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This is where I will attempt to explain Taiwan’s political status: how in the world did we get to where we are today? Why are we still here? What’s all the fuss between China and Taiwan?
DISCLAIMER: The author of this article is not an expert in history or political science, but someone born to Taiwanese parents and grew up in Taiwan. The view expressed here should only be considered as an opinion on the Taiwan-China relationship.
So first thing first, is Taiwan a part of China?
That would actually depend on which “China” you are referring to, as there are at the moment two regimes using the word.
The earliest evidence of human occupation on the island of Taiwan is believed to be from 30,000 to 20,000 BCE. The ancestors of today’s indigenous Taiwanese are believed to have migrated to Taiwan between 4000 and 3000 BCE. Subsequently, several indigenous cultures emerged, while tribes are believed to have migrated south to eventually spread throughout insular Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, and Madagascar. The first major wave of Han migration to Taiwan began in the 17th century.
Taiwan was occupied by the Dutch (1624-1662) and Spanish (1626-1642) in the 17th century. The Dutch drove the Spanish out of the island in 1642, yet was defeated in 1662 by Koxinga 鄭成功, a remaining general of Ming Empire after it was overthrown by the Qing Empire in mainland China. In 1683, the Qing Empire defeated the remaining Koxinga army in Taiwan and formally annexed the island in 1684 as a part of Fujian province 福建省. Taiwan became a separate province in 1885, with the first governor of Taiwan, Liu Mingchuan 劉銘傳, managing affairs in Taipei.
In 1895, the Qing Empire lost the First Sino-Japanese War and signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki 馬關條約, which ceded Taiwan, the Pescadores, and the eastern portion of the bay of Liaodong Peninsula to the Japanese Empire. A number of notables in Taiwan resisted the transfer and declared Taiwan to be independent in the form of the Republic of Formosa 臺灣民主國, which was never internationally recognized and was conquered by the Japanese troops in less than five months.
In 1912, the Nationalists (along with the different militia on mainland) overthrew the Qing Empire and established the Republic of China 中華民國 (ROC) with its capital in Nanjing (but moved to Beijing within one year of establishment, and back to Nanjing in 1928). Taiwan and the Pescadores were still colonies of the Japanese Empire at that time.
In the Cairo Conference in 1943 held during WWII, one of the three main clauses of the Cairo Declaration was that “all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and The Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China.”
On October 25th, 1945, when the commander-in-chief of Japanese forces on the island signed an instrument of surrender to the Allies in Taipei, the clause was accepted by the Japanese, and Taiwan and its nearby islands’ sovereignty was transferred from Japan to the ROC.
In 1949, the Nationalists lost the civil war and retreated to Taiwan, while the Communists established the People’s Republic of China 中華人民共和國 (PRC) with its capital in Beijing.
In 1951, Japan signed the Treaty of San Francisco 舊金山和約 with the Allies, renouncing “all right, title and claim to Formosa and the Pescadores” in Article 2(b), without specifying to which party was the sovereignty transferred. Neither the ROC and PRC were invited due to controversy over the legitimacy of the two governments. The ROC and Japan signed the Treaty of Taipei 台北和約/中日和約 in 1952, which acknowledged the terms of the San Francisco Treaty but added that all residents of Taiwan and the Pescadores were deemed as nationals of the ROC.
Since 1912 up to today, the Republic of China 中華民國, now on the islands of Taiwan 臺灣, the Penghu islands 澎湖, Kinmen 金門, and Matsu 馬祖, has been in establishment for more than a century (1912-1945 occupying mainland China, 1945-1949 occupying both mainland China and Taiwan, 1949-present occupying Taiwan).
So throughout history, Taiwan was never under the People’s Republic of China‘s control. The People’s Republic of China currently does not have, nor did it ever have, any jurisdiction over Taiwan and its nearby islands. All that happened was the ROC moved to Taiwan and never gained control of what used to be its territory.
So to answer the question, is Taiwan part of China? NO, Taiwan is NOT part of the People’s Republic of China 中華人民共和國. The government controlling Taiwan currently calls itself the Republic of China 中華民國 (some will even say Taiwan is the Republic of China). Currently the territory that’s actually under the ROC’s control only includes Taiwan, the Penghu islands, Kinmen, and Matsu (and some islands in South China Sea). Since the ROC doesn’t have sovereignty over any area other than Taiwan and nearby islands, I usually just tell people, “I am from Taiwan” or “I am Taiwanese” and only talk about the ROC with history buffs and people who have lived in the region.
So why do you call Taiwan a country then?
