The Study of Taiwan Issue in light of International Relations Theories

The Taiwan issue is undoubtedly one of the thorniest topics in International Politics. The objective of this article is to provide an analysis of the topic within the framework of international relations, with a specific focus on the dynamics surrounding the international politics of Taiwan recognition. Starting with a historical overview that traces the path from the end of the Chinese Civil War, this study delves into the multiple complexities of the Taiwan issue and its implications for global diplomacy. The examination of the topic focuses primarily on the dynamic and evolving relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. The key inquiry guiding this examination concerns the theories of international relations that offer the most insightful elucidations for understanding the Taiwan issue, particularly within the framework of the United States’ “One China” policy. This study examines the Taiwan conundrum by analyzing and interpreting the complex interactions of various forces and causes through the lens of three leading theoretical perspectives in the field of international relations: Realism, Liberalism and Constructivism.

By Augusto Tamponi

Historical overview

The outcome of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 favored Mao Zedong’s Communist faction over Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist faction. Following the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War, the Kuomintang Nationalists made the decision to retreat to Taiwan, where they subsequently established Taipei as the capital of the Republic of China. In contrast, the People’s Republic of China designated Beijing as its capital city, after successfully gaining control of the mainland. Subsequent to that period, the relationship between Beijing and Taipei has been characterized by limited engagements, strained dynamics, and an overall state of uncertainty. In fact, the Civil War concluded solely through the formalization of a peace treaty, leaving both nations in a technical state of war. During the initial years, a series of military clashes ensued as many regimes contended for recognition as the “legitimate government of China.”
The People’s Republic of China(PCR) has occupied the seat formerly occupied by the Republic of China on the United Nations Security Council(UNSC) ever since Resolution 2758 was issued by the United Nations General Assembly in 1971. Prior to this, the Republic of China had maintained its status as a permanent member of the UNSC. One year later, in 1972, the United States’ shift in approach to the Sino-Taiwanese issue reached its climax with the development of the “One China” Policy by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. This policy recognized that the Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are part of a single China, which includes Taiwan. From this declaration, which is also known as the Shanghai Joint Communiqué, it was clear that Nixon was ready to avoid directly harming Taipei and conceding that China could not have two legitimate governments at the same time.

Taiwan stands as the most prominent and conspicuous instance of an unrecognized state so far, given that the majority of nations have aligned themselves with the decision made by the United States. The absence of formal acknowledgment further complicates the dynamics of cross-strait ties within the global context.
The government in Taipei has consistently and unequivocally rejected the Beijing doctrine of “One Country, Two Systems”. Instead, it has chosen a system of dual international representation that can be succinctly described as “Two Countries and Two Systems”. This approach effectively represents the current aspirations of the Republic of China, which has shifted away from objectively unrealistic aspirations regarding mainland China in recent years. Furthermore, this formulation accurately reflects the empirical description of the existing status quo.

Taiwan and International Relations Theories: a specific analysis

Now, the paper intends to shift its focus to International Relations theories by asking the following question: Which International Relations theories best help to explain the Taiwan issue, particularly in light of U.S One China Policy? In my opinion, I believe that the International Relations Theories of Realism, Liberalism and Constructivism are the best tools to analyze the issue.
As mentioned, the first of the theories we will use for our analysis that of Realism, which helps to provide more than one insight into the reasons and motives behind the behaviors of the actors who are involved in the issue. In this regard, I believe it is appropriate to focus on the concept of regional hegemony, since it is a fundamental aspect that drives the PRC’s foreign policy. The obvious adherence of Chinese power to the “One China” policy is in effect a manifesto for its aspirations for influence, authority and security within the region.
The Chinese Communist Party is strongly motivated for reunification with Taiwan without excluding any possible means since, for the Party, it is a matter of non-negotiable credibility in the light of the preservation of the PRC sovereignty. China’s obsession with Taiwan, reinvigorated at least in terms during Xi Jinping’s presidency, undeniably draws influence from the “century of humiliation” suffered at the hands of colonial powers and exacerbated by the Civil War. Moreover, the emphasis that realism puts on the anarchic structure of the international system and the inherent pursuit of self-interest by states underscores China’s unwavering stance in refusing to recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Of course, the Realist perspective also helps us understand the role of the United States and its attitude. Since the end of the Cold War that decreed the “victory” of the Western model against the socialist bloc led by the Soviet Union, the United States tends to perceive itself as a hegemonic power globally. Moreover, Washington recognizes the strategic importance of the Asia-Pacific region (where the U.S. presence has been strong since the end of World War II) and considers Taiwan as a functional tool for the strategy of counterbalancing China’s political power in the area (i.e. , prevent the PRC from monopolizing the island’s crucial semiconductor production). The United States thus attempts to protect its position through arms sales, diplomatic agreements and more or less explicit commitments in defending Taiwan’s de facto independence. This approach effectively reflects the heart of Realism, which involves acts aimed at preserving the security and prestige of the subject in a context of international competitiveness.

We now proceed to the use of the Liberal perspective, the second theory chosen to analyze the Taiwan issue in light of International Relations categories. The revolutionary (and ambiguous) “One China” policy represents a highly pragmatic approach that has allowed (and still allows) the United States to move with relative familiarity in a particularly delicate diplomatic terrain. The policy, in fact, includes an awareness of Communist China’s position as China’s sole legitimate representative, while leaving a deliberate veil of ambiguity about the nature of Taiwan of which, the United States simply does not support a formal, unilateral declaration of independence. In practice, the “One China” policy has become an essential diplomatic device for those countries that want to interact with both China and Taiwan. In this sense, the ambivalence of the “One China” policy is evident. Against this backdrop, China maintains formal relations only with those countries that officially adhere to the policy, thus averting the danger of them officially recognizing Taiwan’s autonomy. While all others use the aforementioned to continue to have relations (albeit somewhat “informal”) with the Republic of China withoutirritating Beijing too much. Among theories of International Relations, Liberalism places special emphasis on the role of international norms and, in the thorny case of Taiwan, on the importance of the creative capabilities of diplomacies. Moreover, Liberalism also comes in handy in fully understanding the commitment the United States has made to Taiwan, namely, to protect a state with democratic institutions whose independence is threatened by the autocracy of the People’s Republic of China.

The last of the theories of International Relations that we have chosen to study the Taiwan issue: is Constructivism.
The Constructivist framework offers important insights into the role of identity, historical narratives and the political and social constructs that, for all intents and purposes, shape and govern the behavior of all actors involved in international affairs and, in this case, the Taiwan issue. The historical existence of the Republic of China (ROC) prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), along with its democratic governance and vibrant civil society, has played a significant role in shaping Taiwan’s distinct identity and its endeavor to attain global recognition.
Furthermore, the constructivist method enables the contextualization of Taiwan’s refusal to accept China’s “One country, two systems” ideology. The steadfast commitment to the notion of “two countries, two systems” exemplifies the intricate nature of Taiwan’s identity, which arises from its continuous historical evolution and extensive democratic heritage. This perspective offers valuable insights into Taiwan’s determination to maintain its distinct place in the global community despite external pressures. The emphasis that constructivism focuses on ideational factors highlights the complex interplay between identity, historical memory, and geopolitical dynamics in the context of Taiwan.

Final Considerations

The use of Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism constitutes a valuable tool for understanding the Taiwan issue and the countless repercussions it has on the geopolitical chessboard, particularly against the backdrop of China-U.S. relations.
Realism elucidates the power dynamics, security concerns, and strategic reasons that accentuate the anarchic character of the international system. Meanwhile, Liberalism highlights the significance of diplomatic rules, international collaboration, and shared values in effectively addressing the Taiwan problem. In addition, Liberalism can be used to explain the solidarity that democracies show toward Taiwan. Finally, Constructivism turns the spotlight on the complexity of identity, which is the result of both historical memory and evolving social constructs, showing the incredible concurrence of factors that help explain the Taiwan issue.
The complex nature of international relations and diplomacy, as well as the interaction of a variety of theoretical viewpoints, are all beautifully encapsulated in the Taiwan Issue. Comprehending the Taiwan Question is crucial in comprehending the broader dynamics and intricacies at play in global politics, namely within the Asia-Pacific region.

Foto copertina: Taiwan