The US and the Unraveling of Taiwan's Conundrum

  Previous  |  Next  

Friday March 29, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Taiwan continues to be a major anomaly and conundrum of statehood in the modern world despite having been a de facto independent democracy for more than two decades.

Other nations trade with it and have "unofficial embassies" in it; they give Taiwanese visa free entry and accept aid from this democratic state but "officially" they have to pretend it does not exist.

One searches for a metaphor to explain this ambivalence and hydra-headed challenge, where cutting off one head and solving one problem, creates two others.

The immediate problem of course is the People's Republic of China (PRC), which covets Taiwan's strategic location and value. It tries to cloak this with a variety of convoluted historical claims but the primary reason that it covets Taiwan is its strategic location and value.

Today, about 74 years after the end of World War II, the official US position on Taiwan is that it is "undecided." The US has the American Institute in Taiwan, the Taiwan Relations Act, and the Taiwan Travel Act and yet is still "undecided" on Taiwan.

Why is the US a major player in this issue?

As the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in the Pacific victory over Japan, the burden of decision on what to do with Japan's colony of Taiwan rested with the US. For a variety of reasons, it hesitated and now is officially "undecided." Some prefer to use the phrase "strategic ambiguity" in place of "undecided" but for others, the use of "strategic ambiguity" for three quarters of a century and three generations seems a stretch too far.

The San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed in 1951 and went into effect on April 28, 1952, nearly seven years after the war ended. It never named a recipient for Taiwan but simply stated that Japan give up Taiwan and the Pescadores (Penghu) as stated in the 1945 Potsdam Proclamation. That solved the problem of Japan's territorial ambitions, but it left many others. A lot had happened in that interim from 1945 to 1952.

The UN was formed in October 1945 with a main objective of preventing future wars, a noble dream. At that point, the Taiwanese should also have been given the right of self-determination as many other colonies had by the UN Charter. They were not, and things became complicated.

On Oct. 25, 1945, then Taiwan governor Chen Yi of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was sent to Taiwan to accept the Japanese surrender on behalf of the Allies. Unfortunately like beggars taking over the temple, he and his cohorts claimed it was retrocession and did not leave.

Back in China, the Soviet Union (USSR), as a Johnny-come-lately had entered the war against Japan on August 9th, 1945. It overran Manchuria, and with this attack and the two US atom bombs, Japan formally surrendered to the Allies on August 15th, 1945.

The Soviet Union was also supporting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which had renewed its Civil War with the KMT; it therefore turned all of its captured Japanese weapons and territory in China over to the CCP.

On December 25, 1946, the KMT ratified the Constitution of the Republic of China (ROC) and adopted it on December 25, 1947. However, that adoption, which ambitiously included Taiwan, would be short-lived as the CCP soon proved victorious over the KMT in the Chinese Civil War. It established the PRC on September 21, 1949, four years after the end of World War II.

Having lost the civil war, Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT retreated to Taiwan and set up their government in exile.

At this point, someone will always try to drag in the Treaty of Taipei between Japan and the ROC. This treaty was signed on April 28, 1952, the same day that the San Francisco Treaty, which had been signed on September 8, 1951, went into effect.

Unfortunately for the ROC, its Treaty of Taipei would not to go into effect until August 5, 1952. That treaty also did not confer sovereignty over Taiwan. In short, when the Treaty of Taipei finally did become official on August 5, 1952, the train had left the station, and the ship had sailed from the harbor. Japan could not give away a second time, what it had already given away.

There is a notable exception here; a separate case could be made by die-hard KMT that Kinmen and Matsu belong to them. There is truth in that. Kinmen and Matsu were not part of the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki between Japan and the Manchu Empire. They had remained parts of the China that came about when some Han Chinese broke free from the Manchus in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution. Therefore, those islands were not covered in the San Francisco Peace Treaty.

Taiwanese eventually threw off the KMT one-party squatter state in 1987 and established a full-fledged democracy in 1996. With this in mind, those KMT who support the so-called "1992 consensus," invented in 2000 by then-Mainland Affairs Council chairman Su Chi, could consider moving to Kinmen and Matsu. From there they could renew the "consensus" with China and even continue to promote the idea of "one China with different interpretations."

However, if, like the White émigré Russians who remained loyal to the deposed Czar, those diaspora KMT still want to express loyalty to Chiang Kai-shek, they must remember that under UN resolution 2758, it was the representatives of Chiang and not the Taiwanese that were ejected from the UN. Any dealings from Kinmen/Matsu would have to be with the representatives of Mao Zedong. Taiwanese should also note this UN fact.

Regarding the Treaty of Taipei, it did provide one benefit for the citizens of Taiwan. While the treaty did not confer sovereignty over Taiwan, Article 10 did provide a mechanism by which the Taiwanese would not be left stateless while the US remained "undecided" and the Japanese returned to Japan. They fared better than ROC units in Thailand's Golden Triangle who became stateless when left behind.

Japan, on the other hand, gained most by the 1952 Treaty of Taipei and the subsequent 1972 Japan-PRC joint communiqué, which abrogated the Treaty of Taipei. In these respective documents, first the ROC and later the PRC waived any right for any future compensation or restitution from Japan after the war.

What did the ROC and PRC each get in return?

The ROC got Japan's temporary recognition that it was China, and the PRC eventually got Japan to acknowledge and accept that the PRC still dreams of and desires Taiwan according to the "one China" policy.

However, Japan did not agree to the "one China" principle, which proclaims that the PRC actually holds sovereignty over Taiwan. Most do not understand that policy-principle distinction.

In the UN, on October 25, 1971, the PRC had replaced the ROC as representative of China and the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek were expelled. In 1979, the US would throw in the towel on the ROC and move its embassy from Taipei to Beijing, thus also recognizing the PRC under the "one China" policy but not "principle." As for Taiwan, the US continued with its "undecided" position, and established the Taiwan Relations Act and the American Institute in Taiwan.

This is the complex hydra-headed backdrop of the Taiwan conundrum and from which Taiwan emerged as a full-fledged democracy. What are some present options open to Taiwan and others as the PRC threatens war if its bogus claims are not met?

For the US, Japan and the world, the PRC has shown its expansionism and continues to ramp up its hegemony in the South China Sea. The US must face the fact that it is time to move beyond the long held "undecided" position and face China's rhetoric. Taiwan is already prepared.

As Sun Tzu states in the Art of War, one does not avoid a war by running away from it. The UK learned that lesson from Germany in 1938.

Taiwan, on the other hand, must examine its "unfinished business." A major area to start is its name and the inherited 1947 ROC Constitution, which was made for the continental nation that the KMT lost. Taiwan will also never get into the UN under the name Republic of China.

Other nations can also begin to help by helping Taiwan participate in organizations like WHO and its World Health Assembly. These can be needed first steps to unravel the Taiwan conundrum.