Mao Zedong welcomes Richard Nixon to his house in Beijing's Forbidden City on February 22, 1972. Photo: AFP / Xinhua

Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and the uproar it caused are just the latest episodes in a scenario whose first chapter was written some 70 years ago.

It all started on October 1, 1949, when Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. Two months later in January 1950, US president Harry Truman declared that Washington had no intention of defending Taiwan, implying that the conflict between the Communists and the Nationalists (the Kuomintang, or KMT, who had fled to the island) was an internal Chinese issue.

On February 14, 1950, Mao signed a treaty of alliance with Soviet leader Josef Stalin. With the stroke of a pen, the Chinese problem changed. Literally overnight the victory of the Communists in China proved to be no longer only an internal Chinese issue. Occurring in the middle of the Cold War, the rallying of China to the Soviet camp was likely to affect the balance of power on the world stage.

On June 25, 1950, North Korea attacked South Korea. Seen from Washington, the scenario was simple: Behind the North Koreans were the Chinese, and behind the Chinese was Moscow. It was therefore imperative to keep Beijing in check if one wanted to counter the Soviets. And the place chosen to do that was Taiwan.

Thus, on June 25, Truman ordered theUS Navy’s 7th Fleet to patrol the Taiwan Strait to prevent the Communists from landing on the island.

One China (sort of)

While the KMT, in power in Taiwan, asserted itself as the government of the “Republic of China,” and the Communists in Beijing asserted themselves  as the government of the “People’s Republic of China,” both sides agreed that there was only one China. What was in dispute was which of the two governmenta actually represented China.

In practice this meant that there were two powers on the territory of China, with the difference that one, under foreign protection,  occupied an island of some 20 million inhabitants and the other the rest of the country, which had more than a billion. 

For the next 20 years, American foreign policy perpetuated the fiction that the KMT, who had sought refuge in Taiwan, represented China, and the US pressured its allies to do the same. The Sino-Soviet breakup, the Vietnam War and the resilience of the Beijing regime overcame this chimera, and on October 25, 1971, to Washington’s dismay, the UN General Assembly recognized the Beijing regime as the sole legal government of China.

It was left to the Americans to follow suit. On January 1, 1979, the PRC and the US established diplomatic relations on the principle that there was only one China whose government was in Beijing, with the corollary that there was a de facto local power in Taiwan with which Washington would continue to have unofficial relations; a way of putting the problem on the back burner. But not its environment.

Red line

The KMT was no more democratic than its Communist counterpart at the time. But eventually, Taiwan morphed into a multiparty democracy.

In January 2016, the KMT, which had ruled the island until then, lost a general election, which saw the victory of its main opponent, the Democratic Progressive Party. Unlike the KMT, which was basically pan-Chinese, the DPP’s charter provided for independence for the island.

For Beijing, as well as for the KMT, this was a red line not to be crossed. That a rival Chinese government should occupy part of Chinese territory was not to Beijing’s liking, but it was acceptable. But it was not acceptable that a local power that owed its existence to a Western intervention should secede and amputate from China part of its territory.

This is a reality that the DPP has understood well and which has led it to mute its plans for independence, not to mention the fact that the constitution of Taiwan, adopted by the KMT, makes any changes to China’s borders very problematic. But the fact remains that given the climate of mutual distrust that prevails in the relations between China and the US, Beijing is increasingly convinced that Washington is seeking to fuel a secession.

The ties that bind

But this is not what the average Taiwanese wants. Indeed, if the percentage of Taiwanese in favor of reunification with mainland China is insignificant, the vast majority of the island’s inhabitants want only one thing: to maintain a status quo that speaks for itself.

It is estimated that between 2% and 3% of Taiwan’s population, or around 500,000 people, work in mainland China legally. Taiwan, at US$190 billion, is the leading foreign investor in China, which is the destination of 43% of the island’s exports and 22% of its imports. Thus, ultimately, and barring minor incidents, economic relations between the two parties do not seem to be much affected by the shows of force that prevail in the area.

What the future holds is another matter. When Truman sent the 7th Fleet into the Taiwan Strait, he did so because he had the means to do so and there was no one with the means to stop him.

It remains to be seen whether, in the decades to come, Washington will still have both the means and the will to intervene 12,000 kilometers from its shores in favor of an island with a population of some 22 million, at the risk of going to war with the second-strongest economic power in the world.

Alexander Casella

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.