Taiwan and Mongolia: Who Could Be Taiwan's "Russia"?

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Sunday December 15, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Two current democracies, Mongolia and Taiwan, opposites in size and population, have a strange, intertwined past. Mongolia is now the 19th largest state (square miles) in the world, but ranks 140th in population. Diminutive Taiwan on the other hand barely makes 136th in world size, yet it ranks 20th in population. But their polar fate runs deeper, and involves a shifting relationship vis-à-vis the nebulous character of what is or can be defined as "one China?" The current twist in this relationship started in 1911. At that time, the island Taiwan was part of Japan, but on the Asian continent, a developing Han Republic of China (ROC) - one, which would ironically later be forced to seek refuge on Taiwan--declared a rebellious independence from the Manchu Qing Empire (aka China).

As the Manchu Empire broke apart, Mongolia followed suit, and also declared independence from the Qing. Unfortunately it soon found that the formative ROC, led by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) claimed Mongolia as part of its territory. They invaded Mongolia. Neighboring Russia, which would have its own revolution in 1917 stepped in and ironically became the one responsible for making Mongolia the independent nation it is today. Aided first by White Russians against the Chinese and then by Red Russians, Mongolia broke free and declared a second independence in 1921.

Another player, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) founded in 1921, would soon enter and have a part in this developing scenario. The CCP would get involved in an on-again, off-again Civil War with the KMT for control of China. They would win that Civil War and establish the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. While the KMT's ROC would retreat to Taiwan, the PRC would rule China and despite its 1921 origin, it would still trace its roots to the 1911 uprising.

To complicate matters for Mongolia and Taiwan, a clichéd canard of Han hegemony developed and has been used against each at different times by PRC and/or ROC proponents. That cliché would claim that Mongolia and Taiwan are "inalienable parts of China," parts of the "motherland from time immemorial." If one would pursue this twisted form of logic, Mongolia supposedly might have the "greater claim" to be a "time immemorial part of China." For after Genghis Khan unified the Mongols in 1206 he and his successors went on to conquer China and numerous other lands creating an empire that stretched from Korea to Budapest. When that empire was split into four Khanates, Kublai Khan eventually rose to take over the Khanate over eastern Asia. It included China and was called the Yuan Dynasty. So was that Mongolia or China?

The Han Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) would rise within that Mongol Khanate and chase the Mongols back to their steppes. Mongolia and Ming China then continued in separate existence and at war with each other. But in 1644, the Manchus entered the picture. They conquered China as well as Tibet, Xinjiang and Mongolia and began a Manchu Empire and their Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911).

And what about Taiwan? This island, which had appeared on maps of different nations for some time, had been a haven for fishermen, pirates and those who traded with its indigenous people. After a battle between the Dutch and Ming China over Penghu, Taiwan's subsequent colonization began (1624); it would suffer the Dutch, the Spanish, and finally Zheng Cheng-gong's (Koxinga) Ming loyalists as they fled the Manchus. When the Manchus followed and defeated them, they both repatriated the Han Ming loyalists and as a preemptive matter, also brought the western half of Taiwan into their fold (1682). The western half of Taiwan would remain in that fold until the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895) when the Manchus gave the it and the eastern part of the island, which they did not control, to Japan.

That brings this dual narrative back to 1911 when the ROC and Mongolia both declared independence from the Manchus. Over the decades, despite the ROC's protest, Mongolia continued in its independence with Russian assistance. Using its 1947 Constitution, the one-party state KMT still claimed that Mongolia was a part of the old ROC. In 1955, that ROC, a founding member of the United Nations (UN) and a member of the Security Council, would use its veto to block Mongolia's membership in the UN. Russia was not done; it would again force a trade off for Mauritania's membership in 1961 to allow Mongolia to also join the UN. The ROC would later lose its seat and place in the UN to the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1971.

The 1990s proved memorable for Mongolia and Taiwan as both became full-fledged voting democracies with more than one party. Mongolia would soon vote in a non-Communist party and Taiwan by 2000 would elect a non-KMT president by popular vote.

There is one more important element in this story that most are not aware of. Back in 1945 as the KMT and CCP wanted Russia's help in China's fight against Japan, Russia, for motivations of its own, required that they agree to allow Mongolia to have a referendum on whether it would be a part of China or an independent nation. In that referendum, with almost 100 per cent approval, Mongolia voted to be independent. This poses an interesting question that Taiwanese still pressured by the "one China canard" might ask, "Who will be our 'Russia'?"

In its actions, Russia was not altruistic. It long understood the hegemony proposed by Han Chauvinists in China; it wanted a buffer state. Tibet lacked such help to protect it in the "one China from time immemorial" game. Today, Taiwan's current president still seems drawn to the dream of one China and the old KMT ROC days. He still quotes the out dated 1947 Constitution as if times had not changed. He appears more like a Quisling than a president of the new democratic Taiwan. But Taiwan is a mid-sized state, with a population of 23 million and an economy in the top 20 of the world. While it remains threatened by the PRC, it can wonder, does it need "a Russia"? If so, could that role be filled by Japan , the US or a referendum?