With more than 1.4 billion people, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the most populous nation in the world and the third-largest country by area. It also has the largest armed forces in the world, with about 2 million active soldiers, and borders 14 nations. There are 23 provinces, five autonomous regions, four municipalities, and two – Macau and Hong Kong special administrative – regions. The sole party in power in the PRC is Communist Party.
Beijing is its official capital, while Shanghai is its financial capital. With almost 4,000 years of history that have been documented, China is one of the oldest civilizations in the entire world. The Chinese mastered the technology of smelting bronze approximately 5,000 years ago, and iron tools came into use nearly 3,000 years ago. In China, white and colour-glazed ceramics and silk production were well developed before the rest of the world. It was ruled by numerous dynasties, producing many famous philosophers, such as Lao Zi, Confucius, Mencius, and Mo Zi, and the well-known military scientist Sun Wu, author of the Art of War. The Revolution of 1911, led by Dr Sun Yat-sen, was one of the greatest events in modern Chinese history, as it overthrew the corrupt and inept Qing Dynasty that had ruled the country for some 270 years, ending over 2,000 years of feudal monarchy and establishing the Republic of China (ROC).
The Movement of May 4th, 1919, is regarded as the ideological origin of many important events in modern Chinese history, resulting in unequal treaties imposed on China after WW I. In Shanghai in 1921, Mao Zedong founded the Communist Party of China (CPC), motivated by strong patriotism and country-wide protests led by the students, peasants, and ordinary people and the spread of Marxism-Leninism under the influence of Russia’s October Revolution of 1917.
The internal and external struggle for dominance
The CPC led the Chinese people through a series of wars, including the wars against Japan (1937–1945) and the Kuomintang (1945–1949).
Kuomintang defeated the Japanese with the help of the CPC and surrendered Taiwan to the ROC in 1945, which was then in control of all of China. Shortly after the Japanese War, there was a civil war caused by disagreements between the CPC and the Nationalists Kuomintang. The CPC-led War of Liberation, which lasted three years, finally ended the Kuomintang regime, which fled to Taiwan.
The “People’s Republic of China” was formally established on October 1st, 1949, in Tiananmen Square in front of thousands of onlookers from Beijing. Mao Zedong, the head of the Central People’s Government, made the announcement.
In December 1949, the defeated Nationalist-Kuomintang forces led by Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan Island. They formally renamed it the “Republic of China” (ROC), the name that had previously been applied to mainland China in 1912.
Taiwan was formerly known as Formosa, which dates back to 1542 when Portuguese explorers discovered an uncharted island and named it Ilha Formosa (a beautiful island). This island is situated in the western Pacific Ocean, about 160 km southeast of mainland China (PRC), and is about 395 km long and 145 km wide at its widest point in the east-west direction. The strait connects the East China Sea to the South China Sea to the north and has a crucial geostrategic significance. The islands of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, Matsu and a few smaller islands are currently governed by the ROC under the presidential form of democracy. Philippines, Japan, and the PRC are its neighbours to the West, northeast, and south. Political opinion in Taiwan is divided into two groups: the Nationalist group, which supports eventual Chinese reunification and considers the ROC the only legitimate government of “China,” and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which views Taiwan as an independent nation and eventually hopes to gain international diplomatic recognition as such.
Claims over each other’s territory
Briefly, in over seven and a half decades of fighting the Civil War, in which Communists and Nationalists fought against the invading Japanese, who primarily fought with China over control of Korea, the Chinese stormed to capture and govern the territories vacated by the Japanese. While the PRC captured the entire mainland, the ROC was pushed to Taiwan Island, and both the PRC and the ROC have continued in a state of War ever since, claiming each other’s territories. The ROC claimed the entire region that belonged to the ousted Qing dynasty. After its fall, it gained widespread recognition as the legitimate successor state to the Qing dynasty. Though only a minority of 10.3% desire unification with the mainland, 54% of the population desires an independent ROC, while 23.4% prefer maintaining the status quo.
