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Introduction to Sovereignty: A Case Study of Taiwan

Introduction to Sovereignty: A Case Study of Taiwan

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Comprehensive Unit
160 pages
Grade Level: High School – Community College
Includes curriculum unit + video lecture on CD-ROM

An Introduction to Sovereignty: A Case Study of Taiwan examines the key issue of sovereignty and provides an in-depth look at the unique status of Taiwan among nations of the world. Although Taiwan has control over its internal affairs (domestic sovereignty) and is able to keep outsiders from operating within its borders or influencing internal decisions (Westphalian sovereignty), the island does not have international legal sovereignty, which would confirm its status as an independent country. Despite lacking the advantages of having international legal sovereignty—including the ability to negotiate trade agreements and treaties, among others—Taiwan has evolved into an economic powerhouse and has successfully developed and maintained international relations with many independent countries. Taiwan's success in international relations raises the unit's key question: Does Taiwan need international legal sovereignty to successfully exist?

A second question, Who exercises sovereignty over Taiwan?, is also central to this unit. During its early history, Taiwan was a tributary state of China, paying taxes to the various dynasty governments. Domestic sovereignty over different parts of the island was exercised mainly by local families and aboriginal groups until the late 19th century. The western concepts of Westphalian and international legal sovereignty only became important in 1895 when the Japanese took control over Taiwan as a condition of the Treaty of Shimonoseki and was recognized internationally as exercising sovereignty over the island. At the end of World War II, control over Taiwan shifted to mainland China, then controlled by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government. Enmeshed in a civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists for control of China, Chiang's government mostly ignored Taiwan until 1949, when the Communists won control of the mainland. That year, Chiang's Nationalists fled to Taiwan and established a government-in-exile. Despite lacking domestic and Westphalian sovereignty over mainland China, Chiang's government, the Republic of China (ROC), was recognized internationally as the official government of all China.

From 1949 to 1971, the ROC held the China seat in the United Nations and participated fully in international organizations. The Communist People's Republic of China (PRC) was marginalized, but over the next two decades, gained enough support to force a vote at the United Nations to take over the China seat. The ROC had received the powerful support of the United States, but a thawing relationship between the United States and the PRC led to a shift in U.S. policy towards the PRC and the ROC. By 1971, many countries, including the United States, no longer viewed the ROC as the official government of all China, and a vote taken in October 1971 gave the China seat in the United Nations to the PRC. The ROC lost international legal sovereignty over the mainland, and over time was "derecognized" by all but 29 of the world's countries.

The question of who exercises international legal sovereignty over the island of Taiwan remains. The current government of the PRC considers Taiwan a renegade province and seeks to reunite the island with the mainland at the earliest possible date. Taiwan, which views itself as an independent country, has not formally declared itself independent of China, but has existed as such for most of its history. As a result, tensions run high between Taiwan and the PRC, and the question of who has sovereignty has led to battles of words on both sides, and threats of force by the PRC.

As a case study of sovereignty, Taiwan provides an interesting and unique case. Because it lacks the formal recognition of independent countries, Taiwan has developed an alternative system of international relations that helps the island maintain formal and legal relationships with other countries. And, because it has been so successful at developing and maintaining such relationships, Taiwan's situation raises the question: Does Taiwan need international legal sovereignty to thrive, or, as an economic powerhouse of Asia with a high standard and living and a well-educated population, can Taiwan exist successfully without formal international recognition?

Lesson One, The Concept of Sovereignty, introduces the concept of sovereignty and the importance of sovereignty for nations. It is also the basis for understanding Taiwan's unique status among countries of the world. To begin the lesson, students are introduced to a definition of sovereignty from Webster's Dictionary, and to a second, more detailed definition put forth by Stanford University professor Stephen Krasner. Students then watch a short lecture by Professor Krasner and discuss types of sovereignty, the importance and benefits of sovereignty, and the relationship of sovereignty to the other key concepts in this unit. On the second day, students work in small groups to examine the three types of sovereignty defined in the lecture and list advantages of each type. Each group will make a brief presentation about the advantages of each type of sovereignty to the class. At the end of the lesson, students read a handout with a brief introduction to Taiwan and examine a map of Taiwan.

