What is Taiwan? A State? A Government? Or a Province of China?

Taiwan, otherwise known as the Republic
of China or Chinese Taipei, is one of the most misunderstood disputes in modern
international politics. While many know that it’s a potential flashpoint for conflict in East Asia, there’s considerable confusion about the
specific nature of the problem as well as Taiwan’s exact status on the world stage. In this video I’m going to take a look at Taiwan and explain what it is, what it isn’t, and what it could be. [MUSIC] Hello. My name is James Ker-Lindsay. Welcome to Independent Thinking – a channel dedicated to international relations, independence and the origins of countries. There are few situations quite so misunderstood in international politics as the case of Taiwan. To many observers, this island off the coast of mainland China is seen as a case of attempted secession. Many believe that it is all about a small island state trying to forge its independence in the face of opposition from mainland China. However, while there may be an element of truth to this in a practical sense, at a fundamental level this is actually incorrect. Officially, Taiwan is not a case of thwarted independence. It’s something far more interesting and unique in international politics. The issue is in fact a very special case of two alternative governments vying for recognition as the legitimate sovereign authority over a country. To understand the situation, it’s important to take
a look at the background history. The Republic of China was proclaimed in 1912 following overthrow of the country’s imperial dynasty. However, the country was riven with division and in 1927 a civil war broke out between the Chinese Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party. Although the Nationalists won control over the country the following year, the fighting continued. Hostilities between the sides were put on hold following the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s. However, they resumed again following the Second World War. In the years that came afterwards, the Communist Party won a series of victories over the Nationalists. And in late 1949 the Communists took over control of the mainland and established the People’s Republic of China. At this point, the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan
– a large island off the coast of China. From there they continued to claim sovereignty over the entire territory of the country as the Republic of China – with the provisional capital now based
in the island’s main city of Taipei. Although the People’s Republic of China was quickly recognized by many Communist states, most notably the Soviet Union, the Republic of China’s claim to sovereignty continued to be recognized by much of the international community. However, in the two decades that followed, the People’s Republic of China gained in strength. Even major non-communist countries started to recognize Beijing as the legitimate government of China. These countries included the United Kingdom – surprisingly early in 1950 – and France, in 1964. By 1970, almost 60 countries had recognized the People’s Republic of China over the Republic of China. However, the major breakthrough occurred in 1971 when the Republic lost China’s seat at the United Nations. China had been a founder member of the UN and – along with Britain, France, the United States & the Soviet Union – was given a permanent seat on the Security Council. This control remained with the
Republic of China after 1949. However, in October 1971, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 2758. This recognized the representatives of the People’s Republic of China as the only lawful representatives of China to the UN and affirmed that the People’s Republic was one of five permanent members of the Council. Taiwan’s representatives were expelled from the organization. This decision led to a major shift in
international attitudes. In the years that followed, more and more countries shifted their recognition from Taipei to Beijing – including the United States in 1979. Despite this, some states continued to recognize the Republic of China – often with considerable financial incentives from Taipei in the form of development assistance. This in turn saw Beijing try to buy support. This led to what came to be known
as “checkbook diplomacy”. Indeed, some countries even switched their allegiance back and forth to maximize their benefits. However, things now stand decisively in Beijing’s favour. Over the years, most countries have recognized the People’s Republic of China. At present, Taiwan is formally recognized by just 15 countries worldwide. In the Americas, these are Belize, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. In Oceania, it’s the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu. Eswatini in Africa and the Holy See in Europe. Therefore, contrary to widespread belief, Taiwan is not in fact a case of secession in any formal sense. It is instead a rather unique case of two governments competing to be recognized as the legitimate administration of a country – in this case China. Moreover, both officially proclaim the policy of a single indivisible China – albeit under their respective authority. The problem is that, while Taiwan does not claim to exist as an independent country, in truth that is exactly how it operates. It is, to all intents and purposes,
acting as a separate state. This is reflected in the fact that, while many countries no longer formally recognize it as the government of China, and haven’t recognised it as an independent country, they do have high levels of engagement with it. Almost 50 states – including the United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, India, France, Germany and the United Kingdom – maintain some sort of “officially unofficial” economic or cultural presence in Taipei. These often effectively operate as de facto embassies. Moreover, Taiwan continues to participate in a number of international organizations – often under the designation ‘Taiwan’, ‘Taiwan, China’ or ‘Taiwan, Province of China’. It even competes at the Olympics. In this case it uses the designation ‘Chinese Taipei’. This is why, despite the formal nature of the problem as a dispute over the recognition of a government, Taiwan is usually classed as a de facto state. This raises the final question:
Could Taiwan ever become fully independent? From a theoretical perspective, this would seem to be an obvious aim. In truth, no one truly believes that the Republic of China is the legitimate government over the entire territory of China anymore. Indeed, many in Taiwan seem to tacitly
accept this. In this sense, formally abandoning this claim would not seem to be a major change. It’s what happens next that would
be the real problem. Within Taiwan, there are those who believe that it should
pursue independence and become an entirely separate country. However, this would be an extremely dangerous step. No longer claiming to be a government over a territory one doesn’t control is one thing. Claiming to be a separate sovereign state is something very different. Any attempt to declare independence would automatically put Taiwan into the category of secessionist territory. From the perspective of the government in Beijing, this would change everything. The People’s Republic of China has repeatedly emphasized that any attempt to declare independence would be utterly unacceptable. It has also made it clear that it would counter such a move by all necessary means – including armed force. A formal declaration of independence could therefore precipitate a major conflict in the region. Overall, and despite widespread perceptions to the contrary, Taiwan is therefore not about secession – at least as it stands. Instead, it’s a truly unique case of modern
international politics. It’s a case of contested government, not contested statehood. However, and confusingly, it in effect exists as a de facto state and has the potential to evolve
into a secessionist dispute. That said, any attempt to formalize the separate existence through a declaration of independence would lead to a crisis with mainland China. For this reason, it seems likely that Taiwan will continue to occupy a unique and rather misunderstood place in
international affairs. I hope you found the video useful. If so, I have posted some links to some more that you might enjoy. And please share it with anyone you
think might be interested. And do consider subscribing using the link below for more content like this. I post new videos every Friday. Thanks so much for watching and see you again next time. [MUSIC]

