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Opinion: The complex history of Taiwan

China’s communist leaders insist Taiwan is part of their country, but history might say otherwise

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In this Oct. 10, 2021, file photo, a woman holds up Taiwan national flags during National Day celebrations in Taipei, Taiwan.

In this Oct. 10, 2021, file photo, a woman holds up Taiwan national flags during National Day celebrations in front of the Presidential Building in Taipei, Taiwan.

Chiang Ying-ying, Associated Press

United States government officials specializing in trade began important, in-depth negotiations with counterparts from Taiwan on Jan. 14 in Taipei, the capital of the island.

The trip to Taiwan last year by Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, generated worldwide media attention. The current visitors are receiving almost none, though their mission involves far more substantive policy matters.

Before the visit of Speaker Pelosi, President Joe Biden had a lengthy phone conversation with President Xi Jinping of China. This was a low-key, sensible effort to mitigate tensions, especially given the Chinese leader’s notorious giant ego, which seems to expand further along with his power.

The current talks, aimed at improving bilateral relations, are led by Terry McCartin, assistant U.S. trade representative, and Yang Jen-ni of Taiwan’s Office of Trade Negotiations.

The Democratic Progressive Party, which has controlled Taiwan government for the past seven years, is formally committed to independence from China. President Tsai Ing-wen is notable as the first woman elected to lead the island. The conservative opposition Kuomintang is carefully ambiguous on Beijing relations.

China has become increasingly assertive in the region, including publicly declared commitment to absorbing Taiwan. Aggressiveness of Beijing in maritime and military terms adds teeth to the continuing expansionist rhetoric.

In February 2014, Taiwan and the mainland agreed to exchange representative offices. Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun of China, and Taiwan Mainland Affairs Minister Wang Yu-chi led face-to-face negotiations. Since then, relations have deteriorated.

China’s communist leaders insist Taiwan is part of their country, but the history is more complex. Following the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, Japan occupied Taiwan for five decades, until the end of World War II. In 1949, Nationalist forces of General Chiang Kai-shek evacuated to Taiwan. Mao Zedong’s armies consolidated control of the mainland. Except for the island territory, communist revolution was complete.

The outbreak of the Korean War in late June 1950 resulted in the U.S. Seventh Fleet moving to patrol the Taiwan Strait. China and the United States became direct combatants. The Cold War, begun in Europe, become global.

U.S. commitment to Taiwan security became explicit. The island became a controversial flash point in American domestic politics. Before North Korea invaded South Korea, bringing strategic shift, the Truman administration was resigned to victorious communist forces taking Taiwan along with the rest of China.

Pragmatism characterizes Taiwan’s approach to mainland China. Following formal U.S. diplomatic recognition of Beijing in 1978, a consequence of President Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit, Taipei launched a comprehensive essentially nonconfrontational response.

In November 2008, agreement was achieved on far-reaching trade accords, including direct shipping, expansion of weekly passenger flights from 36 to 108, and introduction of up to 60 cargo flights per month.

In 2010, the bilateral Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement was concluded. This has remained a major triumph for then-President Ma Ying-jeou. His election as Taiwan chief executive in 2008 and 2012 greatly furthered cooperation with Beijing. Expanding ties make the current Taiwan-U.S. trade initiative timely.

On January 13, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, while visiting the White House, reconfirmed with Biden the commitment of both countries to Taiwan. In 1969, Nixon and Prime Minister Eisaku Sato made a very similar public statement, useful precedent for the current declaration.

In March 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower visited Taiwan in the wake of crises over Taiwan, the only sitting U.S. president to do so. This precedent may prove useful in the future.

Arthur I. Cyr is author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). Contact acyr@carthage.edu