John Cena’s recent apology for referring to Taiwan as a country illustrates the influence that the much-censored consumer market in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) wields over the American entertainment industry. It also serves to illustrate the degree to which denying the legitimacy of the Republic of China (ROC) government based on the island of Taiwan is a central facet of the foreign policy of the mainland PRC government. While the ROC undeniably meets the criteria set for statehood under the 1933 Montevideo Convention, including defined borders, a permanent population, and a government, its ability to conduct relations with other states is hampered by the growing influence of the PRC government worldwide, especially in international organisations. This article will analyse how the current situation came to be, how states have established legal frameworks for conducting informal relations with Taiwan, and the consequences of Taiwan’s exclusion from international organisations.
China’s History of Division
While the history of mainland China and Taiwan is linked, the PRC’s claims to the island have little historical legal precedent. While the Qing Dynasty annexed Taiwan from its aboriginal population in 1885, the island was ceded to Japan ten years later at the conclusion of the first Sino-Japanese War. The collapse of the Qing in the early 20th Century led to a power vacuum in which several factions vied for control. Two such factions, the Nationalist Party (or Kuomintang) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), formed a United Front against Japanese occupation during the Second World War. However, tensions led to resumed conflict after 1945. Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist forces retreated to Taiwan after a series of CCP victories led by Mao Zedong.
These developments complicated postwar diplomacy between the Allies; while the United Kingdom immediately set about normalising relations with the PRC, the United States moved its embassy to Taipei following the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. As a result, neither the PRC nor the ROC governments were invited to the signing of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty with Japan; despite the United Front’s resistance to Japan, the Treaty does not specify to which the Chinese government Japan ceded the island of Taiwan. The ROC subsequently crafted its own treaty with Japan in 1952 to formally end hostilities. However, this split global recognition of the two factions in the Chinese Civil War as the true government of the Chinese state did not last.
Taiwanese Exclusion from International Organisations
Following a growing number of countries establishing diplomatic ties with the PRC in the decades following the Chinese Civil War, the United Nations passed Resolution 2758 in 1972, thereby transferring the Chinese seat at the UN from the ROC to the PRC. Inflexible domestic laws regarding recognition of the government rendered any attempt to craft a dual-representation system futile; the PRC’s official stance has been that Taiwan is an “inalienable part of China since ancient times”, while the Chiang Kai Shek entertained military plans to retake the mainland throughout the 1960s.
Taiwanese exclusion from the UN and its affiliated international organisations has emerged as a point of contention during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Despite its ostracism from the World Health Organisation, Taiwan has emerged as a key player in epidemiological research, warning the UN’s health body as early as December 2019 of the threat posed by Sars-COV-2. This was in stark contrast to the PRC government’s obfuscation of the virus’ origins and its crackdown on whistleblowers. This chain of events prompted the G-7 (an international economic organisation with representatives from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, and Canada) to issue a statement backing Taiwanese participation in the WHO.
While the ROC government has tried to re-obtain membership in the UN in subsequent years, compromise has proved near impossible. As the UN Security Council’s five permanent members were chosen on the basis of their influence in the aftermath of the Second World War, the PRC ascended to the ROC’s former permanent seat on the Security Council. While it rarely exercises its veto power on the Security Council, it often does so to influence geopolitics pertaining to Taiwan. Notable instances include 1999 - when it vetoed UN Peacekeeper operations to handle the fallout of the Kosovo War in Macedonia following the country’s establishment of ties with the ROC, and 2016 when the PRC vetoed a US-led resolution against the Syrian government for its war crimes because then-President Trump took an unprecedented phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
Bilateral Diplomacy Through “Informal Relations”
PRC attempts to erode the legitimacy of the ROC government are not merely confined to UN-affiliated international organisations. As the largest net exporter in the world with a significant presence in overseas investment, the PRC government has significant clout when setting the terms of bilateral relations with other states. As a result, it is able to demand adherence to a “One China” policy, which requires states to not conduct diplomatic relations with the ROC government on Taiwan. Therefore, a variety of unique legislative arrangements have emerged for states to conduct “informal relations” with Taiwan, which has become one of Asia’s most dynamic economies despite the geopolitical threat posed by the PRC government.
