One China and one Taiwan

Sun Journal

March 15, 1996

Officially, there is one China, with its capital in Bering. Officially, the island of Taiwan is a part of it. And if everyone genuinely believed those two things, the latest tensions between China and Taiwan would not exist.

For China, Taiwan is a renegade province that must one day return to the motherland. On Taiwan, the government of President Lee Tenghui advocates eventual reunification with China -- but surely not on China's terms.

The enmity is not new: It dates to a civil war that began nearly 70 years ago between Mao-Tse-tung's Communists and the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek. When the Communists won control of the mainland in 1949, the Nationalists -- with support from the United States -- established a government-in-exile on Taiwan.

For the next 30 years, the United States recognized the island as the real China, and the Communists as u phenomenon to be either ignored or contained. In 1979, Washington switched its recognition to Beijing.

To have formal relations with China, nations had to renounce official ties with Taiwan, and the United States took the pledge, agreeing to a carefully scripted policy line: "There is only one China and Taiwan is a part of China." The United States says it wants a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue, while recognizing Beijing's claim to sovereignty over the island.

During the 1950s, China and Taiwan often seemed on the brink of war, and the United States sometimes seemed destined to be drawn into it. By the '80s, the two sides seemed more nearly reconciled to their separateness. What angers China now is President Lee's greater assertiveness-and the lively debate in advance of this month's presidential elections about whether Taiwan should declare its independence.

That's why China has its military exercises in the Taiwan Strait-to make clear that the official policy of one and only one China remains in force.

And that's why the United States has dispatched aircraft carriers and support ships, as a reminder that Washington and Taiwan for now find the official policy better as an idea than an immediate reality.

Key events leading to standoff

1949: A decades-long civil war between Mao-Tse-tung's Communist Party and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party, or KMT, ends with the Communists as the victors. Mao becomes the founder of the People's Republic of China, while the Nationalists flee to Taiwan.

1954: After the Nationalists unsuccessfully attack one of the islands near the Chinese coast, China bombards the Nationalists' Quemoy island.

1958: China begins a decade of bombardments against Quemoy.

1971: China joins the United Nations at the expense of Taiwan, which is forced to leave the organization.

1975: Chiang Xai-shek dies.

1976: Mao Tse-tung dies.

1979: United States formally recognizes the Communist government in Beijing, while promising to keep Taiwan supplied with defensive weapons.

1987: Taiwan allows its citizens to visit China.

1991: Taiwan renounces use of force to retake the mainland, paving way for unofficial talks.

June 1995: Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui travels to the United States for a reunion at Cornell university in Ithaca, N.Y. China criticizes the visit as a part of a plot to promote Taiwan's formal independence. China accuses Taiwan of "destroying relations."

July-August 1995: China conducts two missile tests in the sea about 80 miles north of Taiwan.

March 5, 1996: Beijing says it will stage guided-missile tests off Taiwan beginning March 8-15. "We pin our hopes on the people in Taiwan to unite and strive for the early reunification of the Motherland," says China's Premier Li Peng. Foreign Minister Qian Qichen says the people of Taiwan should not panic over the tests but warns of a "real disaster" if they support independence for the island.

March 9: China announces live-fire naval and air force exercises at the south end of the Taiwan Strait from March 12-20. Taiwan President Lee says war games will not interfere with presidential elections March 23.

March 11: The United States orders the aircraft carrier Nimitz and its support ships to join the carrier Independence and its group heading to the Taiwan Strait area.

March 12: China starts live-fire war games off the southeast coast near Taiwan involving more than 10 warships and aircraft dropping bombs. China warns that U.S. decision to place warships near Taiwan risks sending misleading and dangerous signals to the government in Taipei.

Pub Date: 3/15/96

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