Taiwan’s Status Is a Geopolitical Absurdity

The island is not recognized by its most important ally, faces an existential threat from territory it claims as its own, and its sovereign status is being gradually erased by companies seeking to preserve access to the world’s largest market.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen visits with Taiwanese soldiers.
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, center, visits with Taiwanese soldiers. (Tyrone Siu / Reuters)

TAIPEI—After nine years of construction, more than 400 American diplomats and staff have moved into new offices here, a $250 million compound built into a lush hill with security provided by marines. Employees will offer American citizens in Taiwan consular services and help Taiwanese obtain visas to visit the United States, just as they would anywhere else in the world.

Yet this is not an embassy, or a consulate—at least officially. Instead it is the American Institute in Taiwan, a name that suggests a research center rather than a diplomatic mission, the result of a geopolitical compromise that, while far from the biggest of Taiwan’s problems, illustrates the ludicrous situation the island finds itself in. It is not recognized as a country by its most important ally, the U.S.; it faces an existential threat from territory it claims as its own, China; and its sovereign status is being gradually erased by companies seeking to preserve access to the Chinese market. As tensions worsen between Washington and Beijing—and with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen due to visit the U.S. this week—understanding Taiwan’s bizarre situation becomes ever more important.

Officially, 17 countries recognize Taiwan’s democratic government, which is known as the Republic of China, but the United Nations regards the People’s Republic of China government in Beijing, which has never controlled Taiwan, as speaking for the island. This leads to one of the many absurdities that affect Taiwan: Its 23 million citizens can travel the world on Taiwanese passports—emblazoned with Republic of China (Taiwan)—which are among the most widely accepted documents on the planet, but they cannot enter UN buildings with them. (This is despite the fact that in 1942, the Republic of China was among the first countries to sign the United Nations Declaration.) Washington does not recognize the Republic of China, yet Taiwan is the U.S.’s 11th-largest trading partner, the world’s 22nd-largest economy, and a crucial link in Silicon Valley’s supply chain.

Despite its limited international presence it is difficult to overstate Taiwan’s strategic importance to both the United States and an increasingly assertive China. The island’s location, economy, and security are all essential to American interests, and if Taiwan were to become part of China, as Beijing has insisted it must, China would instantly become a Pacific power, control some of the world’s most cutting-edge technologies, and have the ability to choke off oil shipments to Japan and South Korea—leverage it could use to demand the closure of U.S. military bases in both countries. In effect, Beijing would likely be able to achieve its goal of forcing the U.S. out of Asia. It is no surprise, then, that Taiwan is one of the rare issues on Capitol Hill today with bipartisan agreement—Congress has been regularly passing pro-Taiwan legislation with unanimous support throughout the Donald Trump era.

Here, however, that offers little relief for officials wary of a rising China’s threat. Beijing has upwards of 1,600 ballistic missiles pointed at the island, and is exerting ever-growing pressure on pliant international businesses to label Taiwan as a province of China. The U.S. is the only country that doesn’t officially recognize Taiwan that is willing to receive its president and foreign minister, leaving top officials in Taipei with few platforms to make their case to the world.

“Taiwan’s government is democratically elected—we have a president, we have a parliament,” Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said plaintively at a briefing for foreign media earlier this year. At the time, his government was trying to be included in the World Health Assembly. (It was ultimately blocked by China.) “We issue visas, we issue passports,” he said, practically pleading. “We have a military and a currency … Taiwan exists by itself; Taiwan is not a part of any other country.”

Some background: The Republic of China is the government that once ruled China under Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang. Chiang was a vital American ally during World War II, keeping Japanese supply lines stretched as he gradually retreated westward while Allied forces first focused on Europe. After the Allied victory over Japan, in 1945, Tokyo effectively surrendered Taiwan, which it had ruled as a colony for 50 years. President Harry Truman, eager to bring American troops home, was happy to hand Taiwan over to Chiang.

For Chiang, the so-called retrocession of Taiwan ended up providing an invaluable emergency exit. Mao Zedong’s bloody Communist revolution overthrew Chiang’s government, which fled to Taiwan in 1949, just four years after it had begun administering it as a province. Immediately after its arrival, the Mandarin-speaking Kuomintang party-state imposed its interpretation of a Chinese identity on a people that spoke Japanese, a few regional Chinese languages, and a diverse mix of indigenous Austronesian tongues.

Today in Taipei, the legacy of forced Sinicization under Chiang, and then his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, is visible everywhere. When I grab a coffee at a 7-Eleven here, the time stamp on my receipt doesn’t mark the year as 2019, but 108—Taiwan counts years beginning from the founding of the Republic of China, in 1911, when the island was still known as Japanese Formosa to the outside world.

