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Taiwan Cross-Strait Directory: Political History

Examines Taiwan-PRC relations in light of five themes -- political history, historical precedents, military affairs, trade and investment, and international organizations.

Indigenous Taiwanese Experiences

Ancestors of indigenous groups (population: 360,000 in 2000) with ethnic ties to insular South East Asia arrived in Taiwan millennia earlier than recent waves of settlers from the Asian continent. Speaking Austronesian languages (related to Filipino, Bahasa Indonesia and Hawaiian), the latest of those immigrants probably originated in the Malay archipelago and perhaps also in Polynesia, as well).

Seen today as indigenous people, they came to Taiwan no later than 1,000 C.E. Visiting in 1590, Portuguese sailors called Taiwan Ilha Formosa. It means "Beautiful Island." For over 300 years, foreigners used that name to refer to Taiwan. However, Portugal did not attempt to colonize Taiwan.

Since the early seventeenth century, a succession of rulers have interruptedly and overlappingly governed parts of Taiwan or all of it. These are The Netherlands (1624-1662), Spain (1626-1642), Ming Dynasty loyalists (1662-1683), the Qing Dynasty (intermittently after 1644), France (1884-1885), Japan (1895-1945) and the Republic of China (since 1945). Large-scale Han Chinese immigration began in the mid-seventeenth century; the mainly male immigrants often married indigenous Taiwanese women. The defeat of Koxinga in 1693 was a turning point.

The German Research Unit on Taiwanese Culture and Literature provides information on papers dealing with "aboriginal" and other social movements.

Qing Dynasty (China)

During 1644-1912, China was ruled by foreigners. These were the Manchu ("Qing") emperors. Initially, the empire expanded. Qing Dynasty rulers alternately desired and discouraged attainment of military control over Taiwan, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. In 1885, Taiwan became a full province of China for the first time.

But by that late date, the Qing Dynasty was already unable to defend China against foreign missionary, mercantile and military incursions. Following the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 17 April 1895, China ceded Taiwan to Japan. Under terms of that Treaty, China also recognized the independence of Korea over which it had traditionally held suzerainty.

Buckling under increasing criticism and pressure from humiliated Chinese nationalists, the Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1912.


During the reign of the Meiji, Taisho and Showa emperors, Taiwan endured colonization by Japan for fifty years (1895-1945). Open, intermittent Taiwanese resistance lasted until 1902. Thereafter, occasional armed anti-Japanese uprisings erupted as late as 1916. Formed twelve years later in 1928, the Communist Party of Taiwan called for overthrowing Japanese colonialism and for an independent Taiwan.

At the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1931-1945), Japan was defeated by the U.S. and Allies in what Americans call "World War II" (1941-1945). However, a half-century of Japanese colonialism unexpectedly contributed to the beginnings of a sense of Taiwanese identity among the Taiwan's majority who had family and cultural roots in China.

Like other former colonial powers, Japan retains political, economic and cultural connections with its former colony. Upstaged and embarrassed by the US Nixon Administration's secret diplomacy with China, Japan transferred diplomatic recognition to the PRC in 1972 -- seven years earlier than the US would do so.

Meanwhile, under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, the US Third Marine Expeditionary Forces are stationed close to China -- on Japanese bases in Okinawa Prefecture. Underscoring Japan's possible entanglement in U.S.-China conflict, the furthest reach of the Okinawan archipelago extends southeast of Taipei.

With roots in a decision taken during China's Qing Dynasty, Japan's occupation of the Sengkaku (or Diaoyu Tai/Tiao Yu Tai) Islands is part of an unresolved territorial dispute with the PRC and ROC. And in contrast to the US President's July 1998 statement in China, Japan's Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo refrained from reciting Clinton's "Three No's." (former link=

To learn what Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs is saying about Taiwan, consult its news bulletins. And for perspectives mildly critical of the government, read The Asahi Shimbun.

Republic of China (ROC)

Inspired by Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) of the Kuomintang (Guomindang [or "Nationalist Party"]) and others, the Republic of China was founded in 1911. After Sun's death, the Kuomintang was led by Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi [1887-1975]).

A shaky united front with the smaller Communist Party collapsed with disastrous results for the Communist Party 1927, leading to twenty-two years of Civil War. With Japan's defeat in 1945, the ROC gained control over Taiwan and a few islands offshore Fujian Province for the first time ever.

But that occurred too late to keep the Nationalists from losing the twenty-two-year civil war in 1949. Although local elections were allowed in Taiwan as early as the 1950s, the Kuomintang ruled Taiwan severely, repressing political dissidents for more than three decades.

