An independence referendum! It sounds like a panacea for Taiwan’s political ills, doesn’t it? But the truth is that for Taiwan, especially in the current geopolitical climate, the worst thing possible for the independence movement would be to hold an independence referendum.

For advocates of independence in Taiwan and elsewhere, it is a simple equation. Taiwan holds a referendum on independence, the people of Taiwan vote for it in large numbers, and as a result, the Taiwanese government has no option but to declare independence and the rest of the world supports them in doing so.

But the world never turns quite this smoothly, as the good people of Catalonia have learned only recently.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

An independence referendum may end up being self-defeating.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which claims sovereignty over Taiwan, would never accept the results of any referendum of the Taiwanese people. This authoritarian one-party dictatorship doesn’t allow their own people a say in political matters, so why would they care what the people of Taiwan think? The views of the people of Taiwan on the future of their own country are, in the eyes of the CCP, completely irrelevant, so any referendum is of absolutely no consequence whatsoever to them.

Furthermore, the CCP will lean on every other country around the world to disregard the results of any referendum. And as Taiwan has learned to its cost over the years, China’s economic might means that most countries will quickly fall in line behind China’s demands. Therefore, an independence referendum is likely to make no material difference to Taiwan’s status in the eyes of the world.

But there is an even stronger argument about why Taiwan shouldn’t hold an independence referendum. It is that Taiwan is already, by any definition, an independent sovereign nation. There are three core reasons why this is the case and they warrant exploring in more detail before we analyze why an independence referendum is such a bad idea:

1. There is no basis in international law for Chinese claims of sovereignty over Taiwan

The CCP has never taken much heed of international law in the past, so there is no reason to think that they would on the issue of Taiwan, but the truth is that there is no legal basis for their sovereignty claims under international law.

This is a point that has been made plenty of times over the year, perhaps most powerfully in an article by Michal Thim and Michael Turton for The Diplomat. The key points they make never really seem to be given the credence they deserve, so they bear repeating here.

At the end of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, China ceded sovereignty of Taiwan to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki. This is the point, a full 123 years ago, when any Chinese claim to sovereignty over Taiwan was relinquished.

Taiwan remained part of the Japanese Empire until the end of the Second World War in 1945. When Japan was defeated, Kuomintang (KMT) troops from the Republic of China occupied Taiwan and claimed it had been returned to China.

But that is not the case under international law. In fact, Japan retained sovereignty over Taiwan until Apr. 28, 1952, when the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty came into effect.

It was under the terms of this legally-binding treaty that Japan finally relinquished their claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. But crucially, they did not hand sovereignty to anyone else.

It is true that there are plenty of other documents that were signed in the wake of Japan’s defeat that relate to Taiwan. Most commonly cited by pro-unification activists are the Cairo Declaration, the Potsdam Proclamation, and the Japanese Instrument of Surrender.

All of these do state, in some form or another, the intention for Taiwan to be returned to the Republic of China. But there are two crucial points about these documents that those who advocate unification conveniently overlook.

First, both are declarations and as such are not legally binding. As Thim and Turton explain, “Under international law and practice, only an international treaty can settle the status of specific territories.”

Second, all three documents were composed with the intention of returning Taiwan to the Republic of China (ROC). When the Communist Party won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, those intentions changed. It was never intended for Taiwan to be handed over to the People’s Republic of China and no document, legally binding or otherwise, said it was.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

There's a strong argument that Taiwan was never handed over to either the ROC or the PRC.

There are only two international treaties which relate to the future of Taiwanese sovereignty after the Japanese defeat in 1945. The first is the 1952 Treaty of Taipei between the Republic of China and Japan. This treaty explicitly does not hand Taiwanese sovereignty to either the Republic of China or the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The Treaty of Taipei was deliberately subordinate to the San Francisco Treaty which came into force the same year. This too did not hand Taiwanese sovereignty to either the ROC or the PRC. Indeed, it specifically does not make any other country the beneficiary of sovereignty over Taiwan.

The only conclusion that can be recognized under international law is therefore that when Japan relinquished sovereignty over Taiwan on Apr. 28, 1952, it effectively granted Taiwan its independence. At that point, Taiwan was already occupied, illegally, by the Republic of China, but this does not alter the fact that Taiwan became an independent nation-state in the eyes of international law.

2. Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic of China

China’s claims to sovereignty over Taiwan are rooted in the hardline nationalist agenda that the CCP pushes in order to condition its people to accept their authoritarian overlords. ‘Only the CCP can reunite One China and bring the motherland back together again,’ the mantra goes, and there is no doubt that it is effective domestically.

The problem is that it is an utter myth when it comes to Taiwan. Taiwan was conquered by the Qing Dynasty in 1683 when the grandson of Koxinga surrendered to Qing forces. Prior to this, there is evidence of Chinese visits to Taiwan and even some suggestion of trading links, but Taiwan was always an independent entity and never under the administration of China or any other country before the Dutch colonists arrived in the early 17th century.

Taiwan remained part of the Qing empire for 212 years until the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki saw sovereignty passed to Japan. As we have already seen, in the wake of the Second World War, Japan retained sovereignty until relinquishing it to no-one in 1952.

At no time was Taiwan ever part of Communist China. Indeed, in the entirety of its history, Taiwan was only ever part of China for just over 200 years.

This makes a complete mockery of the CCP’s efforts to group Taiwan together with the likes of Hong Kong and Macau. Much as the people of these two countries might not like it, China’s historical claims to sovereignty over them run much deeper.

Hong Kong is thought to have become part of China sometime around 220BC, during the Qin Dynasty. It remained so for more than 2,000 years until the Treaty of Nanjing formally ceded sovereignty to the UK in 1842. In 1898, the Second Convention of Beijing saw the UK lease further territories around Hong Kong for a period of 99 years.

It was always the intention that these territories would be returned to China at the end of that lease period and despite the fact that China had fallen under the control of the Communist regime in the interim, the UK honored this promise and also agreed to hand back Hong Kong too, which it did in 1997.

Macau’s history follows a broadly similar pattern. They too came under Chinese control during the Qin Dynasty at around the same time as Hong Kong. Portuguese sailors began to settle in the area during the early 16th century, but while they signed various agreements with Chinese authorities and paid ground rent to administer Macau between 1573 and 1863, sovereignty over Macau remained with China.

In 1887, the Beijing Treaty between Portugal and China confirmed "perpetual occupation and government" of Macau by Portugal. The CCP tried to claim this treaty was invalid many times after taking power in 1949. When Portugal first recognized Beijing in 1979, the CCP reciprocated by recognizing Macau as a Chinese territory under Portuguese administration. Further discussions saw Portugal finally hand Macau back to China in its entirety in 1999, two years after Hong Kong.

The historical difference between Macau and Hong Kong is clear. Both have been Chinese territories for more than 2,000 years, almost the entirety of modern history. It is only in relatively recent times that China ceded control of Hong Kong under great pressure from the UK and for the majority of the Hong Kong region, this was only ever a temporary arrangement as both sides acknowledged. Meanwhile, China arguably never formally ceded sovereignty over Macau.

In contrast, China conquered Taiwan by force, occupied it for just over 200 years, and then ceded sovereignty. This sovereignty was never returned to either Nationalist of Communist China. The historical nationalistic rhetoric that the CCP continues to spout about Taiwan being part of China is simply not true. Taiwan was occupied by Qing Dynasty for a short period. But it has never been part of the People’s Republic of China and was only briefly part of China at all.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Despite what this guy says, Taiwan has unequivocally never been part of the PRC.

3. Taiwan meets the international definition for being a sovereign nation-state

International law offers a very clear definition of what constitutes of a sovereign nation-state. It is a state which has a permanent population, defined territory, one government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states.

No-one can offer any sort of convincing argument that Taiwan does not meet this definition. It has a permanent population of around 23.5 million. Its geographical boundaries, consisting of the main island, the islands of Penghu, Kinmen, Matsu, and a handful of other smaller islands. Its territorial jurisdiction consists of 36,193 square kilometers making it the 137th largest country in the world, sandwiched between Switzerland and Belgium.

There is a single government which governs this territory from Taipei. For a long time this was the KMT military dictatorship, but in more recent years Taiwan has become a fully-functioning and indeed thriving democracy.

Taiwan also has the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states. It currently has seventeen formal diplomatic allies and the number would be much higher without the diplomatic hostility of Communist China.

It is also worth noting that a sovereign nation-state can still exist under international law without being recognized by other sovereign states. So, even if China did manage to poach all of Taiwan’s remaining allies, it wouldn’t alter the fact that Taiwan still meets the definition of being a sovereign nation.

There are a number of other factors that indicate Taiwan’s position as a sovereign nation state too. It has its own currency, the New Taiwan Dollar. It has its own language, Traditional Mandarin. It has its own military and its own thriving domestic economy. It issues its own passports which are recognized around the world and it even has a visa waiver agreement with more than 150 countries.

Crucially, it also has own unique culture and its own national identity. Even the CCP would struggle to forge an argument that Taiwanese people identify themselves as Chinese. It is simply not true and poll after poll continues to show that the majority of people in Taiwan identify themselves as Taiwanese. While there are plenty of similarities between Chinese and Taiwanese culture, there are also a myriad of differences too.

Under internationally-recognized definitions, Taiwan meets all the criteria for being a nation-state. And, but for China’s spurious claims and open hostility, the rest of the world would recognize them as such too.

Why an independence referendum would be self-defeating

These are three extremely strong arguments in favor of Taiwanese independence. So, why isn’t holding a referendum to establish clearly once and for all the views of the Taiwanese people on independence a good idea? After all, Taiwan prides itself on being a flourishing democracy that respects the will of its people.

One key reason is that democratic votes don’t always go the way you expect. Just ask the British government about their Brexit Referendum to see how such referendums can deliver wholly unexpected results. The public doesn’t always vote the way you expect you them to. Those who support an independence referendum expect Taiwan to vote for independence. If they didn’t, it would set their cause back enormously.

Then there is the risk of overseas interference. The nine-in-one elections back in November showed a persistent and justified fear of CCP interference in Taiwan’s democratic system. Chinese operatives would likely be motivated to try and swing the result of an independence referendum – and this interference can be very effective.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Think Beijing would keep its fingers out of a Taiwan independence referendum? Think again.

But even more important than the risks of losing a referendum is the message that is sent by holding one in the first place. Holding an independence referendum is an admission that such a referendum is needed before Taiwan can become an independent sovereign nation. It effectively says that without a referendum, Taiwan is not independent. This plays right into the CCP’s hands.

In the case of places like Catalonia, this is no doubt that a referendum on independence is necessary. Catalonia is not currently an independent sovereign nation state by any definition. It is a region of Spain that desires independence. Even the most ardent of Catalonian independence supporters would admit to that.

But Taiwan’s situation is very different. By any definition, Taiwan is already an independent sovereign nation. The only thing stopping it from being recognized as such is a flawed sovereignty claim from a powerful and hostile foreign country.

Taiwan has no need to hold a referendum to assert its claim for independence. The only effect an independence referendum in Taiwan would have is to add fuel to the fires of China’s sovereignty claims.

It may sound like a contradiction, but regardless of the outcome, an independence referendum in Taiwan will only serve to seriously undermine the country’s independence movement.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The News Lens.

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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