Roads, city districts, schools, and universities throughout Taiwan are named after Chiang, often using his adopted name of Zhongzheng. Many streets here in Taipei are also named after Chinese cities—ones that the ROC was one day going to retake from the “Communist bandits,” as Mao’s government was called here during the Cold War. (Interestingly, no streets in China are named after Mao.)

The ROC constitution, meanwhile, still claims Taiwan, China, Mongolia, and the entire South China Sea as its territory, reflecting Chiang’s desire to restore control over areas the Qing Dynasty ruled or claimed at its height, before European, Japanese, and American colonialism began eating away at it. The legacy of Chiang’s obsession with retaking China is also manifest in Taiwan’s international presence. In 1971, he withdrew the Republic of China from the United Nations, just before it was about to lose a vote that would give the China seat on the Security Council to the government in Beijing. Years earlier, the U.S. had pushed him in vain to give up the seat in exchange for a Taiwan seat, as the myth of the Republic of China being the sole legal government of all of China (and Taiwan) began to unravel.

After Chiang’s death, in 1975, his son maintained the delusion that the Republic of China would triumphantly cross the Taiwan Strait and retake mainland China. In 1981, Chiang Ching-kuo’s government rejected the International Olympic Committee’s suggestion of competing in the Olympics under the name Taiwan, insisting on a name with a connection to China, settling on the one that Taiwanese athletes still compete under today: Chinese Taipei.

Two years earlier, Jimmy Carter decided to abandon official diplomatic relations with Taipei in order to recognize Beijing, finalizing a process begun in 1972 by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Carter hadn’t notified Congress—whose Cold Warriors steadfastly supported the authoritarian Chiang regime against the Communists across the strait—and as a result, there was no mechanism for continuing relations with Taiwan on an unofficial level.

A perhaps unexpected protagonist, the American Chamber of Commerce, stepped into the fray to help Congress draft a vision for future relations, arguing for clear legal frameworks to underpin the substantial U.S. investments in Taiwan, as well as a system for providing Taiwan with the means of defending itself from China. From this came the Taiwan Relations Act, the 40th anniversary of which dozens of American officials, led by former House Speaker Paul Ryan, celebrated here in April. The TRA was passed by Congress with a veto-proof supermajority.

Hailing the TRA as “the cornerstone of U.S.-Taiwan relations,” Senator Marco Rubio, who was not part of the delegation, echoed the strong sentiment in Congress about the importance of Taiwan to American interests. “We must continue to strengthen our alliance with Taiwan, a fellow democracy, in the face of China’s rising aggression in the region,” he told me. “Taiwan is a critical security partner in achieving our shared goal of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Key components of the TRA include acknowledging, but not recognizing, Beijing’s claim to Taiwan; considering Taiwan’s status undetermined, but something that must be resolved peacefully; viewing any attempt by China to coerce Taiwan into unification as a grave threat to American security; authorizing the sale of military equipment of a defensive nature to Taiwan in order to keep China at bay; and establishing the American Institute in Taiwan.

The first three of those points have held steady, from Carter through Trump, yet the sale of military equipment began to slow after a deal in 1992 in which George H. W. Bush sold 150 F-16 jet fighters to Taipei. In the face of China’s economic and political rise, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama were largely deferential. They were reluctant to approve large or regular arms deals to Taiwan, out of fear of angering Beijing, preferring to bundle medium-size deals that were only approved when they wanted to send a message that they were displeased with China.

That is changing under Trump, who is engaged in a trade war with China and is heading what is easily the most pro-Taiwan White House since the TRA went into effect. The State Department and Pentagon are stacked with China hawks and friends of Taiwan, and there is an obvious push for normalization of arms packages, both big and small. A $500 million F-16 training-and-parts package was approved in April, suggesting that approval for a late-February request from Taiwan for 66 F-16 fighters is forthcoming. In early June, Reuters reported a separate pending sale of $2 billion in hardware, including 108 M1A2 Abrams tanks, drawing protests from China, with a spokesman in Beijing urging the U.S. “to see the high sensitivity and severe harm of arms sales to Taiwan.”

As Taiwan prepares for presidential and legislative elections in January—amid concerns over an intense Chinese influence campaign—expect members of Congress and Trump administration officials who see Tsai as a safe pair of hands and view the China-friendly Kuomintang warily to pursue a relationship with Taiwan that is more like one between official diplomatic allies. Tsai’s two “transit” stops in the US in the coming days will last two nights—previous protocol had limited Taiwanese presidents to one-night stopovers.

This trend is likely to continue in the run-up to Taiwan’s elections in January, and to elicit greater rhetorical vitriol from Beijing—and perhaps military intimidation or the poaching of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies—as relations between Washington and Taipei gradually change.