Responding to the dissident movement in the late 1970s and later, Kuomintang leaders Chiang Ching-kuo (Jiang Jingguo) and Lee Teng-hui demonstrated willingness to reform. Temporarily, they coopted elements in the Taiwanese pro-democracy movements. That gesture shored up Kuomintang legitimacy and helped the Party to maintain its grasp on power until May 2000.

The National Unification Council, set up in 1990 under the Office of the President, functions as an advisory board to the president on national reunification. In 1991, the Legislative Yuan voted for a Mainland Affairs Council to coordinate policy concerning the PRC.

  • From a presidential perspective, the Government Information Officeanalyzes domestic and international events. In an inaugural address whose title ("Taiwan stands up") echoed Mao Zedong's 1949 announcement of the People's Republic of China ("China stands up!"), President Chen Shui-bian stated, "as long as the CCP [Communist Party of China] regime has no intention to use military force against Taiwan," he would "not declare independence." Other links follow below.
  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, located in Taipei (Taibei), provides links to news reports with Taiwan-focused headlines.
  • The Taipei Journalreflects the ruling party's views and is available in Web and e-mail versions. (For year 2010 see )
  • New Taiwan, Ilha Formosa focuses on "Taiwan's History, Present and Future."

In direct elections, Taiwanese voted for president in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008.

In a tight two-way 20 March 2004 Presidential Election campaign, President Chen and Vice President Annette Lu received minor gunshot wounds while campaigning in Tainan on the day before voting took place. Taiwanese voters also had an opportunity to express an opinion on Chen's endorsed referendum calling on China to remove missiles aimed at Taiwan. Those who did so overwhelmingly voted "Yes." However their total numbers fell short of the minimum 50% of registered voters required to validate referendum results. Incumbent Chen received 50.1% of the presidential vote, although a recount was requested.

"Although the two contending political camps each received about 50 percent of the vote," Derek Mitchell points out, "President Chen Shui-bian increased his share of the electorate by about 10 percent over the 2000 election, continuing a steady trend for his independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in every national election since becoming Taiwan's first legal opposition party in 1986.

"More critically," Mitchell continues, "the 2004 election was conducted on its terms; defending and promoting Taiwan nationalism and separateness. The debate was joined only on the degree of separation from China, the pace of economic engagement with the mainland, and how best to promote Taiwan's national dignity both on the island and internationally" (SOURCE: "Taiwan's Election: A Wake-Up Call to China," PacNet Newsletter [Pacific Forum -- Center for Strategic and International Studies], no. 12 [24 March 2004]).

Taiwan's fourth presidential election is scheduled for March 2008. That is also the year of the Beijing Olympics and a U.S. Presidential Election.

United States of America

To clarify and ameliorate US-China relations, Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan issued Joint Communiqués in 1972, 1979 and 1982, respectively. During the Carter Administration (1977-1981), the US moved its embassy from Taipei to Beijing, China(former link= ).

However, enactment of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (Public Law 96-8, former link= reflects American ambivalence, Congressional irritation at President Carter's secret initiatives in granting diplomatic recognition, and power sharing within the US Government. Accordingly, the US Department of State contracted with the American Institute to serve as the public US contact with Taiwan. The Institute's Washington office "translat[es] US Taiwan-related policies and programs into the nongovernmental context."

Bill Clinton's Shanghai Library remarks on "Shaping China for the 21st Century" (30 June 1998, former link= gave reassurances offered publicly for the first time to the PRC by a US president. He stated, "[W]e don't support independence for Taiwan, or two Chinas or one Taiwan, one China. And we don't believe that Taiwan should be a member in any organization for which statehood is a requirement."

However, Clinton's triple negative was less sweeping than it seemed. Surely, it must be understood in the context of the US President's use of naval power in the Taiwan Strait twenty-seven months earlier. And with a unanimous 92-0 vote on 10 July 1998, the US Senate rebuffed Clinton, affirming a bipartisan pro-Taiwan Concurrent Resolution 107.

"US policy toward Taiwan and China is," according to retired AmbassadorHarvey J. Feldman, "built upon carefully chosen nuances and discreet silences. Given that this set of statements -- and omissions -- so obviously departs from what is seen in the real world, it is not surprising that even White House spokesmen and senior officials over the past two decades have.....added to the confusion." For example, the Director of the American Institute reacted cautiously to the election of Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party in 2000.

The Department of State East Asia & the Pacific comments on the Taiwan Question and related issues.

With the election of Kuomintang candidate Ma Ying-jeou as president in 2008, power has changed hands twice in eight years. This double changeover has not yet been achieved by all democratizing countries.

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Content Author: Vincent Kelly Pollard
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Last Modified: 01-Mar-2023 09:42 HST