Taiwan is much easier to explain to people than the ROC, which people tend to confuse with the PRC. And whenever we say the word “China”, people automatically associate that with the PRC. Since Taiwan by itself fits the definition of what most people would agree to be a country/sovereign state, we’d like to think of Taiwan as a country/sovereign state. In fact, you would see that the English version of a lot of websites of Taiwan’s governmental agencies will state the country name as “the Republic of China (Taiwan)”. While Taiwanese people are still in the process of forming a unifying identity and don’t have a mutual agreement on which names (Republic of China, Taiwan, Republic of China (Taiwan), Republic of China on Taiwan, etc.) is/are the best to represent the country we love yet and often argue quite fiercely about it, we would like to let it be known that we do live in an independent political entity that is completely separate from and in no way under the control of the PRC government.
Surveys has shown that more than 90% of people in Taiwan today identifies themselves as Taiwanese, either as a single identity or in combination of also identifying as Chinese.
What are these definitions of a country/sovereign state?
We have a defined territory, a permanent population that lives in the said territory, a government that rules the said territory, and capacity to enter into relations with other states or international recognition from other sovereign states.
1. Membership in the United Nations is open to all other peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able and willing to carry out these obligations.
2. The admission of any such state to membership in the United Nations will be effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.
—Article 4, Chapter II. Charter of the United Nations
So what’s there to argue about then?
The problems are international recognition and membership in the UN. It might be a surprise to you, but Taiwan is not in the UN. In 1949 when the PRC was first established, most countries still recognized the ROC as the only legitimate government of China. Slowly, however, many countries severed relations with the ROC and recognized the PRC instead. In 1971, the ROC lost its seat in the United Nations after the General Assembly decided that PRC would be the sole government representing people of China (the territory of which wasn’t specified). When the UN was first established in 1945, the ROC was not only one of the founding members that signed the UN Charter, but also a permanent member in the UN Security Council (Charter of the UN, Chapter V, Article 23) during 1945-1971. However, on October 25, 1971 the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 2758, which recognized the PRC as the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations (after multiple different propositions and negotiations that were rejected, some would have allowed ROC to remain in the UN as a regular member). Almost all UN members chose to recognize the PRC in the following years, but avoided to state what territory the PRC actually included (see Timeline of diplomatic relations of the Republic of China).
Also, before the 1990s, the ROC government continued to claim to be the only legitimate government of “China”, including territories that are actually under PRC’s control. It was only after 1990s when the ROC government started to claim Taiwan by itself as an independent country. Currently only 17 members of the United Nations and the Holy See recognize Taiwan as a country (meaning they recognize the government of the ROC, not the PRC), and have official diplomatic missions in Taiwan. Taiwan has been attempting to rejoin the UN in recent years, but due to Resolution 2758, opposition from major powers in fear of conflict in the Taiwan Strait, and PRC’s power to veto in the Security Council, these attempts have been unsuccessful.
Most other countries, though not actually recognizing Taiwan as a sovereign state, adapt perspective of the status quo: that is, to unofficially treat Taiwan as a state and at a minimum, to officially declare no support for the government of this state making a formal declaration of independence (aka forming a “new country” called Taiwan). This means that while many countries such as the US, members of the EU, Japan, and Canada do not actually say Taiwan is a country, they would treat Taiwan like a country, consider a ROC passport valid, and consider Taiwanese citizens holding a ROC passport within their countries as different from Chinese citizens holding a PRC passport.
Currently Taiwanese citizens (holding a ROC (Taiwan) passport) are granted visa-free, visa-on-arrival, or electronic travel authority privileges in more than 130 countries and territories around the world. Different visa requirements apply to PRC citizens (holding a PRC passport).
So what happens if I am to travel to Taiwan and need help from my country? Is there an embassy?
Other than the handful of countries that recognize Taiwan as a country, no countries have embassies in Taiwan. However, most countries operate de facto embassies that do everything an embassy would do in other countries, but just without the official diplomatic status (but the Taiwanese government pretty much treats them the same as the embassies of the countries that recognize Taiwan). For example, the equivalent of American embassy here is called the “American Institute in Taiwan”. For a list of de facto embassies in Taiwan, visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China (Taiwan) or view the list of foreign missions in Taiwan.
Wait, Taiwan has a Ministry of Foreign Affairs?
Taiwan has a fully functional government like those of any other developed countries. The head of the state is the President of the ROC, who is elected by the people through popular vote. (Read Government of Taiwan 101 for more.) The ROC Constitution was adapted on December 25, 1946, went into effect on December 25, 1947, and is still in use today (and different from that of the PRC’s). Among many other things, Taiwan has its own laws, its currency (New Taiwanese Dollar), military (Army, Air Force, Navy including Marines, and Military Police), national anthem, national flag anthem, and issues its own passports (all different from that of the PRC’s).
