Taiwan: A Thriving Beacon of Democracy in East Asia 40 Years After US De-recognition

Written by Colin Alexander.

At new year 1978/79 the United States diplomatically de-recognised the Republic of China on Taiwan and recognised the government of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. Forty years on from this momentous foreign policy pivot, the city of Nottingham in the UK is hosting an international conference to assess the impact of the decision in Taiwan, China and world affairs.

When the announcement of a switch of diplomatic ties was made in late December 1978, the US Deputy Secretary of State at the time, Warren Christopher (who would become Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State) was sent by US President Jimmy Carter (1977–1981) to Taipei to meet the leader of Taiwan, Chiang Ching-kuo. Christopher did not stay long and would receive a hostile welcome by jeering protestors throwing food and paint as his motorcade made its way from the airport.

China and Taiwan have been in dispute since 1949 after the Communist Party under the leadership of Mao Zedong declared victory in the Chinese Civil War. As the war reached its conclusion, the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government of ‘Generalissimo’ Chiang Kai-shek (Chiang Ching-kuo’s father) plundered Beijing and escaped to the island of Taiwan, which had only recently become Chinese territory after it was ceded by Japan in 1945 at the end of World War II. Both governments would declare themselves as the rightful administrators of China and, as the Cold War became increasingly ‘hotter’ during the 1950s and 1960s, both would propagate competing visions of China and its role in the world along ideological lines.

Despite their differences, the Chiang and Mao governments both adhered to a ‘One China’ policy, which still stands today, and means that countries around the world cannot have diplomatic relations with China and Taiwan simultaneously. There are numerous cases of ‘swing states’ who have changed sides, sometimes after financial incentive, and usually as new regimes have sought to consolidate their position after turnovers of power. However, ultimately with China’s size and political and economic clout, the vast majority of countries today are aligned to Beijing leaving Taiwan diplomatically isolated.

The United Nations’ decision in 1971 to give their China seat to the regime in Beijing was as much about the organisation’s own relevance and credibility as it was a concern for the reality of international relations at the time. However, it also led to the first wave of diplomatic de-recognition of Taiwan. The US had begun backchannel negotiations with Beijing after President Richard Nixon entered the White House in 1969 and he, and his National Security Adviser and subsequent Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, would make strides towards ‘normalisation’ of relations with China until Nixon’s presidency was cut short by the Watergate scandal.

It was then left to President Jimmy Carter’s administration to finish the job. In his first two years in office Carter’s team would push through two foreign policy pivots. The first was the US relinquishing control of the Panama Canal to Panamanian hands and the second was the de-recognition of Taiwan in favour of China. Most scholarship on Carter’s foreign policy takes these two movements as unrelated to each other but there are current efforts to reassess this position.

Taiwan’s de-recognition by the US during the winter of 1978/79 was then a catalyst for a second wave of diplomatic isolation for the small East Asian island as a host of other countries aligned to the US followed suit. Nevertheless, while the protests that greeted Warren Christopher as he arrived in Taipei in December 1978 were most likely a genuine expression of the anxiety of the Taiwanese at what the future might hold, Chiang, and his father’s government before that, had been aware that this day might come for at least a decade, and perhaps longer.

No democratisation took place on Taiwan until well into the 1980s and martial law, which was imposed in 1947, was not officially lifted until 1987, but leading academics have argued that the cogs of a series of subtle political, economic and social reforms began to turn during the 1970s in preparation for a less authoritarian future on Taiwan. For example, in 1971 the Kuomintang privatised its Bank of China and distributed many of the assets that had been plundered from Beijing in 1949 into private, quasi-official and/or sometimes offshore accounts including into the blossoming tax and banking secrecy haven of Panama. To this end, the government of Taiwan at least notionally understood that part of their strategy for survival ought to include the international and domestic propagation of an image of a democratic nation, respecting of human rights and the rule of law, very much in the mould of the image and methods of governance of the international community’s other elite states, and, crucially, juxtaposed against what China still is not. In essence, Taiwan’s plan was to morally compel the major powers into informal allegiance and support on the basis of rhetorical compatibility.

To mark forty years since Taiwan’s de-recognition by the US, between 10th and 12th April 2019 a conference will be held at Nottingham Trent University, UK, by the European Association of Taiwan Studies (EATS) under the theme, Recognising Taiwan: Exploring Taiwan’s Society and Political World.

The conference’s keynote speaker, Professor Harry Harding from the University of Virginia, will deliver a paper entitled America’s Taiwan Dilemma: During and After Derecognition. He is the author of seven books on the foreign relations of China, Taiwan and the United States and has advised several US Presidents on their China and East Asia policy including counsel with George Bush Snr. at Camp David during the late 1980s.

On the importance of the conference, Professor Harding said:

Taiwan has posed a series of dilemmas for policymakers around the world, but particularly for the United States, not just on how to react  to the Nationalist government’s withdrawal retreat to Taiwan in 1949 after its defeat on the mainland, but also how to address China’s demands for fundamental changes in the US-Taiwan relationship as its condition for normal diplomatic relations with Washington in the 1970s. Since de-recognising Taiwan in 1978, the US has had to respond to Taiwan’s declining interest in unification and its evolution into a thriving democracy and a major player in global supply chains. It is important that we take stock of how the US has managed these dilemmas over the last forty years and it is fantastic that the European Association of Taiwan Studies has made the decision to host a conference themed around this important issue. I am delighted to be a part of it.

The conference’s local organiser, Dr. Colin Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Political Communications at Nottingham Trent University, seconded Prof. Harding’s sentiment about the importance of the conference:

It is fantastic that an academic of the calibre of Prof. Harding has agreed to participate and it is quite a coup for the city of Nottingham to be hosting an event like this to mark one of the most important foreign policy pivots of the last half century.

Both Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham have strategically aligned themselves to the East Asian markets and the city has become somewhat of a hub in the UK and Europe for research, discussion and teaching on issues related to China and Taiwan. Both universities have growing cohorts of staff and students from China and Taiwan and we feel that the hosting of this event is in many ways a landmark of how far the universities and the city have come in this regard. Students from East Asia bring a lot to the city’s economy and long may that continue.

Colin Alexander is a Senior Lecturer in Political Communications, Nottingham Trent University. For more information or interviews: colin.alexander@ntu.ac.uk  This paper is part of EATS 2019 conference special issue Image credit: CC by Pingnews/Flickr.

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