It once seemed that Taiwan was marching inexorably towards independence, but December 2004 changed all that. The opposition won the general election, promising closer ties with China. Beijing was delighted, jumping on the result as proof that the Taiwanese were not interested in secession.
“This shows the people want peace,” one voter in Taiwan said at the time. “We don’t want independence, as that would cause instability.”
Taiwan watched nervously as Hong Kong returned to Chinese control in 1997. Two years later it was Macau’s turn. And Beijing seemed determined that Taipei should be next. The island’s jealously guarded de facto independence, stretching back 50 years, was under threat.
Taiwan lies 200 kilometres east of the mainland and has a population of 23 million. It was ruled by Japan for half a century before China recovered it in 1945. Four years later it became a refuge for nationalist troops fleeing communist forces commanded by Mao Tse-Tung. The Chinese Popular Republic was proclaimed in Beijing, while the opposition, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, set up the Republic of China in Taiwan.
A fresh civil war was narrowly averted when the American fleet intervened in 1958. In 1971 Taipei suffered a diplomatic blow when the United Nations recognised Beijing as the only Republic of China. After an icy decade of bilateral relations, a thaw began in the 1980’s. Since then, things have come a long way: direct flights were launched this year, and Taiwan is now China’s biggest single investor.
Douglas Paal heads the American Institute in Taiwan: “The politics matter but even politics cannot turn this integration off. John Donne said in 1633 that ‘no man is an island.’ In today’s world, even an island cannot be an island.” It may not make much sense for economic partners to go to war, but in the volatile world of Chinese and Taiwanese politics, nothing can be ruled out. With its new law, Beijing’s approach is clear: you can never be too careful.