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  • Writer's pictureMike Lyons



China – Taiwan Timeline*

A Brief Historical Background

The island of Taiwan was annexed in 1683 by China’s Qing Dynasty. Before that, it was briefly occupied by the Spanish and later by the Dutch. The Dutch were expelled in 1661. Almost 200 years later USA annexes Texas, then California and later Hawaii.

Taiwan was ceded to the Japanese Empire in 1895 following the Qing defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. By 1938, 309,000 Japanese settlers resided in Taiwan. During WWII, tens of thousands of Taiwanese served in the Japanese military and over 2,000 Taiwanese “comfort women” were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese troops.

Japan surrendered on 25 October 1945. The Treaty of San Francisco and the Treaty of Taipei, both came into force in 1952, when Japan renounced all claims to Taiwan. However, neither Treaty specified to whom sovereignty over Taiwan should be transferred (because the US and the UK disagreed on whether ROC or PRC should be the legitimate government of China). This has resulted in the continuing dispute of whether or not the ROC has sovereignty over Taiwan.

The Republic of China (ROC) was founded on the Chinese mainland on 1 January 1912 and replaced the Qing Dynasty, ending more than 2000 years of imperial rule in China. Until 1949, the ROC was based in mainland China.

The Chinese Civil War (1927-49) was fought between the Kuomintang (KMT), led by Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Zedong. The Civil War ended in 1949, resulting in the KMT’s defeat to the CCP. The KMT retreated to Taiwan where Taipei became the ROC capital. Some 1-2 million people from the KMT were evacuated from mainland China to Taiwan, adding to the existing population of 6 million. Taiwan has remained under the ROC governance to the present day. Despite losing the Civil War, the KMT has continued to claim sovereignty over “all of China”. However, the victorious Communists consider the PRC to be the sole legitimate government of China, including Taiwan.

On 1 October 1949, the Communists founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Taiwan Goes From Martial Law to Authoritarianism to Democracy

Martial law was declared in Taiwan in 1949 and was not repealed for 38 years, until 1987. Martial law was used to suppress political opposition. The KMT did not allow new parties and competitive democratic elections did not exist. During the period known as the “White Terror”, 140,000 people were imprisoned or executed for being anti-KMT, or pro-Communist. Until the 1970s, the Taiwan government was regarded in the West as undemocratic for upholding martial law and repressing political opposition.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the ROC maintained an authoritarian, single party government. Despite that, most Western nations regarded the ROC as the sole legitimate government of China.

It was only in the late 1970s to the1990s, that the ROC transitioned from a one-party military dictatorship to a multiparty democracy. In the mid-1980s, Chiang Kai-shek’s son began reforming the political system. In 1986, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was inaugurated as the first opposition party to challenge the KMT.

UN Recognition of China and a Switch of Diplomatic Relations

In 1971, the UN voted to recognise the PRC instead of the ROC to represent China at the United Nations. Most nations switched diplomatic recognition to the PRC. Taiwan continues to be claimed by the PRC which refuses diplomatic relations with countries which recognise ROC. Taiwan maintains official diplomatic relations with only 14 out of the 193 UN member states, although many countries maintain unofficial diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

China’s foreign ministry continues to urge the Americans to abide by earlier communiqués: In 1972, the US acknowledged that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintained that there is only one China; In 1979, the US declared that it would end formal political relations with ROC, while preserving economic and cultural ties. Since the 1980s China has opened up and the US has adopted a policy of “strategic ambiguity”.

Independence V Unification

In 2000, DPP nominee, Chen Shui-bian was elected as Taiwan’s first non-KMT president, openly backing independence for Taiwan. In 2008, the KMT increased its majority, and its nominee won the presidency, campaigning for better ties with the PRC. Then, in 2016, Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP became president of Taiwan. She favours independence from China and, in 2020 she called on the international community to defend Taiwan’s democracy. However, Xi Jinping had stated that Taiwan is part of China and reserves the right to use force although it would strive to achieve peaceful “reunification”.

In January 2020, Tsai was re-elected president and the DPP won a majority with 54% of the vote against the KMT’s 34%. However, the KMT continues to promote unification and closer ties with China, and it is supported by big business. Although the DPP holds the majority position, the KMT is not irrelevant, having won 34% of the vote in the 2020 elections.

In a speech by Xi on 9 October 2021 (the 110th anniversary of China’s 1911 Revolution) he proclaimed Chinese unification to be a historical mission that had to be and would be realised. Only one day later, Tsai announced that maintaining the “status quo” was what Taiwan wanted.

Defending Taiwan from Reunification

President Xi Jinping regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and has warned that any attempt by Taiwan to seek independence means war. In early October, the Wall Street Journal reported, and Taiwan’s President Tsai acknowledged, that members of the US military was secretly operating in Taiwan to train its military forces. China’s mouthpiece, the Global Times reported that the deployment of US troops in Taiwan “crossed China’s bottom line and is the most dangerous factor that will lead to a war in the Taiwan Strait.”

