The Republic of China as a state

The vicissitudes of recognition politics

By William Wetherall

First posted 15 February 2007
Last updated 12 March 2007

ROC statehood: For every pro and con, a con and pro
Bloody but unbowed: The rise and fall of ROC
Territorial imperatives: Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu
Recognition politics: "China" in the UN and the world
Turf war in Japan: The Kyoto dormitory case

ROC statehood: For every pro and con, a con and pro

For every good and bad argument against the Republic of China (ROC) continuing to behave like a state -- or changing its name to Taiwan and reconfirming it's intention to remain independent of the People's Republic of China (PRC) -- there is a good and bad argument in its favor.

Best pro argument

The best argument in favor of ROC continuing to exist as an independent entity is not that it can boast a century of history since 1912, or that it has in fact continuously been a state entity since 1928 -- but rather that it controls the territory it occupies, and its government is democratically supported by its inhabitants. Whatever it was at times in the past, ROC is now as competent as any self-styled democracy in the world.

Best con argument

The best argument against ROC maintaining itself as a state entity, and even removing "China" from its name, is that PRC, which now holds all but about twenty recognition cards in the world's deck of about two-hundred states, could strangle ROC economically if ROC takes further measures to confirm its independence. If push comes to shove, PRC has the military might to take ROC by force -- and drag the United States, Japan, and other states that interfere in its "domestic affairs" into a war that could go nuclear.

Purpose of this article

The object of this article is not to review all the pros and cons regarding ROC's status as a state, but to look at (1) how treaty settlements made Taiwan a province of ROC following World War II, (2) how the United States and Japan switched their recognition to PRC a quarter of a century later, and (3) how the US and Japan are helping to leave the door open for the possibility of ROC regaining its statehood in the eyes of the world.


Bloody but unbowed: The rise and fall of ROC

The Republic of China (ROC), inheriting all the problems that plagued the Qing court down to the day of its capituation to nationalists in 1911, has arguably seen more peace -- and earned its right to be a state -- after losing the revolution on the mainland of China in 1949 and taking what was left of its government to Taiwan.

First Republic

The Republic of China (ROC), born with the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty during the fall of 1911, took its first official breath on 1 January 1912 with Sun Yat-sen (Sun Wen, 1866-1925) at its helm in Nanking (Nanjing, southern capital). The new state quickly floundered, however, as the country was taken over by war lords and new emperor in Peking (Peiching, Beijing, northern capital).

Second Republic

In 1928, Sun's successor, Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), sent an expedition north that seized control of Peking. Though tempted to move ROC's capital north, he kept it in Nanking and renamed the northern city Peip'ing (pacified/peaceful north).

Second World War

ROC was at war with Japan when the Pacific War broke out in 1941, and was therefore one of the Allied Powers that accepted Japan's surrender after the war. It was one of the founding members of the United Nations, as a signator of the Declaration by United Nations on 1 January 1942, and ROC originally held China's seat as a permanent member of the Security Council from the formal beginning of the United Nations on 24 October 1945.

The retrocession of Taiwan to China

The status of Taiwan as a part of "China" (ROC and/or PRC) cannot be understood without taking into full account the manner in which Taiwan was separated from Japan after World War II. What I once called the "retrocession" of Taiwan to China was not in fact a territorial cession -- at least not of the kind in which one state cedes part or all of itself to another state. Rather it was a transfer of territory from one state (Japan) to another (ROC) enforced by the terms of an agreement (Instrument of Surrender) between Japan and a third party (Allied Powers). That ROC was a member of the Allied Powers had no bearing on the legality of the separation of Taiwan from Japan pursuant to the terms of surrender.

Taiwan was ceded to Japan by China under Qing dynasty rule in 1895, and ROC succeeded the Qing government in 1912. Since Japan recognized ROC as the government of China when ROC received Japan's surrender in Taipei in 1945, ROC stood to be named as the successor state in subsequent peace treaties.

By 1949, however, the People's Republic of China also claimed to be the legitimate government of China, and in fact it controlled all of China except Taiwan, and islands associated with Taiwan and a few islands belonging to a mainland province. Hence neither the San Fransico treaty concluded between Japan and most Allied states in 1951, without the participation of either ROC or PRC, nor the Taipei treaty concluded between Japan and ROC in 1952, specified the name of the successor state, essentially leaving Taiwan to the government with effective control and jurisdiction.

The term "retrocession" is not warranted in the case of the territorial reconfigurations of Japan after World War II. Japan did not itself have the power to retrocede any parts of its sovereign territory, whether to China, Korea, or the Soviet Union. The territories that became part of the Republic of China, the two Korean states established in Korea, and the Soviet Union, were separated from Japan by the Allied Powers under the terms of surrender, and Japan had no standing in the determination of which foreign entities would eventually fly their flags over these territories.