Notwithstanding the above, many feel the younger generations and the ROC armed forces neither have the will nor the strength and capabilities to capture the PRC, which remains an unfulfilled dream of some older Taiwanese inspired by the unrest against the PRC in Hong Kong and Uighur Muslims. On the other hand, the PRC considers ROC a breakaway province that will be reunited with it one day, even if force were to be used.
Until 1971, the ROC was one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, but its representation was replaced by the PRC, which was a big blow to the ROC and its legitimacy over its numerous claims.
From an agricultural economy, the PRC has become a global superpower in half a century, and its transformation in military, economy, computer and information technology (IT), nuclear, space and industrial has been phenomenal. However, its human rights track record, especially during the Cultural Revolution, brought about the near-complete isolation of the PRC from the outside world, and its vocal denunciations were very deplorable. Its bullying treatment of smaller nations, border disputes with India, hatred towards the ROC, control of the South China Sea, numerous disputes over peripheral islands, and control of oil, sea mineral wealth, and navigation rights kept the international community on tenterhooks.
The ROC, the much smaller and compact island country, moved to capital-intensive and knowledge-based industries. A high rate of savings, rising labour productivity, privatization, astute government planning, and considerable foreign investment and trade propelled Taiwan’s rapid economic expansion. While the PRC has a GDP per capita of $18,200 (2018), the ROC GDP per capita was $50,500 (2017). As the 26th-largest economy in the world with an industrialized, developed economy and high standard of living, as well as membership in the WTO and APEC, ROC is regarded as an economic powerhouse. It is also a significant producer of electronic products like semiconductor chips, mobile phones, and computers.
Compared to the PRC, it ranks higher regarding economic freedom, health care, and press freedom. As such, by and large, the PRC’s status, size, ‘Belt and Road like initiatives (BRI and China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) etc.- much to the annoyance of the US, EU, Australia, India, Japan and the West), enjoy the worldwide popular support in a stable political situation, flourishing economy, and active offensive diplomacy. The US, EU, ASEAN, Japan, and South Korea are its largest trading partners, with India too high at 11th position despite the rivalry for the leadership of the Afro-Asian countries and the border dispute.
From 1949–71, the US, Japan, Australia, South Korea, and the West maintained very hostile relations with the PCR that had much to do with the US intervention in Vietnam and Cambodia to prevent the spread of communism. Once PRC was admitted to the UN and became a veto power, relations steadily improved with the country’s recognition by numerous nations globally. The ROC was eclipsed from the global scene due to its small and developed economy.
However, though western countries, including the US, have trade relations with the ROC, only fifteen countries worldwide recognize Taiwan as the ROC. They do not have official ties with the PRC, which, contrarily, has diplomatic relations with 178 out of the other 193 United Nations member states, thus having the distinction of having the maximum diplomatic missions of any country in the world.
The PRC is a member of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP – a free trade agreement between the Asia-Pacific nations of Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam), strongly counterbalances QUAD-the Quadrilateral Security strategic security dialogue amongst Australia, India, Japan, and the US. Some thinkers feel that the QUAD is a novice alliance of potential ‘Asian NATO’ to contain big players like PRC while its four members, in their ways, are pushing back on China on the one hand. At the same time, India, contrary to QUAD’s manifesto, is a member of the BRICS, with the PRC as its founding member.
On its single-point agenda of ‘One China policy,’ the PRC requires that all commercial, trade, and FDI operations be conducted with the PRC; the rest of the world, including India, has ceased officially recognizing the ROC, which is a considerable soft power like India!
The Present Scenario and the Bleak Future
While the Western bloc, Japan, Australia, and South Korea are friendly to the ROC and pledge intervention and military support to the ROC if ever attacked by the PRC (and annoying it), the ambiguity and the economic and global geostrategic interests end up only in rhetoric and anti-PRC sentiments, also called Sino-phobia, or fear or dislike of the PRC. The issuance of statements for all sorts of help to the ROC against the PRC contemplated military intervention to capture it. Since 1949, the PRC has frequently bombed the ROC and the islands controlled by it, while recently, the ROC intercepted PRC drones over its territory.