Visa-free for 14 days: Citizens of the Philippines (1 Nov 2017 – 31 Jul 2018).
Visa-free for 30 days: Citizens of Belize, Brunei, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Malaysia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Singapore, and Thailand.
Citizens of Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam who have received a visa from Australia, Canada, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, the Schengen Area, the UK, or the US within the last 10 years will also be able to visit Taiwan visa-free for 30 days by going through an online verification process before arrival.
Visa-free for 90 days: Citizens of Andorra, Australia, Canada, Chile, El Salvador, European Union, Haiti, Holy See, Honduras, Japan, Republic of Korea, Iceland, Israel, Liechtenstein, Macedonia, Monaco, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Paraguay, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Citizens of Canada and the United Kingdom may also apply to extend the stay to 180 days once they are in Taiwan.
Visa on arrival: Citizens of Turkey.
eVisa: Citizens of Bahrain, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Dominica, Ecuador, Kiribati, Kuwait, Macedonia, Marshall Islands, Montenegro, Nauru, Oman, Palau, Panama, Peru, the Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Solomon Islands, Swaziland, Turkey, Tuvalu, and the United Arab Emirates.
For more information on countries whose citizens do not need a visa to enter Taiwan, please visit the website of Ministry of Foreign Affairs Bureau of Consular Affairs. Separate entry requirements apply to holders of Hong Kong SAR, Macau SAR, and PRC passports.
If you wish to visit the People’s Republic of China, you will have to get a visa from a PRC embassy/consulate. A visa issued by Taiwan does not work in the PRC, and a visa issued by the PRC does not work in Taiwan. There are separate immigration controls and customs in Taiwan and PRC. If you wish to obtain a PRC visa while you are in Taiwan, contact a Taiwanese travel agency, which will send your passport to Hong Kong for a PRC visa to be issued.
Since only less than two dozen countries recognize the ROC, Taiwan does not have embassies in most countries. Taiwan instead operates de facto embassies and consulates in most countries, usually called the “Taipei Representative Office in [city or country]” or “Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in [city or country]”. To find an office nearest to you, visit Portal of the Republic of China (Taiwan) Diplomatic Missions.
“Taipei” Representative Office? Why not the “Taiwan” Representative Office?
The People’s Republic of China tries very hard to convince other countries that Taiwan is part of the PRC and that we live happily under policies made by the Beijing government. Hence any appearance of Taiwan on anything that suggests Taiwan as a separate sovereign nation in any part of the world is unfavorable. The PRC is known to pressure countries and international organizations to list or recognize Taiwan as a part of the PRC. It so happens (and doesn’t help) that the PRC economy is booming, the PRC is the second largest economy in the world, and the PRC is a huge market. Many countries give in in exchange for (or in fear of losing) the market and other benefits. It is for this reason Taiwan cannot use “Taiwan” in many of its diplomatic missions or international activities abroad. Using “Taipei” or “Chinese Taipei” is a compromise we made (PRC feels that by using “Taipei”, the name of a city, people will recognize the representative office as a local branch of the PRC government). This is also the reason why Taiwan appears as “Chinese Taipei” in the Olympics and many other international organizations.
So you don’t get recognized, what’s the big deal?
As people of Taiwan live in a separate political entity from the PRC, it is my opinion that we should have the right to be called what we want, not what some other government that doesn’t have control over us wants, and be treated the same as the citizens of any other recognized nation. Imagine winning an international competition and not seeing your country’s proper name and flag displayed, or even worse, to have another country’s name and flag displayed. Imagine travelling abroad and have trouble getting help from your own government because there isn’t an embassy or because your own government or passport isn’t recognized. Imagine unable to obtain assistance from the World Health Organization during a global pandemic because your country is claimed to be part of another country that doesn’t provide your country with crucial information. As a developed society, there is a lot of contribution Taiwan could make if the international society would let us and treat us as a country. This is why I try so hard to tell anyone who would listen, that I am from Taiwan, an independent sovereign state.
Taiwan’s Country Profile & Pages (external sites):
Australia | Österreich | België Belgique | Canada (en) Canada (fr) | Česká republika | Danmark | European Union | Suomi Finland (sv) | France | Deutschland | 日本 | 한국 | Nederland | New Zealand | Sverige | Suisse Schweiz Svizzera | United Kingdom | United States US Trade Representative USDA
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