Taiwan is a problem. Historically separate from but linked to China, Taiwan was colonized by the Dutch and partially by the Spanish in the 17th century. Through a series of conflicts between aboriginal forces allied with the Ming dynasty and European colonial forces who also fought amongst themselves, by 1683, Taiwan became integrated into the Qing Empire. For two centuries, it evolved to become increasingly an integral part of China. In 1895, due to its strategic position on the eastern coast of China at the entry of the South China Sea, it became one of the spoils of the Sino-Japanese war and for half a century was ruled by the Japanese.
Japan used Taiwan during the Second World War as the launching pad for its aggressive operations in Southeast Asia. At the end of the war, with the Japanese defeated and Mao Zedong’s communists in control of mainland China, Mao’s rival, Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Kuomintang, fled to Taiwan. This put the dissident government out of Mao’s reach. Chiang declared his government the Republic of China (ROC) in opposition to Mao’s People’s Republic of China (PRC). For forty years a single-party regime ruled Taiwan following Chiang Kai-shek’s initial declaration of martial law in 1949.
Because the United States had defined its post-war identity as anti-communist, Taiwan held the status of the preferred national government in what was then referred to as “the free world.” The fate of Taiwan — still referred to by its Portuguese name, Formosa — figured as a major foreign policy issue in the 1960 US presidential campaign that pitted John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon. The debate turned around whether the US should commit to defending against the People’s Republic two smaller islands situated between continental China and Taiwan.
In short, Taiwan’s history and geopolitical status over the past 150 years have become extremely complex. There are political, economic and geographical considerations as well as ideological and geopolitical factors that make it even more complex. These have been aggravated by a visible decline in the supposed capacity of the United States to impose and enforce solutions in different parts of the globe and the rise of China’s influence in the global economy.
Complexity, when applied to politics, generally signifies ambiguity. In the aftermath of the Korean War, the Eisenhower administration established a policy based on the idea of backing Taiwan while seriously hedging their bets. Writing for The Diplomat, Dennis Hickey explains that in 1954, the US “deliberately sought to ‘fuzz up’ the security pact [with Taiwan] in such a way that the territories covered by the document were unclear.”
Following President Nixon’s historic overture in 1971, the US established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. This led to the transfer of China’s seat at the United Nations from the ROC to Mao’s PRC. The status of Taiwan was now inextricably ambiguous. US administrations, already accustomed to “fuzzy” thinking, described their policy approach as “strategic ambiguity.” It allowed them to treat Taiwan as an ally without recognizing it as an independent state. The point of such an attitude is what R. Nicolas Burns — President Joe Biden’s still unconfirmed pick for the post of US ambassador to China — calls “the smartest and most effective way” to avoid war.
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