As China continues to increase its global power and influence, it is becoming a serious threat to the island of Taiwan. Over centuries, various powers have claimed control of Taiwan, including the Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese and Chinese. In 1949, with the victory of Mao’s Chinese Communist Party, US-supported Chiang Kai-Shek and his KMT Party fled China to Taiwan, where the US provided ongoing military protection. Join Active Minds as we look at the history of Taiwan and what the future may hold as this conflict continues to unfold.

Key Lecture Points

  • Taiwan (officially the Republic of China) has been governed independently of China since 1949, but the People’s Republic of China views the island as part of its territory. Beijing seeks to eventually unify Taiwan with the mainland and has not ruled out using force to do so.
  • Located less than 100 miles off the southeastern coast of China, Taiwan has had a fraught relationship with the mainland for centuries.
  • Taiwan was colonized by Japan as part of its militarized empire before and during World War II.
  • When World War II ended in 1945, the rival factions in China’s long-running civil war raced to control territory ceded by defeated Japan. The communists, led by Mao Zedong, won that conflict, forcing Chiang Kai-shek’s U.S.-backed Kuomintang nationalists to flee to Taiwan.
  • The Korean War, which began in 1950, increased Taiwan’s strategic importance to the United States as a bulwark against the expansion of communism. The U.S. maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan and even signed a mutual defense treaty with it in 1954.
  • The U.S. began shifting its relationship toward the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s, when President Richard Nixon sought an opening to Beijing as a way to drive a wedge between China and the Soviet Union and to get China’s help in the Vietnam War.
  • In 1979, the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognized the People’s Republic of China as the “sole legal government of China”. At the same time, however, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which codified a continuing economic and security relationship with Taiwan aimed at deterring China from invading the island.
  • In the 1980s, Chiang Kai-shek’s son and successor began gradually democratizing Taiwan. An opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, won the presidency and control of the national legislature for the first time in 2000. Now, after a half century of one-party rule by the Kuomintang, Taiwan is considered a “full democracy.”
  • Tensions between China and Taiwan have been rising, especially since the election in 2016 of President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, whose platform favors independence. Beijing seeks to suppress any movement toward recognition of Taiwan as an independent country through increased political and military pressure on Taipei and economic pressure on other countries and corporations.
  • Some analysts fear that Taiwan could spark a conflict between the United States and China. The U.S. provides defensive weapons to Taiwan but maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity” about whether it would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of an attack by China.

Exploration Questions

  • Is Taiwan an integral part of China or a separate place that should determine its own destiny? What does its history tell us about this question?
  • How will the demographic changes underway in Taiwan (aging population, younger generation that identifies more as Taiwanese than Chinese) affect the issues facing Taiwan in the future? Will it be possible to maintain the ambiguous status quo?

Reflective Questions

  • Is Taiwan really a place of strategic significance for the United States, or should its relationship with the mainland be acknowledged as an internal or regional matter?
  • How far do you think the U.S. should go to protect Taiwan from China?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Rigger, Shelley. Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013. 228 pages. A comprehensive but compact introduction to a country that exercises a role in the world far greater than its tiny size would indicate. Rigger explains how Taiwan became a key global player, highlighting economic and political breakthroughs so impressive they have been called "miracles." She links these accomplishments to Taiwan's determined society, vibrant culture, and unique history.
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  • Manthorpe, Jonathan. Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008. 304 pages. For over 400 years, Taiwan has suffered at the hands of multiple colonial powers, but it has now entered the decade when its independence will be won or lost. Forbidden Nation tells the dramatic story of the island, its people, and what brought them to this moment when their future will be decided.
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  • Bush, Richard. Difficult Choices: Taiwan's Quest for Security and the Good Life. Brookings Institution, 2021. 429 pages. Taiwan was emblematic of the “third wave” of global democratization in the 1980s. But Taiwan today faces a host of internal issues, starting with the aging of its society and the resulting intergenerational conflicts over spending priorities. China’s long-term threat to incorporate the island on terms similar to those used for Hong Kong exacerbates the island’s homegrown problems. How Taiwan responds to the internal and external challenges it faces—and what the United States and other outside powers do to help—will determine whether it is able to stand its ground against China’s ambitions.
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