Taiwan easily satisfies the traditional requirements for statehood: a permanent population, effective control over a territory, a government, and the capacity to interact with other states. Yet the realities of global power politics have kept Taiwan from being recognized as such.
The past thirty years have witnessed a profound and persistent movement of democratization—and Taiwanization—that runs counter to the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) unfounded claims over the island. Under present conditions, Taiwan’s statehood is best understood in the context of an ongoing process of evolution propelled by the desire and action of the Taiwanese people for self-determination and democracy.
Formal Chinese control over Taiwan was historically tenuous and short-lived. It was not until 1887 that the Qing dynasty formally made Taiwan a province. Following the Chinese defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, China ceded Formosa (Taiwan) and the Pescadores (Penghu) to Japan in perpetuity under the Treaty of Shimonoseki.
In 1945, at the end of the war in the Pacific, Japan ceded control of Taiwan to the Allied forces, who delegated responsibility of military occupation over the island to the army of the Republic of China (ROC) led by Chiang Kai-shek. In 1949, after the ROC’s defeat in the Chinese civil war, Chiang and his Kuomintang (KMT) supporters fled from mainland China to Taiwan and established a regime in exile, imposing martial law, which lasted for 38 years.
In spite of the ROC’s military occupation, Taiwan remained a Japanese territory until the San Francisco Peace Treaty took effect in 1952. The Treaty, signed by 48 nations, superseded wartime declarations such as the Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Proclamation. Today’s controversies about “one China,” “one China—but not now,” “two Chinas,” and “one China, one Taiwan” stem from uncertainties about Taiwan’s status after the Treaty. Under Article 2(b), “Japan renounce[d] all right, title and claim” to Taiwan. The Treaty’s drafters were deliberately silent as to whom Japan was ceding the territory.
In 1971, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 2758, expelling Chiang’s representatives (the ROC was a charter member) and making the PRC the only lawful representative of China in the UN. In 1979, the United States switched diplomatic recognition to the PRC, opting to maintain unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan. Congress codified the terms of unofficial relations in the Taiwan Relations Act.
In 1987, the KMT government lifted martial law, and a gradual process of transformation began. In 1988, after the death of Chiang’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, native-born Taiwanese Vice President Lee Teng-hui acceded to the presidency. Lee, popularly known as “Mr. Democracy,” oversaw great strides in democratization in Taiwan. In 1991, the original members of the Legislative Yuan and of the National Assembly (known as the “Old Thieves”) were forced to retire as a result of the Wild Lily student movement. These original, exiled members were elected in 1947 to represent constituencies on the Chinese mainland and had assumed life tenure without reelection in Taiwan ever since.
Taiwan’s embrace of democracy is evident in its lively presidential elections. In 1996, Lee became the first president in Taiwan to be democratically elected by the people of Taiwan. In 2000, power was peacefully transferred to Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after his election as president. For the first time in more than half a century, the KMT did not control the island. The KMT returned to power in 2008 with the election of Ma Ying-jeou. Voters dealt the KMT a crushing defeat in the crucial, island-wide nine-in-one elections in November 2014. The opposition party is now poised for a strong showing in the 2016 general elections for president and members of the Legislative Yuan.
A people-centered approach to international law
Unlike in bygone eras, international law no longer conceives of territories as mere pieces of property to be traded or conquered. Today, human beings are properly held to be at the center of international law.
Technical questions about Taiwan’s status under the San Francisco Peace Treaty should not overshadow the fact that it is the Taiwanese people who have the right to determine their future. The inhabitants of a disputed territory, through collective effort, can develop their distinctive political, economic, social, and cultural system. This is effective self-determination—self-determination in action. When the international legal status of a territory is in dispute, an internationally-monitored plebiscite provides an ideal means of resolving the dispute peacefully.
The New Haven School of international law emphasizes the pursuit of our common interests. In a world of increasing globalization and interdependence, we see a gradual expansion in identifications – more and more, members of the world community identify with the most inclusive community of humankind and a deepening perception of shared humanity.
A new world order should be a new order of human dignity, in which persuasion prevails over coercion and in which the widest shaping and sharing of all cherished values are secured and fulfilled. It should be a new world order embracing both minimum and optimum world order, in which human beings are at the very center, and where human security is supreme.
Genuine protection and fulfillment of human dignity values—in Taiwan or anywhere—will be possible only when individuals are enabled to be effective, active, equal participants at different community levels and in different social settings. Most fundamentally, it requires education. Not in the narrow construction of classroom teaching, but in the broadest possible sense.
Featured image: Taipei, Taiwan. CC0 via Pixabay.