The ROC cannot capture the PRC, and most of its residents desire an independent ROC. The PRC fears worldwide condemnation and reaction if it launches offensives that can lead to a Russia-Ukraine war-like prolonged stalemate. The best solution is for the big brother PRC accepts ROC as an independent country in the community of nations and establishes full diplomatic, cultural, economic, and social relations as both may have issues of divided families. It is like a Rip-Van Winkle dream and, as a short-term measure, the present status quo is maintained on over 7-decades old complex problems due to its deep-rooted dislike and geographic proximity and strategic and critical tension point importance to both countries.
India’s position is delicately complex as it has a long-standing border dispute with the PRC and is known for giving refuge to the Dalai Lama over the Tibet issue. India only recognizes the PRC and not the ROC as the legitimate government of Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau. However, trade relations between India and the ROC are on the rise, and FDI inflows from Taiwan have increased almost ten times recently. The cumulative FDI inflows from Taiwan to India were worth $724.80 million from April 2000 to March 2022. Bilateral trade between India and Taiwan has been rising since the 1990s, although both countries do not maintain official diplomatic relations. Trade between both countries has increased from $2 bn in 2006 to $5.7 bn in 2020, registering a 185% growth. The ROC, as stated earlier, is a very important economy, supplying the world’s ever-increasing needs for electronic equipment, from phones to laptops, watches, and games consoles, powered by the computer chips made in the ROC, which as a small nation hosts 20% of the world’s total semiconductor capacity. Following the simmering tension engulfing both the PRC and the ROC after US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the world needs to worry about de-escalating tension and the trade relationship with the ROC, which is affecting the global economy.
Leaving aside the rest of the world and putting India at the front, the ROC has increasingly become important to India. So as not to annoy the PRC, presently, India has ambiguous relations, has not diplomatically recognized the ROC like the rest of the world, and is “on wait and watch mode”. Though trade between India and the PRC is flourishing, much to the PRC’s advantage, relations between the two Asian giants over the border dispute have the potential to trigger a larger confrontation. While the PRC’s economy is more than four times the size of India’s, so are its armed forces and industrial output. This gets further compounded by Pakistan’s bosom friendship with the PRC. Therefore, India needs to balance its relations with the PRC, Pakistan, Russia, the US, the EU, Australia, Japan, and Korea (Indo-Pacific Region) rather than please the ROC and annoy the PRC over the formal diplomatic recognition, which the ROC understands well and simply addresses as Taiwan and no more. After lengthy deliberations, India and China have disengaged in the Hot Springs region. Yet peaceful, friendly relations between the two Asian giants are a pipe dream. Once the Cold War and the situation along our borders and the Taiwan Straits stabilize, it may result in recognition of the ROC by India and the rest of the world.
In this article, I have tried to highlight the PRC-ROC rivalry and the uncertainty that pervades the world that may lead to higher risks of War between the two unequal rivals. The ongoing Ukraine War between Ukraine and Russia, the Afghanistan imbroglio, the War between Israel and Palestine, or the sudden PRC build-up may worsen the situation. While on the one hand, there are examples of reunification between hostile nations, as happened between the two Germanys or the two Vietnams; on the other hand, there are the two Koreas and the two Chinas! People need peace and tranquillity to progress while waging War brings only pain, destruction, and misery.
Reunification between the two Chinas may not be acceptable to the ROC as it has a very high standard of living and democratic freedoms not available and acceptable in the autocratic Communist-ruled PRC. It is only possible if done through a fair referendum, and a majority of the population in both countries is willing to become one country. This may not be possible in the existing situation. The other possibility being explored should be that the existing status quo be further extended and the PRC recognize the ROC as a separate independent country, establishing full diplomatic relations and admitting the ROC into the UNO and other international organizations as a sovereign nation. Knowing the PRC psyche, this may not be possible in the near future, and the present stalemate will continue.