America and the Two Chinas
Credible sources suggest that Xi Jinping plans to attack Taiwan in the fall. Indeed, this is inevitable given the war in Ukraine. However, any attack would be the end of a very long path through Chinese and American history.
To fully understand what is playing out, one must look at the past to understand how Taiwan came into being, what Mao Zedong’s goals were, what President Nixon’s rapprochement offered, and how Xi Jinping views China’s role in Southeast Asia.
China was ruled by the Manchu’s Qing Dynasty for 267 years before its overthrow in 1911. This was followed for a half-century by military failures, revolts, famines, and civil wars. The imperial regime had also signed a series of unequal treaties with Western countries. Since the Opium War, successive demands from Western powers and Japan had left China with a paralyzed economy.
At age 19, Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) expressed his strong nationalistic feelings with a desire to “expel the Manchu Qing and to restore China.” He prepared for a military career at the Baoding Military Academy. He continued with four years of training at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy in Tokyo.
Returning to China, Chiang joined the National Revolutionary Army—the military arm of the nationalist Kuomintang (which Sun Yat-sen founded). In 1926, Chiang became the army’s commander-in-chief, known as “ Generalissimo.” It was Chiang who ended the Civil War (1916-28) and reunited China. In 1928, he formed the Republic of China (Taiwan included) As head of state, Chiang followed Sun Yat-sen’s Chinese version of Abraham Lincoln’s governing philosophy for America: “government of the people, by the people, for the people…”
America was one of Chiang’s important backers. That changed, though, when a civil war broke out between the Kuomintang and Mao’s Communist forces. Chiang’s government then had to battle Communism within China, as well as confronting Japanese aggression during WWII.
The problem for Chiang was that, in America, prominent Democrats were against Chiang. The leading journalist and author, Edgar Snow, admired Mao and became very close to him. Snow and the Democrats claimed that communism was a “democratic movement.” Using falsified stories, the news media attacked and condemned Chiang’s anti-communist policy and smeared him personally as incompetent, corrupt, and evil. Many ignorant members of the intellectual class accepted those views.
In September 1945, President Truman, instead of assisting his wartime ally Chiang Kai-shek, sent George Marshall to broker a coalition between the Nationalists and the Communists. Chiang and Mao met and discussed China’s future in the presence of American ambassador Patrick Hurley. Mao proclaimed, “We must stop the civil war and all parties must unite under the leadership of Chairman Chiang to build a modern China.”
However, afterward, Mao privately told his comrades-in-arms that his agreed statement was “a mere scrap of paper.” Shortly after that, the U.S. began refusing to license military equipment for Chiang, including sales for which Chiang’s government had already paid. America had decided to abandon the Republic of China.
Chiang’s view was that “As long as we have Taiwan, the Communists can never win.” Ultimately, by his death in 1975, Chiang had governed China for 21 years and then governed Taiwan for 26 years.
After his victory against Chiang in 1949, Mao created the People’s Republic of China—a single-party state controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. Chairman Mao became the country’s most influential autocratic leader.
Mao wanted China to become an industrialized nation and, in pursuit of that goal, launched the Great Leap Forward in 1958 and the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Both policies led to devastating consequences.
The Great Leap Forward was a five-year plan of forced agricultural collectivization and rural revolution. The state’s full control of grain supply and distribution led to abuses of power and massive corruption. With grain harvests stored in the cities, urban areas, and for export, little was left to sustain the peasants themselves. Mao’s rural revolution resulted in the deaths of over 45 million people due to starvation. This was known as Mao’s Great Famine. Witnessing his failure, Mao said, “When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”
The Cultural Revolution included a radical socio-political movement to cleanse from society all remnants of capitalist and traditional elements. Mao guided paramilitary radical youths known as the Red Guards to purge China’s cities of “class enemies,” eliminate all Western ties, Chinese traditions, and anything “old.” To erase their own history, the Red Guards burned literary texts, destroyed ancient arts and cultural symbols, demolished historical buildings, shut down temples and churches, and humiliated worshipers in public, to name just a few of their acts. Mao’s Cultural Revolution is now regarded as one of China’s darkest episodes.
As part of Nixon’s policy of “détente“ during the Cold War, the US sought to normalize relations with Communist China. It was a cold and misty morning on February 21, 1972, when President Richard Nixon landed in China. The ailing Mao greeted him briefly.
The US National Security Archive includes the historic talks between Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai during Kissinger’s earlier secret trip to China in July 1971. The documents show that, for Zhou Enlai, the Taiwan situation was “sine qua non” for Nixon’s trip and for diplomatic normalization generally. However, in his memoir, Kissinger omitted this issue entirely to avoid provoking the Republicans. Nixon wanted to continue recognizing Taiwan but the Chinese negotiator was forceful and Kissinger yielded to the demand, with an unhappy Nixon giving way.
Then, in October 1971 Taiwan was formally expelled from the UN. Resolution 2758 called for member states to “restore” the rights of the Communist government in Beijing as the “only lawful representatives of China to the United Nations.”
The US-China agreement was officially normalized in the Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations in 1979, under the Carter administration. Those signed documents maintain a policy called “Strategic Ambiguity.” The US discourages both Taiwan from claiming formal independence and Communist China from using direct force against the island to achieve “reunification.”
Taiwan lost its observer status at all UN-affiliated bodies. It has also been excluded from the International Civil Aviation Organization.
In May 2021, with its success in battling COVID, Taiwan was invited to return to the WHA as an observer. Taiwan also won a seat at the G7 nations’ conference. President Tsai Ing-wen had been democratically elected in 2016 and won a landslide victory in 2020 for her second term.
Taiwan is a successful modernized society. Its leadership in high-tech information technology remains globally significant. With 23.4 million people, Taiwan’s GDP per capita is currently at $34,284. With China’s claimed population of 1.4 billion, China’s GDP per capita is currently at $13,000.
In 2021, while taking initial steps for a military campaign against Taiwan, Xi warned the US and its allies about “interfering.” He gave a chilling message, “Anyone who dares to do that will have their heads bashed bloody against the Great Wall of Steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.” A leaked document reveals that Xi plans to attack Taiwan in the fall.
While the world is preoccupied with Ukraine, Chinese troops have fully militarized at least three of the islands in the South China Sea. Since March 21, China has violated international rules by claiming 85% of the “nine-dash line” territory belonging to the ASEAN.
As Commander of American forces in the Indo-Pacific, Admiral John Aquilino is overseeing the nation’s largest combatant command in the region.
The US and all allied forces cannot afford to lose a war over Taiwan, as that would mark the end of the Pax Americana. The stakes are that high.