Stephen Childs


  1. Thanks for watching. Taiwan is truly a fascinating case for all sorts of reasons. As I try to show, it is actually hard to pin down what it is exactly. It appears to be one thing. However, it has facets of something else. But, officially, it is in fact something entirely different. In many ways, the big question is where is it going? Does it have a future as an independent state? Or will it eventually be absorbed by mainland China?

  2. Taiwan is kind of trapped in a paradoxical limbo as far as international relations is concerned. When the Republic of China fled to Taiwan in 1949 one can say that the ROC effectively became a rump state. However, when the PROC replaced the ROC at the UN the ROC on Taiwan could have become a government in exile. Then again, a government in exile is usually in a foreign territory. When the ROC escaped to Taiwan, Taiwan was ROC territory. At this point someone can say that Taiwan is a secessionist state but it's not for the reasons that you just explained. Taiwan's future is uncertain but what is certain is that the ROC and it's administration of Taiwan will go down in history as a fascinating anomaly in international relations.

  3. The ROC was founded in China in 1912 when Taiwan was part of Japan. After the introduction of democracy in Taiwan a few decades ago, the ROC is now in a more precarious situation because 90% of Taiwanese were in Taiwan hundreds of years before the ROC fled to Taiwan and many Taiwanese preferred Japanese rule over their new colonizers (the ROC).

    That's why at the DPP rallies in Taiwan, the ROC flag is nowhere to be seen – Because 90% of Taiwanese were in Taiwan hundreds of years before the ROC fled there from China, and they see the ROC as just another colonizer.

  4. Highly underrated channel as the guy is a highly qualified professional and is employed in the best university in the world Oxford university

  5. The US hate communist but yet the recognise PRC instead of Taiwan which is a democracy how ironic.

  6. Great video, for those wondering about public sentiment in Taiwan in Oct 2019: 27.7% want formal independence, 25.8% want de facto independence (rather be independence but dont want to anger China), 10.3% want unification and the rest "wait and see". One very important point to note is the age demographics, young people are overwhelmingly independence leaning. Pro-unification are at 2% for under 40's.

  7. If you believe might is right, then you believe in what China tells the world.
    If you think truth is pursuable, then the truth is Taiwan was never part of China historically. Chiang kingdom did send some officials to some places in western Taiwan but Chiang kingdom was established by Manchurian and they break through Great Wall, annihilating China. They gave up the sovereignty over Taiwan in the name of Chiang in 1895, not in the name of China. China had never controlled Manchuria until after world war 2.
    Chung Kai-shek was mandated to govern Taiwan by Allies in 1945 but he also said the future of Taiwan should be decided by Allies in 1949 in a letter to the governor of Taiwan. In 1952 the peace treaty with Japan signed by 49 nations in San Francisco stated Japan officially gave up the sovereignty over Taiwan and Pescadores but the treaty never said Taiwan would be given to any country. Chung Kai-shek and his followers fled to Taiwan after they were defeated in China but they and their descendants only constitute 12% of the population currently living in Taiwan. According to a recent poll, over 80% of residents only identified themselves with Taiwanese, not Chinese.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *