When my wife and I met with Nino and his wife Lily, one topic I raised was Taiwanese independence.
I have long been of the opinion that the people of Taiwan should have the right to determine their own destiny, and if that means being a de jure rather than a de facto independent country, then so be it.
If only it were so simple.
The problem lies with the government of the Peoples Republic of China on the mainland across the Taiwan Strait.
From the website of the PRC's embassy:
"There is only one China in the world, and Taiwan is part of China."
Well, that doesn't leave much room for ambiguity!
"The lingering civil war which was imposed on the Chinese people in late 1940s and more importantly the intervention by foreign forces against the reunification of China led to a temporary state of separation between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits after the People's Republic of China was founded. But the status of Taiwan as part of China's territory has never changed, nor has the Government of the People's Republic China ever given up its jurisdiction over Taiwan."
While I don't claim to be an authority on Chinese history, I do know quite a bit. When you look at maps of the territories controlled by the major Chinese dynasties for nearly two millennia, starting with the Han and up to the Ming, no Chinese ruling dynasty exercised any control over Taiwan. The island would not factor at all in Chinese history until the Manchu invasion in the mid-17th century, when Ming loyalists expelled would be Dutch colonizers and established a government in exile that lasted roughly two decades. The Manchu Qing invaded the island in 1683 to quash the Ming loyalists but did not take serious steps to integrate Taiwan into its empire until the latter part of the 19th century. Alas, by that time, Japan had modernized and adopted an expansionist foreign policy. After crushing China in the Sino-Japanese War, Taiwan was ceded to Japan in 1895. The Qing dynasty that had ruled Taiwan largely as an absentee landlord for little more than two centuries would itself be toppled in 1911. Taiwan would remain a Japanese colony until the end of World War Two in 1945, when it was taken over by the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek. After losing to the Communists, Chiang and the remnants of his government fled to Taiwan in 1949.
Therefore, it has been about sixty three years since a mainland based Chinese government exercised any authority over the island of Taiwan.
While the PRC government is adamant that the island should be reunified with the mainland, with every year that passes by, the number of people in both real and relative terms in Taiwan who never lived under a mainland based government grows ever larger. During that time, martial law and one party rule in Taiwan has given way to democracy. Why should the people of Taiwan want or be expected to reunify with an authoritarian one party dictatorship? It's like telling an orphaned child that there is no choice except to go live with a drunken, belligerent uncle he or she has never met but who has a reputation for abusive behavior.
In a perfect world, the PRC government would announce that if the people of Taiwan voted in favor of being their own independent country, the PRC would respect their wishes.
Unfortunately, the mainland is a prisoner of its "one China" policy. Even if some enlightened leaders of the Communist Party privately were willing to recognize an independent Taiwan, they could never advocate such a position publicly. For six decades, the Communists have indoctrinated the people of mainland China in the unwavering position that Taiwan is an integral part of China. Just about every major nation has what I call "the bullshit story it tells itself." It's a national mythos that a government and its people tell themselves to make them feel special. For the PRC, a good deal of the Communist Party's legitimacy derives from its position on Taiwan and it has to make a constant show of actions and announcements to show that it is working towards the goal of reunification.
The other part of the problem was that for decades after fleeing the mainland, Chiang Kai-shek maintained that his was the sole legitimate government of China. Chiang even harbored ambitions of retaking the mainland by force. Perhaps, had Chiang offered to recognize the Communist government on the mainland in return for recognition of Taiwan independence, history might have turned out differently, though I recognize this is purely conjecture. Then again, Chiang based his legitimacy on being the sole legal ruler of China, and just like the PRC, the Nationalists on Taiwan were a prisoner of their own "bullshit story." In his pro-American independence tract, Common Sense, Thomas Paine rhetorically asked with regard to British rule of the American colonies, shall an island rule a continent? By the early 1970's, Chiang's government faced this same dilemma as the United Nations gave the China seat to the Communist mainland. Despite having all of the trappings of a state, Taiwan was no longer recognized as one except by a couple of dozen poor countries in the developing world whose recognition was purchased with large dollops of foreign aid.
The current position of Taiwan on its political position is best summed up as follows:
"The Republic of China was founded in 1912 on the Chinese mainland. At that time, Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule as a result of the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki, by which the Qing court ceded Taiwan to Japan. The Nanjing-based ROC government began exercising jurisdiction over Taiwan in 1945 after Japan surrendered at the end of World War II.
The authorities in Beijing have never exercised sovereignty over Taiwan or other islands administered by the ROC government in Taipei. There are differences of opinion among ROC citizens over whether it is best to maintain this status quo indefinitely or work out a different relationship with the Chinese mainland. Regardless, they share the conviction that their future must be based on freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and that only they have the right to decide their own future."
It is, in my opinion, a reasonable position that ideally would be accepted if Taiwan were negotiating with a reasonable party.
Instead, the status quo resembles the Joker's line from The Dark Knight, with an unstoppable force, being mainland China, butting heads with an immovable object, which is the desire of the overwhelming majority of the people of Taiwan not to submit to mainland rule.
I don't claim to know what the future holds for Taiwan. I suppose the independence minded people of Taiwan hope that the longer they avoid coming under mainland rule, the greater the chance that changes in the mainland will one day result in the mainland willing to recognize the island's independence. On the other hand, the mainland likely anticipates that with each passing year, it's military and economic power compared to Taiwan grows larger and larger, until finally the people of Taiwan will have to bow to the inevitability of reunification with the mainland and accept a status along the lines of Hong Kong's One Country Two System's model.
My question would be "Why must there be only one China?" After all, there is no such thing as one German nation. For nearly half a century, there were two Germanies. While East and West Germany reunified in 1989, Austria is also a German country. No one today seriously maintains that Austria should become part of Germany. Prior to the German unification in the 1870's under the kaiser, the Germans were used to living under a multitude of separate dominions. The idea of a single German reich did not even become a realizable goal until Adolf Hitler annexed the Sudetenland from Czechoslavakia and incorporated Austria into Germany in 1938. As even the most casual student of history knows, this One Germany did not outlast the Second World War and the idea itself has been consigned to the ash heap of history.
Only time will tell with Taiwan, though my gut tells me that the island will eventually move towards some kind of unification with the mainland, though it will likely take the form of some kind of economic integration, with political integration being contingent on the mainland adopting democratic reforms such as allowing multiple political parties and popular elections. The mainland could also attempt to take the island by military force, though hopefully cooler heads will prevail on both sides.