Please note that the below is necessarily grossly simplified from a subject which should (and does) fill volumes:
As pointed out in the book “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling, our viewpoints on countries frequently date back to what we learned in school from teachers who had no direct experience. I have found it useful to look at current events by trying to peer through the lenses being worn by both sides of an opinion.
There is currently tension regarding China’s and the US’s attitude toward Taiwan which deserves looking back on history.
First of all, before we discuss why there is there a Chinese government on Taiwan, we should look at the history of the island itself. It was inhabited by “aborigines” who are not ethnic Han (Chinese) and occupied by various European powers during the 17th Century. During the 18th Century, Chinese forces fought with the aborigines and eventually won control of the island. During the 19th Century, it was variously invaded by France, the US, Britain and Japan. The Japanese finally took control of the island in 1895. In 1945, the Japanese governor signed papers “restoring” the island to the Republic of China.
In March 1947, Taiwanese resistance is defeated by the KMT (“Nationalist” Republic of China). Starting in November 1948, 5,000 refugees per day flow into Taiwan from the mainland. In 1949, the KMT moves the Republic of China’s government to Taiwan and begins 38 years of martial law under General Chang Kai-shek. In 1964, the native Taiwan Hokkien language is banned from being taught in school. Martial law is lifted in 1987.
In the meantime, during the early 1950’s the US’s General MacArthur, in support of the “China Lobby” directed a Congress, during the Korean War crosses the Yara River - China’s red-line, because he grossly underestimated the abilities of the People’s Republic of China’s army to nearly drive the UN/US forces off of the peninsula if they wanted to. The ability to fend off the military advances of the US (and the USSR) formed the incentive for China to develop its own nuclear weapons. When hostilities ended, Korea was left divided between a dictatorship “dynasty” which continues to exist today and a dictatorship in the South which existed for decades until replaced with a democracy.
Anyhow, back to the Taiwan thing: Picture a civil war in the US which, due to a popular revolt against a corrupt government overthrew them. The government then escapes to Puerto Rico (an ethnically “different” island taken from a foreign power). The local population is disenfranchised, Spanish prohibited from being taught in schools, etc., etc.) and the new government on the island claims to be the sole legitimate ruler of the mainland US. In Taiwan’s case, the total population is about the size of a large city in a country housing a quarter of the earth’s population.
So, what was China’s history and how did it relate? China formed the “center” of the civilized world in north Asia (parallel to Indian culture being the influence in southern Asia, stretching through Indochina to Indonesia). In fact, the Chinese ideogram for “China” (more or less a box with a vertical line through it) is also used to signify the words “center”, “middle” and the size “medium”. The Hans (ethnic Chinese) first lost control of the country in the 12th Century to the Jin who came from Manchuria. This was followed in the 13th and 14th Centuries by the Mongol Yuan dynasty. The Han Ming dynasty took control back for a period of about three centuries before losing it to the Manchurian Qing dynasty which lasted from the 17th Century until 1912.
The Qings were corrupt, but the major challenges came from the Europeans which finally helped the “Republicans” led by Dr. Sun Yat-Sen to overthrow the monarchy. The government was weak and easily manipulated. The Yangtze River had foreign gunships patrolling it to “protect commerce” in the same fashion that multiple nations now petrol the Persian Gulf. Modern Shanghai still has areas known as the French, English and German “concessions”, names like Sassoon and Hardoon (originally opium traders turned businessmen/philanthropists based in Mumbai and Hong Kong) and memories of the US navy’s gunboats docked there.
Leading up to the Second World War, the Chinese Communist Party was evicted to the Soviet Union and Japan invaded Manchuria, followed by China. At the end of the War, the Communist Party which had organized resistance movements against the Japanese, turned their attention towards evicting the corrupt group of warlords who was running the Republic of China. While the Communists were not a benign group either, I’m not going to complicate this by discussing their domestic issues.
Anyway, after being evicted from the mainland, Taiwan’s government still occupied the China seat at the UN despite the protests of the vast majority of the body because of the ability of the US to veto changing the representation.
While there are precedents of countries breaking off from others - Republic of Ireland leaving the UK, Kosovo leaving Bosnia, Bangladesh leaving Pakistan and so on. they are rare and, in all cases, had a population which wanted to be “different”. In this case, the (Taiwanese) Republic of China continued to demand that there was only one China and they were the “true” rulers.
Anyhow, during the Nixon administration, Henry Kissinger was able to craft a compromise. It was clear that having a relationship with the People’s Republic of China (the mainland which housed 25% of the world’s population) was commercially advantageous to the US. We would agree to allow the PRC to take the China seat at the US and call them China (taking this status away from Taiwan). The PRC then said that, as long as the Taiwan government insisted their was only one China, they agreed and said that Taiwan was a “breakaway” province and their government was invalid.
An agreement to leave this ambiguity in place worked well, but each time the US (or one of its representatives) makes a move towards awarding Taiwan sovereign/independence/national significance, China is obligated to demonstrate that Taiwan, as an independent entity, only exists by their sufferance and they can overrun the island any time they desire. It is currently in China’s best interest to keep the status quo, but if we demonstrate that we seriously feel that Taiwan should break away from Chinese technical sovereignty, China would be forced to take the island regardless of cost. In some ways, this is parallel to some of the challenges with Ukraine. If, years ago when Ukraine’s government became Western leaning, we had not encouraged their decision not to renew the lease on Russia’s naval base at Sevastopol Crimea, there would have been no reason for Russia to invade and annex the area (and subsequently no requirement to take the area from Ukraine to its north in order to strategically protect it). Actions have consequences and sometimes it’s difficult to get the cow back into the barn.
In any case, we made a deal with China which should keep Taiwan autonomous into the future. Trying to expand this to full independence for the island runs a real risk of it being taken by China regardless of the short-term costs. My guess is that China would be “surgical” so as not to create risk to the US (and a military retaliation). There would be financial/commercial shifts, but eventually things would revert to the mean.