The US Administration does not have authority to defend Taiwan. A 1979 US law permits the US to arm, but not to defend Taiwan. Some Democrats call for war making authority while others do not want to rock the boat, fearing that expanding presidential authority might upset the US principle of “strategic ambiguity”.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley has indicated that China has neither the intention nor capability to invade Taiwan, but the two previous Chiefs, admirals Davidson and Aquilino disagree, saying that China does have both the intention and capability to invade. China’s strike capabilities continue to grow in leaps and bounds

Scott Ritter (a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer and author of Scorpion King) contends that the US has “zero capability” of defending Taiwan. Reflecting on Afghanistan, he argues that China could deliver violence on a scale several orders of magnitude greater than what the Taliban could ever contemplate, and, in reality, Taiwan would fall in less than a week. The only chance would be for the US to use nuclear weapons, but this would trigger a general nuclear war with China and the US would not be prepared to “commit national suicide” for a nation with which it does not even have a defence pact.

US Confusion, Strategic Ambiguity and Maintaining the Status Quo

To this day, nearly all nations including US, recognise Beijing as the sole representative of China. Despite that, President Biden has stated that the US commitment to Taiwan is “rock solid”. In October 2021, Biden said that he and Xi Jinping had agreed to abide by the “Taiwan agreement”. However, there is no such thing as a “Taiwan agreement”. Biden again caused confusion when he said that the US had a “sacred commitment” under the NATO Treaty to respond to action against Taiwan. However, the US does not have a defence treaty with Taiwan and Taiwan is not part of NATO. On 22 October Biden said that the US would come to Taiwan’s defence in the event of an attack by China, adding that the US had a “commitment to do that”. Immediately after his statement, the White House announced that there was no change in the US China policy and that the US would continue to pursue a policy of “strategic ambiguity”.

In 2007, the former leader of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou proposed maintaining the “status quo” as his policy for Taiwan. That policy relies on a “Three No” formula: “no unification, no independence, and no use of force.” Later, President Tsai also called for maintaining the status quo. This policy is intended to provide reassurance for both domestic and international audiences, recognising that a declaration of Taiwan’s independence would cross a red line for China. As things stand, the status quo is likely to be maintained which suggests that neither unification nor independence is feasible in the short term.


Despite the US policy of “strategic ambiguity” and Taiwan’s policy of maintaining the “status quo”, the US continues to send mixed messages. Even as America, and 93% of UN members officially recognise China, and not the ROC:

  • the US trains Taiwan’s military (while having no capacity to defend Taiwan);

  • those in the know do not believe that the US can successfully defend Taiwan; and

  • US president Biden, seemingly oblivious, continues to put out dangerously provocative mixed messages.

Scott Ritter’s observation may be right when he states that the US would not be prepared to “commit national suicide”. This, whilst the world (and Australia, tied at the hip to America) can only watch and hope!

Arguably, the twin avoidance policies of US “strategic ambiguity” and Taiwan’s maintenance of “status quo” suggests that neither wants war and neither seeks to cross China’s “red line”. Perhaps it is all talk. Was it not Winston Churchill who said that “Jaw, jaw” is always better than “war, war”?

*China – Taiwan Timeline

1683 – Taiwan annexed by China

1846-48 – USA annexes Texas and then California (from Mexico)

1893 – USA overthrows Kingdom of Hawaii

1894 – Kuomintang (KMT) or Chinese National Party established

1895 – Taiwan ceded to Japan, following defeat of Qing Dynasty

1912 (Jan) - Republic of China (ROC) founded by KMT

1921 (July) – Chinese Communist Party (CCP) founded

1945 – Japan defeated

1927-49 – Chinese Civil War between KMT and CCP

1949 - Defeat of KMT by CCP

1949 (Oct) – People’s Republic of China (PRC) founded by CCP

1949 – Martial Law declared in Taiwan

1949 (Dec) – KMT evacuates to Taiwan making Taipei the ROC capital

1952 – Treaty of San Francisco, Japan officially relinquishes claim to Taiwan

1960s-1970s – ROC maintains authoritarian single party government in Taiwan

1971 – United Nations recognises PRC instead of ROC to represent China

1972 – USA acknowledges only one China on both sides of Taiwan Strait

1979 – USA ends formal political relations with ROC, keeping economic ties

1986 – Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) inaugurated in Taiwan

2000 – DPP nominee, Chen elected Taiwan President, backing independence

2008 – KMT nominee, Ma becomes Taiwan President, campaigns for better ties with PRC

2016 – DPP nominee Tsai Ing-wen becomes Taiwan President

2020 – Tsai re-elected, calls for international community to defend Taiwan democracy

2021 – Joe Biden inaugurated US President

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