Written by Jinpeng Ma.
Since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the US has exerted considerable influence on bilateral relations between Taipei and Beijing. A result of this is that the Taiwan issue (and in particular recognition of the One China Principle) has become a prominent dimension of the Beijing-Washington relationship. Looking back at the evolution of the relationship over the past three decades, it is clear that the Beijing-Washington relationship is entering into a new stage. From 1949 to 1971, the US’s commitment to protect the regime of the Republic Of China (ROC) in Taiwan became a source of hostility in its relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, this was mitigated by the impact of a radical geopolitical shift. To contain the Soviet Union, the US chose to ease tensions and improve relations with mainland China’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since 1979, when the US and the PRC formally established diplomatic relations, Beijing-Washington relations enjoyed a honeymoon period that lasted about three decades. However, the subsequent rapid development of mainland China, and a growing number of conflicts of interest, have since increased frictions between Beijing and Washington. It now appears that hostility is overtaking friendship as the defining attribute of the bilateral relationship.
The Significance of the UN
Since 1949, competition between Taipei and Beijing has been a regular topic in the United Nations. The UN as the most important intergovernmental organization in the world – hence occupying a seat in the UN is regarded to be a key symbol of state legitimacy. For Taipei and Beijing, competition for this seat arose as a consequence of the Civil War. The Kuomingtang (KMT) party, which led the government of the ROC, fled to Taiwan after the effective conclusion of the civil war, while the CCP founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in mainland China. Yet with the support of the US, the ROC continued to present itself as the sole legitimate government of China in the international stage. Since then, their competition in the UN can be divided into two stages: 1. Before 1971, when Taipei occupied a UN seat as the sole official representative of China, and; 2. After 1971, when the CCP (Beijing) won landslide support in the international community to replace the KMT/ROC (Taipei). This led to Taipei’s international space becoming dramatically restricted.
The Triangular Relationship: Beijing-Washington-Taipei
The Taiwan issue is now a trilateral ‘game’ involving Beijing, Washington, and Taipei. As a result, the outcome of competition between Beijing and Taipei in the UN is not only decided by their comparative strength or influence. Decisions made by the US play a significant part in determining diplomatic outcomes. As the biggest superpower upon the conclusion of the Second World War, the US came to play a dominant role in shaping and structuring global politics, and it did so in the backdrop of nascent competition with communism. It was for this reason that the US sustained a relationship as one of the most important allies of the anti-communist KMT – an alliance that prompted critical support for the KMT during the Anti-Japanese War, the Civil War, and subsequent to the KMT’s relocation to Taiwan. By contrast, ideological conflicts between Beijing and Washington have always placed restraints on their relationship. The US’ relative affirmation of Taiwan’s political leanings has thus become a key element shaping the trilateral relationship.
China-US Relations Enter a New Stage
In 1979, Beijing and Washington published the Joint Communique of the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China, and formally established diplomatic relations. The foundation of the joint communique is that the US recognises the One China Principle. With this as a prerequisite, the relations between Beijing and Washington saw stable improvements, and gave Taipei little room to manoeuvre. Apart from the common ground shared in the joint communique, the rapid development of the PRC’s economic, military, and diplomatic strength extended the disparities between Beijing and Taiwan and left the latter with even less of a voice in the global arena. Taipei’s wish to gain redmission to the UN became an unrealistic dream. However, the rise of the PRC’s strength coincided with a rise in dynamics that came to have a negative impact on the PRC’s image. Especially from 2010, when mainland China surpassed Japan to become the second largest economy, the US started to raise its guard against mainland China. The inauguration of the Trump administration saw the Beijing-Washington relationship enter into a new phase. From 2019, we have seen the US adopt an increasingly tough attitude towards mainland China, and relations between the two nations have subsequently deteriorated. Against such a bleak backdrop, Taipei has began to see a silver lining.
Taipei’s New Expectations
Taipei’s decisions on matters pertaining to foreign relations are strongly influenced by Washington and Beijing. In the period when Beijing and Washington shared friendly relations, the US didn’t want Taipei to adopt measures that would provoke Beijing. Therefore, the US tried to reduce conflicts between Taipei and Beijing so as to sustain a relatively stable, cooperative trilateral relationship. Taiwan’s authorities knew clearly that they could not hope to compete against Beijing without international support. Taking advantage of Washington’s influence, and leveraging it to forward its own international goals, lies at the heart of Taipei’s foreign policy platform. Washington’s recent change in its attitude towards Beijing thus offers a tempting opportunity for Taipei.
Specifically, the new dynamics between Beijing and Washington have seen a raft of disputes ranging from the ban on Huawei, calling COVID-19 the China virus, US criticisms on Beijing’s policies towards HK, the US’s order to close the Chinese consulate in Houston, and the ban on TikTok (since rescinded with conditions). All these conflicts are eroding the stability of the bilateral relationship. Beijing, on its part, has also responded with tough rhetoric. In the backdrop of this, Taiwan has been used as a bargaining chip. As a result, the Trump administration may be more willing to hear and perhaps even acquiesce to Taipei’s requests. In particular, Taipei may leverage the opportunity to seek US support and try to apply for a seat in the UN. Taipei’s new expectation are based on the new dynamics that are affecting Beijing-Washington relations, and these will continue to change over time.
Competition instead of cooperation has been the defining attribute of the Beijing-Washington relations over the past year. The principal of advancing mutual benefits that was advocated by the two sides in the past seems to be disappearing. The new dynamics in the bilateral relationship are challenging the stability of the political ecology of the trilateral relationship. Each side has new perceptions and expectations in relation to the future structure of the relationship. Trilateral relations are complicated and its component relationships are intricately linked. For Taipei, the deterioration of the Beijing-Washington relationship is an opportunity to leverage the US’s support in order to further its own interests in the international arena. And one reason underlying the increase of conflicts between Beijing and Washington is their gradually shrinking gap in terms of their economic and technological capacity. It is not hard to see that a change in one part of the trilateral relationship can have a profound impact on its other parts. Taipei may thus well now be in a better position to leverage this predicament to make inroads in expanding its international space.
Jinpeng Ma is a doctoral student in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham (UoN). He completed his master in International Relations at University of Essex, UK. During his graduate studies, he received a scholarship to go to University of Oxford (Nuffield College) for a summer exchange program, focusing on social science. He obtained his BA in International Politics at Sichuan International Studies University (SISU), China. Jinpeng’s PhD research interests are in the field of trilateral relations between China, the United States and Taiwan.
This article is part of a special issue on Taiwan’s application to enter the United Nations.