Civil war and flight to Taiwan

A civil war between communist and nationalist forces in China resolved with the birth of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing on 21 September 1949. The new state, formally founded on 1 October 1949, was quickly recognized by the USSR, India, Burma, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Great Britain recognized it in January 1950. The United States, though it had cut off aid in August, withheld its recognition.

ROC was forced to move its capital from Nanking to Kwangtung (Guangdong, Canton) in April 1949. By October the capital had to be moved again, this time to Chungking where it had been during the war with Japan, and at the end of November it fled again to nearby Ch'engtu (Chengdu).

By 7 December, the heart of the ROC government, most of its elite forces, and the bulk of China's national treasures had been evacuated to Taiwan. By 9 December, the remnants of the ROC government, torn by rivalry and betrayal among its leaders, declared Taipei the temporary capital of China.

While fleeing the mainland, ROC forces kept control of the islands of Matsu (Mazu) and Kinmen (Chinmen, Jinmen, Quemoy) in Fukien (Fujian) province, and the Tachen (Dachen) islands in Chekiang (Chechiang, Zhejiang) province. PRC forces took Tachen in Feburary 1955 during the Taiwan Straits Crisis of 1954-1955. Matsu and Kinmen, still controlled by ROC, have been constitutionally declared parts of its territory since 1994.


Territorial imperatives: Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu

In 1949, when the communist army occupied Peip'ing, Mao Tsu-tung (Mao Zedong) changed its name back to Beijing and declared the city the capital of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Until the 1980s, however, maps published in Taiwan continued to refer to the northern city as Peip'ing, and a few diehard ROC nationalists still refuse to call it Beijing.

China Yearbook 1963-64 (Taipei: China Publishing Company, 1964), appearing fifteen years after the ROC government took refuge on Taiwan, features two foldout maps in the back. One is called "The Republic of China" and shows all of the mainland provinces, and Mongolia and Tibet, as part of ROC. "Taipei" on Taiwan is identified as the temporary capital. Nanking in Kiangsu (Jiangsu) province is shown to be the actual capital.

The second foldout map is called "Taiwan". It shows the main island of Taiwan and adjacent islands, including Penghu Lieh Tao (Pescadores Islands). Both had been part Japan between 1895 and 1945. They became Taiwan province when Japan forfeited them, de facto in 1945 and de jure in 1952, to ROC as the state that effectively controlled them after Japan's forces on Taiwan surrendered to ROC on 25 October 1945.

The "Taiwan" map also shows, in prominent boxes in the upper left corner, Kinmen Tao [Kinmen island] and Matsu Lieh Tao [Matsu islands]. Both are shown to be parts of Fukien [PY Fujian] province, but they were then, and remain today, under ROC control.

Rise of nativist Taiwanese power

Much of the political stalemate in ROC during the 1960s and 1970s had to do with the dominance of mainland refugees in the government, which still operated under martial law. Only after the death of Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) in 1975, and the weaking of the Kuomintang under his son and successor Chiang Ching-kuo (1910-1988) in the 1980s, did "native Taiwanese" (not descended from mainlanders who came after World War II) come into their own.

Chiang Ching-kuo, later in his presidency (1978-1988), began to put non-mainlander Taiwanese in positions of power. One of these was his own successor, Lee Teng-hui, a member of the KMT who advocated localization. Born in 1923 when Taiwan was part of Japan, Lee remains openly pro-Japanese, and his visits to Japan inevitable trigger friction between Tokyo and Beijing, which views Lee as a secessionist.

Lee become president upon Chiang Ching-kyo's death in 1988 and remained in office until 2000. A majority of his Central Committee appointees were native Taiwanese like himself. This shift of power to native Taiwaneese became a watershed for a very contentious nativist movement that dates to end of World War II, when Japanized Taiwanese, including Lee, resisted the takeover of Taiwan by ROC.

End of martial law

Lee was behind the lifting in 1987, during the twilight of Chiang Ching-kyo life and presidency, of ROC's nearly four-decade state of martial law. During his own presidency, Lee continued to remove legal barriers to relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC), and otherwise promoted better cross-strait relations.

Constitutional reforms

Inspired by democratic nativist sentiments to act like a state regardless of whether PRC and other countries recognize it as such, ROC has since the lifting of martial law amended its constitution a number of times, both to restructure its government and to clarify its claimed territory.

In two consitutional amendements during the 1990s, ROC drew geographical lines demarking the islands it intended to govern and protect as a self-governing body. This was partly in reaction to the claims in PRC's 1978 and 1982 constitutions that Taiwan was an integral part of PRC, and PRCs insistance that ROC return to China's fold as an SAR.

1994 amendent to protect Kinmen and Matsu

In the 3rd, 1994 revision of its constitution, ROC committed itself to protect Kinmen and Matsu, in the following paragraph of Article 9 in the amendment.

The State shall accord to the aborigines in the free area legal protection of their status and the right to political participation. It shall also provide assistance and encouragement for their education, cultural preservation, social welfare and business undertakings. The same protection and assistance shall be given to the people of Kinmen and Matsu areas.

