U.S. ambassador to Palau John Hennessey-Niland, alongside Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. visited Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, this past month. Among the objectives of the trip were to promote a Covid-free “travel bubble” between the two islands, and to promote the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act, or TAIPEI, U.S. federal legislation that aims to strengthen trade relations with Taiwan and advocate for Taiwan’s role in international organizations, such as the World Health Organization. Every member of Congress, both the House and Senate, voted for it.
While Palau might be small, a U.S. ambassador traveling to Taiwan is a big deal; Hennessey-Niland is the first U.S. ambassador to visit the island in an official capacity since the official end of U.S.-Taiwan diplomatic relations in 1979.
China, as in the People’s Republic of China, was not pleased with the visit, implying that the actions of the U.S. undermine the one-China policy, a creature born out of a series of agreements, most notably the Shanghai Communiqué, in which the U.S. shifted diplomatic ties to Beijing.
“I want to stress that the one-China principle is a universally recognized norm for international relations and a common consensus recognized, accepted and practiced by the vast majority of countries in the world. Following the one-China principle is the overriding trend with popular support,” said China Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian in remarks to the media.
“The Taiwan question is the most important and sensitive issue in China-US relations,” Zhao emphasized.
While China as a civilization dates back thousands of years, China as a nation is more ambiguous. The imperial era of China came to an end in 1912 with the founding of the Republic of China and the establishment of the Kuomintang (or Guomintang) also known as the Nationalist Party, which became the dominant political party of the republic.
The Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921 under the tutelage of Mao Zedong, among others, and the two became mortal enemies, briefly uniting against a common enemy in the 1930s when Japan invaded China.
The end of World War II brought renewed civil war, with the United States backing the Kuomintang, hence the Republic of China, which cut its losses and fled to the island of Taiwan off China’s southeast coast.
And in October 1949, a triumphant Chairman Mao marched into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to pronounce the founding of the People’s Republic of China, or the PRC, thereby merging China the civilization into China the country.
Sen. Eugene McCarthy began his namesake anti-communist tirade over how the U.S. could lose China to communism, while China was surprised that it was somehow America’s to lose.
Here’s some perspective for 1949: The first wave of baby boomers is older than the People’s Republic. My father is older than China.
Taiwan remained China for diplomatic purposes, retaining its seat on the UN Security Council. Then came the 1970s. In 1973, the United States established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic, then formally severed ties with Taiwan in 1979. China became “China” on the global stage. Beijing considers Taiwan a province of China, while hardliners among the Kuomintang expect to retake the mainland.
Taiwan became an in-between entity, a pariah of sorts, with many nations maintaining missions and conducting trade, but without formal recognition. For its part, Taiwan developed a dynamic economy and created a prosperous society with democratic elections. To this day Taiwan leads the world in semiconductor manufacturing and has been one of the very few spots on the planet able to manage Covid.
In the decades since, an uncomfortable triangle has emerged. China is China and agrees not to invade Taiwan. Taiwan agrees not to declare independence and is free to essentially act like an independent nation. The United States sells weapons to Taiwan, and from time to time the Seventh Fleet will send a warship or two through the Taiwan Strait. It’s not the best solution but has created a stable yet tense security arrangement. How long it will last is the question.
To say the situation between the U.S. and China is tense is an understatement. Rare is the instance in which major trading partners have such disparate interests. In other words, America and China have a gun to each other’s heads, and they have both supplied bullets for each other.
“When Trump took the Taiwan President's phone call before his inauguration, I thought he was a genius....it definitely got China's attention,” remarked a Taiwanese-American friend of mine.
So, when an American Ambassador visits Taiwan, it definitely gets China’s attention. While Micronesia might be small and remote, it’s also a microcosm of a much broader global issue, one that is realigning the global order.
Gabriel McCoard is an attorney, who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. He is currently weathering the pandemic stateside. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.