Taiwan, also known as Formosa, is the largest country in the world without its own sovereignty. Centuries of colonialism, followed by seven decades of “strategic ambiguity” have left the island of 24 million people in a state of confusion. A federal court in Roger Lin vs. United States declared in 2009 the unresolved status to be “political purgatory” and urged President Barack Obama to act to clarify Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Taiwanese independence advocates are pushing for a referendum in 2020 to determine the island status while two different Chinese governments claim ownership. The international conundrum is a diplomatic maze putting even the island name in dispute. Taiwanese athletes are forced to compete in the Olympics under a white flag and the name Chinese Taipei. A review of how this mess came about provides some understanding of possible referendum outcomes.
Formosa was under Japanese control by treaty from 1895 until World War II. American military action against the Japanese in Formosa, largely a bombing campaign, left the United States in charge under international laws of war. President Harry Truman imposed Republic of China troops on Formosa to process surrendering Japanese soldiers in 1945 after hostilities ended. Meanwhile the ROC was fighting and losing a communist revolution. After the Chinese civil war ended in 1949, the defeated Kuomintang regime fled to Formosa, with the blessing of the United States.
The Republic of China in-exile still administers Taiwan and ROC President Tsai Ing-wen claims that the ROC equals Taiwan. The postage stamps say “Republic of China (Taiwan)” and the ROC flag flies above government buildings. Well entrenched, the ROC will not be easy to dislodge from power.
The Taiwanese independence movement rejects the view that ROC equals Taiwan and urges independence under a green and white flag. However, the long years of confusion and oppression have left independence advocates divided with multiple political parties and groups often unwilling to work together.
Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China considers the civil war unfinished and insists that Taiwan is merely a renegade province of the PRC. Communist China threatens invasion and wants the island’s wealth. The latest PRC maneuver is to force the name Chinese Taipei on Taiwan and use of the new name is becoming more common under Chinese pressure. Major airlines are the most recent target of the name change game. American lip service to a “one China” policy has only served to confuse things further.
Taiwan Civil Government, an advocacy group formed in 2008, believes that the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty that formally ended World War II with Japan left the United States as the “principal occupying power” and seeks American help to expel the ROC from Taiwan. TCG has structured itself as a shadow government and has been busy lobbying the White House for recognition. In May 2018, the ROC arrested TCG founder Roger Lin and charged him and others with political fraud, two weeks before a high level TCG meeting with Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. TCG members say the arrests were to stop group progress in Washington toward the ouster of the ROC.
Japan, which renounced its claim on Formosa at the San Francisco Peace Treaty, never terminated Japanese nationality for the residents. Some older Formosans still self-identify as Japanese. Although Japan is not actively seeking recovery of the island, it is the last nation that enjoyed undisputed sovereignty over Taiwan.
The United States is also a contender for control of Taiwan. America does not recognize ROC sovereignty and defines its relationship with the island by federal statute in the Taiwan Relations Act. The 1952 treaty that left the United States as the principal power remains valid international law. Several Taiwanese organizations seek statehood for Taiwan believing that becoming the 51st state is the best way to protect the island from PRC aggression.
The current status quo of confusion is wearing thin as a protective shield for Taiwan. Like a wound that will not heal, Taiwan’s unresolved status festers while a PRC military build-up threatens the island. At this time there is no scheduled referendum. The United States currently opposes both independence and a referendum with no clear path to the future. The work of the San Francisco Peace Conference remains unfinished leaving Taiwan without a flag of its own.