The United States established relations with the PRC in 1979 during the Carter administration (which was the result of negotiations started under President Nixon). This was predicated on the ”triangular diplomacy” of the era in which Washington sought to use the PRC-USSR rivalry to its advantage against Moscow.
However, the CSIS notes that in diplomatic communique, the US “acknowledges” but does not “recognise” China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act passed by the US Congress shortly after relations with the PRC began established the American Institute in Taiwan as a non-governmental body for facilitating unofficial ties - the institute functions as a de facto embassy in all but name. The Act allows for the sale of defensive arms to Taiwan, as the official US position on the issue of unification opposes the use of unilateral force by the PRC. However, it has been argued that the lack of an official defense treaty fosters a tense atmosphere of unstable ambiguity. Nonetheless, it has formed the basis for subsequent legislation concerning Taiwan, such as the 2019 TAIPEI Act. In light of increasing violations of international human rights norms by the PRC government, unofficial support of Taiwan has been one of the few issues to garner bipartisan support in Congress.
Japan’s international policies on Taiwan and China are similar to those of the US; in 1972 Japan established official relations with the PRC. In deference to the “One China'' policy, they created an “Interchange Association'' to function as an unofficial embassy to Taiwan. Since then, the two states have cooperated on issues of mutual importance - such as maritime security - and strong trade ties have emerged over the years. In recent months, Japanese legislators in the Liberal Democratic Party have called for the National Diet to consider laws establishing further ties to Taiwan to promote its self-defense capabilities.
Other states have adopted similar unofficial ties to facilitate trade relationships. Despite tensions, China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner as a result of a complex system of bilateral legal arrangements to facilitate unofficial ties. The Straits Exchange Foundation in Taiwan and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits in China function as unofficial intermediaries to conduct relations on behalf of the two governments due to mutual non-recognition of the other’s legitimacy. These institutions enabled the organisation of the talks leading to the 1992 Consensus in then-British Hong Kong, which held that there were “two interpretations” of “one China” - a geopolitical agreement to disagree.
An Uncertain Future
Until recently, this stable, albeit unusual, arrangement was accepted by both PRC and ROC governments. Despite only fifteen states recognising the ROC government, Taiwan has become a global economic powerhouse and even emerged as Asia’s best-performing economy in 2020. It continues to prove itself as an example of successful democracy which consistently protects human rights, particularly in an age of democratic backsliding.
Nonetheless, the PRC claims that Taiwan is rightfully its own, and in 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed that Taiwan be reunited with the mainland through a “one country, two systems” arrangement similar to that of the former British colony of Hong Kong - a system which has recently been bluntly disregarded by the PRC government. Repeated airspace incursions and saber-rattling by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force over Taiwanese airspace serve as a reminder of Beijing’s refusal to rule out the use of military force to unify Taiwan with the mainland.
While there are a variety of opinions within Taiwan on the issue of formally declaring independence, there is widespread opposition to being incorporated into the PRC. This is consistent with opinion polls documenting the emergence of a unique Taiwanese national identity that reflects its autonomy from the mainland. Despite exclusion from international organisations, the ROC government exercises sovereignty on the island of Taiwan. The same cannot be said for certain other UN member states such as Afghanistan and Somalia.
Yet, despite the assertion in Article I of the UN Charter of the human right to self-determination, there is widespread institutional resistance to Taiwan’s formal inclusion in international organisations. This is largely due to the PRC’s inflexibility on the matter and the significant persuasive and coercive power their economy allows it to wield.
John Cena’s comments about Taiwan’s status as a country do not illustrate any ambiguity over the sovereignty exercised by the ROC government, as they might have if they had been made about the disputed Western Sahara region claimed by Morocco. The comments merely illustrate the growing global economic influence of the PRC at a time of unprecedented military aggression in the Indo-Pacific region. Further analysis of the situation demonstrates that hegemonic powers can use international institutions to further their agendas to the detriment of less powerful states. While economically expedient in the short term, the charade of not recognising Taiwanese statehood is long overdue for a reckoning as the world re-evaluates its relationship with China amid new lows in the PRC’s global popularity.