The reference to "aborigines" is significant because it marks the start of more government attention to the needs of native tribes in the first year of the the United Nations Decade of the World's Indigenous People (1994-2003), following intense activism and publicity during the Year of Indigenous People (1993). The increased attention culminated in the 2002 Aborigine Status Act and related legislation and programs.

1999 amendent to protect Penghu (Pescadores)

The 5th revision in 1999 modified the last sentence in the above paragraph to clarify even further what ROC considered part of its dominion.

The State shall protect and assist the people of Penghu in addition to the people of Kinmen and Matsu.

The addition of Penghu to the list reflects the need to clarify that the San Francisco Treaty of 1951 specified "Formosa and the Pescadores", and the Taipei Treaty of 1952 in effect ceded "Taiwan (Formosa) and Penghu (the Pescadores)" -- reflecting the terms used in the Shimonoseki Treaty of 1895, namely Formosa and the Pescadores.

The island of Formosa, together with all islands appertaining or belonging to the said island of Formosa.

The Pescadores Group, that is to say, all islands lying between the 119th and 120th degrees of longitude east of Greenwich and the 23rd and 24th degrees of north latitude.

To be continued.


Recognition politics: "China" in the UN and the world

Until 25 October 1971 -- for over two decades after its government fled to Taiwan province from the mainland of China in 1949 -- the Republic of China (ROC) held China's seat on the United Nations. Even after countries like the United States and Japan switched their recognition to the People's Republic of China (PRC), ROC's maps continued to show Nanking (PY Nanjing, southern capital) as its actual capital. Taipei, the capital of Taiwan province, was merely its temporary capital.

Global switch of recognition from ROC to PRC

During the 1970s, a total of sixty states, including Japan and the United States, which had recognized ROC as China, switched their recognition to PRC. In doing so, they either explicitly or implicitly accepted PRC's view that Taiwan was one of its provinces.

With US approval, and the nod of most UN members, PRC assumed China's seat on the United Nations, in place of ROC, from 25 October 1971, On 28 February 1972, the US and PRC exchanged a communique in Shanghai committing the two states to normalization.

While the US did not formally shift its recognition to PRC until 1 January 1979, the 1972 Shanghai communique amounted to virtual recognition and encouraged Japan to switch recognition from ROC to PRC on 29 September 1972. ROC severed its diplomatic ties with Japan when Japan declared its 1952 treaty with ROC no longer valid, but the two contries have continued to maintain close ties economically and even politically.

Significantly, the Taiwan Relations Act, approved by the US Congress on 10 April 1979 and retroactively effective from 1 January, defines "Taiwan" as "the islands of Taiwan and the Pescadores" and their inhabitants, and makes no mention of Kinmen and Matsu. Japan, bound as it is by security treaties with the United States and with many US military bases still in Japan, aligns itself with the US with regard to the defense of Taiwan against military aggression.

ROC/PRC entity politics

Contrary to PRC's political posturing, ROC remains an independent entity. ROC will not become a part of PRC' polity until ROC formally recognizes PRC's claim that the territories it now controls are parts of PRC's imminent domain -- or until PRC forcefully takes control of these territories and its control is recognized.

Since PRC regards itself as ROC's legitimate successor state, it views ROC as an illegitimate remnant of a defunct entity. Yet PRC has to recognize ROC as a legal entity in order to negotiate the SAR status it is offering ROC as a solution to the standoff.

While countries like the United States and Japan recognize PRC's view of ROC, they continue to treat ROC as an virtually sovereign entity and expect PRC to negotiate a peaceful settlement. Such are the realities of entity politics.

In the meantime, Taiwanese nationalists continue to view Taiwan as an entity that has not been part of China since 1895. The more ardent nationalists are endeavoring to transform ROC into the Republic of Tawian (ROT) -- which PRC says it would prevent with force.

ROC and PRC passports

ROC and PRC do not recognize each other's passports. ROC admits PRC nationals, including those with Hong Kong or Macao SAR passports, with ROC-issued entry permits commonly known as a "Rùtáizhèng" (“ü‘äæš) or "Enter Taiwan permit", and formally called "Zhōnghuá mínguó táiwān dìqū duōcì rùchūjìng zhèng" (’†‰Ø–¯š ‘äàs’n™œ‘œŽŸ“üo‹«æš) or "Permit to enter and exit the Taiwan area of the Republic of China multiple times".

PRC admits ROC nationals with special permits commonly and sentimentally known as a "Táibāozhèng" (‘ä–Eæš) or "Taiwan fellow-womber permit" to enter PRC. The formal name of the permit is "Táiwān jūmín láiwăng dàlù tōngxíng zhèng" (‘äàs‹–¯˜Ò‰‘å—€’ʍsæš) or "Transmit permit for residents of Taiwan to come and go on the continent".


Turf war in Japan: The Kyoto dormitory Case

Guānghuáliáo (Kōkaryō) Kyoto dorm case