The dispute between China and Taiwan

David Kang comments on the state of China-Taiwan relations in the New York Times.

What is the state of China-Taiwan relations?

President George Bush fanned the flames of the longstanding conflict between China and Taiwan during his November 16 speech in Kyoto, at the start of a week-long state visit to Asia. In urging China to expand openness and allow its people more freedoms, the president used Taiwan as a model, saying Taiwan had brought prosperity to its people by embracing freedom and creating a democratic Chinese society. China rejected Bush's comments. "Taiwan is an inseparable part ofChina, and China does not brook any interference in its internal affairs," Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing told reporters at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in South Korea. Bush meets Chinese President Hu Jintao and other Asian leaders at the summit November 19.

What is the history of the conflict?

Taiwan, an island of 23 million off China's southern coast, was occupied by Japan for fifty years, from 1895 to 1945. In 1949, after Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party lost its power struggle with the Communist Party in China, Chiang and his followers fled to Taiwan. Their Kuomintang (KMT) government-in-exile in Taipei defined itself as the alternative to Communist rule and hoped one day to return to power in Beijing. The KMT governed Taiwan from 1949 to 2000; its often harsh rule included discriminatory laws against ethnic Taiwanese and nearly forty years of martial law, which was finally lifted in 1987. The KMT has historically seen Taiwan as a part of "one China" that would eventually be reunited under Nationalist rule.

Taiwan's current ruling party, the predominantly ethnic Taiwanese Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was founded in 1986 to counter the KMT, and only became legal in 1989 after a longtime ban on opposition parties was dropped. Taiwanese President Chen Shui-Bian is a member of the DPP, which envisions Taiwan as an independent nation, separate from China. In 2000, Chen was the first DPP candidate to be elected president. Taiwanese sovereignty is the first and most prominent issue on the party's platform. This position has put the DPP severely at odds with China's leadership, which views Taiwan as a renegade province that will one day be reunited with Communist China--by force, if necessary.

What is the U.S. position?

The United States officially recognizes only one China -- including Taiwan -- and urges a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan question. However, Washington is also bound by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to aid in Taiwan 's defense, including selling the island the weapons it needs to defend itself against China. Experts say the United States is walking a fine line between China 's growing influence and the historical U.S. relationship with Taiwan. "Bush had to stand up for freedom and democracy and all the other values he constantly talks about, without picking a fight with China that nobody really wants," says David Kang, an Asia expert and visiting professor at Stanford University's Shorenstein APARC. Bush stressed in his speech that "there should be no unilateral attempts to change the status quo by either side."

What is the impetus behind independence for Taiwan?

After the long KMT reign, many Taiwanese are now pushing for self-determination. Independence advocates say Taiwan is a free and democratic nation with multiparty elections and a very successful economy, with a gross national product (GNP) of $328 billion in 2004, of which $174 billion was due to exports including electronics, computer parts, textiles, metals, plastic, and rubber. They say the Taiwan people should have the right to decide for themselves if they want to join China or become an independent nation. Since Chen was elected to his first term in 2000, he has steadily pushed the idea of Taiwanese independence. He provoked Beijing August 3 by supporting the idea of a referendum to ask Taiwanese citizens if the island should declare formal independence from China. China is very hostile to such talk: On August 7, the official China Daily newspaper quoted a Chinese military official saying, "Taiwan choosing independence is tantamount to choosing war."

What has China been doing?

Making both incendiary statements and conciliatory moves. In July, General Zhu Chenghu, the dean of China's National Defense University, warned that China would attack the United States with nuclear weapons if it intervened in a military dispute over Taiwan. Although he later claimed the comments were his own and did not reflect the views of the state, Zhu's words generated international concern. However, China's actions toward some Taiwanese officials have been friendlier. James Soong, head of the Taiwanese opposition party People First, has visited China several times in the last year at the invitation of Beijing. Experts say Beijing is reaching out to opposition leaders in Taiwan in an attempt to sidestep the DPP and build new bases of support on the island. Soong is taking advantage of the opening to play for domestic political support and attempt to show up the DPP, they say. His actions infuriate the ruling party in Taiwan because, despite his unofficial status, Soong is building friendly relations with China in direct contrast to DPP policy.

What are the next steps?

Bush alluded to peace talks in his November 16 speech, but experts say such talks between China and Taiwan are unlikely in the near future. "There are elements moving towards peace talks, and other elements, especially in Taiwan, that are pushing toward independence and want to stick China in the eye," David Kang says. But "it's hard to say what Taiwan wants," he adds, noting the Taiwan electorate is almost evenly split between those who favor independence and those who want to improve relations with Beijing for historical, cultural, and especially economic reasons. David Kang says that, in the last several years, as many as one million Taiwanese have moved to China to do business.

What are Taiwan's security concerns?

China, located just 100 miles away across the Taiwan Strait, has hundreds of ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan, and is targeting much of its recent militarization campaign specifically at the island, including building amphibious tanks that can be used to storm Taiwan's shores. China's military buildup has put Taiwan at a strategic disadvantage: Taiwan's military spending has dropped 25 percent over the last five years, to only 2.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The United States has been pressuring the island to buy a specially designed $18 billion package of U.S. arms to improve its military capabilities. But some Taiwanese politicians are reluctant to devote resources to military buildup given the presumed U.S. protection, and opposition leaders have blocked the sale over what experts call domestic political squabbling. But, David Kang points out, a military invasion of Taiwan by China is highly improbable. "That's the least likely scenario," he says. "You can have a military dispute that's far short of all-out war."