Why is Taiwan important to China? It’s a matter of face.

Most of us assume that China’s current fixation on Taiwan is related to the military threat that Taiwan poses to mainland China. After all, Taiwan is 90 miles off the coast of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the same distance as Cuba is from the United States, and straddles important sea lanes. However, over time, China’s insistence that Taiwan is still a part of China has evolved from a perceived military threat from Taiwan to that of a threat to domestic political stability. Let me explain.

From 1949 through the 1970s Taiwan was regarded by China as an extension of U.S. military power in the region. The United States maintained military forces in Taiwan during a period when China had little relations with the outside world other than with the former Soviet Union and its satellites. In addition, the U.S. constructed alliances with Japan, Korea, Thailand, South Vietnam, and the Philippines, and formed the Southeast Asia Treaty organization (SEATO), establishing military bases and stationing troops in many of these countries. China felt threatened and was suspect of U.S. intentions.

Things began to change in the 1970s when China’s relationship with the former Soviet Union began to worsen and the U.S. was looking to end the war in Vietnam. Therefore, in 1972, President Nixon met with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. This meeting resulted in a withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan and succeeded in diminishing tensions in the region. A short time later, in 1979, China and the U.S. established full diplomatic relations and the U.S. broke formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, although the U.S. and Taiwan agreed to maintain informal relations and signed the Taiwan Relations Act which committed the U.S. to help Taiwan militarily.

Also in 1979, Deng Xiaoping instituted China’s Open Door Policy which welcomed trade with the outside world and included Taiwan. With the absence of a foreign military in Taiwan, and the opening of trade, the military threat to mainland China from Taiwan was now considered minimal.

So why is Taiwan still considered by the Chinese government to be their 23rd province? Why is it so important to the Chinese government to have Taiwan a part of China if it doesn’t pose a military threat? After all, China has enough military might to quickly erase Taiwan in any military style conflict. The reason China won’t let go of Taiwan: doing so would create an unacceptable risk to the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and a loss of face within China.

Originally, Taiwan was not even a part of China, and China’s historic geographic footprint was much smaller than that of present-day China. Taiwan became a part of China in the seventeenth century during the Qing dynasty. It remained a part of China until 1895 when China was defeated in the Sino-Japanese war and lost Taiwan to Japan. It then remained in Japan’s hands until Japan’s defeat in World War II. Since Japan no longer had control of Taiwan, most Chinese believed that Taiwan would revert back to Chinese control. That didn’t happen. Instead, as time went on, the United States, the dominant military power at the time, intervened to keep Taiwan independent and ultimately in the hands of Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (ROC).

In addition, Taiwan was still a military threat to China, especially since the U.S. was tacitly supporting the ROC. Forgetting for a moment how China obtained Taiwan in the first place, the Chinese government wanted Taiwan back to both protect themselves from Chiang Kai-shek , who vowed to return and capture mainland China, and as a matter of honor and face since they didn’t want a foreign power telling them that they couldn’t have back what they felt was rightfully theirs.

Over time, as Taiwan’s military threat faded, Taiwan’s importance to the Chinese government shifted away from military considerations to that of politics. For the last 50 years the CCP has demanded that Taiwan again become part of mainland China. It’s been a non-wavering position. Many within China feel that if the CCP were to change course and let Taiwan have their independence, then they would lose the confidence of those they govern. According to Susan L. Shirk, in her book China: Fragile Superpower, most in China believe that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would fall if the government didn’t take a hard line on Taiwan’s return to Chinese control as people may view the government as weak and unable to protect a sovereign China. In that event, they may demand a stronger government, even a democratic one.

More important to the average Chinese person is the state of employment, inflation, and other factors which affect their everyday life. In fact, since 1979, when China’s Open Door Policy was written to include Taiwan, economic trade between Taiwan and China has steadily increased to the point that Taiwan’s exports to China exceed its exports to the U.S. Taiwan today is economically important to China since Taiwanese companies operate many manufacturing facilities in China, where labor and infrastructure costs give them a competitive advantage.

There are many in the Chinese government who feel that an independent Taiwan is acceptable and that both countries should continue be united by their cultural links and by trade. However, for a government official to espouse such a view would be political suicide. Given its historical position on China, it would be very hard for the CCP to reverse course without risking their political dominance.

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