnants of the Nationalist government fled to Taiwan, establishing a government-in-exile which they called the Republic of China (ROC).
This government-in-exile claimed sovereignty over China, despite the Chinese mainland being ruled by the victorious Communists.
In turn, the Communists – who had established control over what became known as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – claimed sovereignty over Taiwan.
For more than two decades, much of the rest of the world – perhaps buoyed by anti-communist sentiment – recognised the ROC as the legitimate government of China.
But in the early-1970s, this began to change, spurred by the PRC’s vast population and economic potential, as well as some less-than-savoury goings-on in the ROC, which was ruled by an authoritarian government under martial law that relentlessly persecuted suspected Communist sympathisers.
More than 100,000 suspected sympathisers were arrested or killed over the coming decades.
But Taiwan’s small population and nimble bureaucracy, combined with anti-communist sentiments in the West – also provided economic opportunity.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Taiwan intensified its agricultural sector, growing the economy exponentially, and enjoyed favourable treatment from the powerhouse United States.
In the 1980s, it invested heavily in its technology sector, predicting this would enjoy a boom in the coming decades.
Buoyed by its economic development, Taiwan transitioned peacefully from a military dictatorship to a multi-party democracy in the late-1980s and early-1990s.
Now, Taiwan finds itself in an enviable position, as the world’s largest manufacturer of semiconductors – computer chips which are ubiquitous, and vital to countries all around the world.
It is a vital cog in the supply chain for consumer goods. But uncertainty over its future perseveres.
Taiwan has functioned as a de facto independent nation for some 70 years, but the rest of the world does not treat it as one for fear of alienating China as a diplomatic ally or trading partner.
And while many Taiwanese people and political leaders may have given up on their claim as the legitimate government of China, the PRC has never wavered from its position that Taiwan is a breakaway province of the PRC, which must eventually return to Chinese control.
While Taiwan does enjoy some level of support – demonstrated earlier this month, when the US Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visited the islands – University of Canterbury political science professor Alex Tan says it still exists in a kind of geopolitical limbo.
China was enraged by Pelosi’s visit. After she left, it decided to engage in some military exercises around Taiwan, which Tan says is a clear intimidation tactic.
“They fired ballistic missiles to test their accuracy that went over Taiwan’s atmosphere.
“It’s a psychological game, stoking fear among the people. Although…look, Taiwan [has] 70-something years of living with the dragon, so to speak. They always know those threats, so life goes on as usual.
“But they’re telling the Taiwanese people: look, we have these capabilities now…we just want to know you won’t run too far.”
So, how does this situation resolve?
Tan says there are three realistic options: to kick the can further down the road and continue with the status quo; for China to recognise Taiwan as an independent nation; or for things to escalate to a full-blown military conflict.
He says surveys suggest that while many Taiwanese support the idea of an independent Taiwan, they are content to persevere with the status quo if pursuing independence came with the threat of Chinese military aggression.
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