Lesson Two, Pre-History to World War II, traces Taiwanese history from its earliest settlement to the end of World War II, looking at the role that colonialism played in creating modern Taiwan, and examining Taiwan's status as a colony and a province. To begin the lesson, students read an overview of the period's history and compare the rule of the Dutch, Chinese, and Japanese. Students then examine the sovereign status of Taiwan throughout its history and chart the changes in sovereignty. Students read a biography of the Taiwanese national hero, Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga), and an article from the Far Eastern Economic Review that asks the question: Whose Hero is Zheng Chenggong—China's or Taiwan's? To conclude the lesson, students discuss the article with particular attention to the way that Zheng is used to reinforce Taiwanese nationalism and to the way that China emphasizes Zheng's role in freeing Taiwan from Dutch rule and returning it to Chinese control.

Lesson Three, Taiwan Between 1945 and 1971, examines the Nationalist government or Kuomintang (KMT) on Taiwan in light of challenges to both its domestic and international legal sovereignty. On the first two days of the lesson, students discuss issues related to domestic sovereignty through studying the relationship of the KMT with the Taiwanese people during the four years between the conclusion of World War II in 1945 and the victory of the Chinese Communists in 1949. During these years, the welfare of Taiwan was put on the back burner while the Nationalists focused on the civil war on the mainland. Taiwanese discontent, however, could no longer be ignored when public response to the police beating of a widow selling contraband cigarettes erupted into widespread protests and rioting now known as the "February 28th Incident" or "2-28 Incident." Students work in small groups to prepare skits to teach each other about this period. On the third day of the lesson, students discuss issues related to international legal sovereignty and the "One China" policy. Despite the Communist victory in 1949, through the support of the United States, the KMT was able to gain recognized control of Taiwan as well as the right to represent China in the United Nations. Thus, even though the Communists enjoyed domestic sovereignty on the mainland, they lost Taiwan and lacked international recognition from the non-Communist world. Although they were able to take the United Nations China seat away from Taiwan in 1971, their quest to reunite Taiwan with the mainland has still not been realized. On the final day of the lesson, students analyze a series of Chinese propaganda posters on the themes of "liberating" and "reuniting" Taiwan. They will then prepare their own posters from the perspective of the Taiwanese.

Lesson Four, Taiwan's Modern History from 1971 to 2000, examines the three decades during which Taiwan made a transition from an authoritarian government-in-exile to a de facto independent nation lacking international legal sovereignty. Students learn about the forces that contributed to political change in Taiwan, are introduced to Dr. Robert Madsen's concept of an alternative system of international relations, and debate the question: Does Taiwan need international legal sovereignty? Students begin the lesson by reading a brief history of the period and answering questions. A class discussion will revolve around political change in Taiwan. Students then have an opportunity to explore the strategies Taiwan used in achieving an alternative system of international relations by reading and preparing group presentations on the Taiwan Relations Act and news articles about Taiwan. Finally, students debate whether or not Taiwan needs international legal sovereignty to continue to exist as a nation.

Lesson Five, President Chen Shui-bian and Cross-strait Relations, examines the most recent period of Taiwanese history, emphasizing the struggle of Taiwan in maintaining an international presence, Taiwan–U.S. relations, and the claims to sovereignty made by Taiwan and China. On the first day, students view and discuss two official flags of Taiwan and a flag voted to represent a "new" Taiwan. Students then read an article about the tiny country of Kiribati, which flies both the ROC and PRC flags, and discuss the political implications of those actions. On the second day, students share timelines and information about Taiwan–U.S. relations since 1971, and discuss the role of the United States in Taiwan's political history. On the third day, students examine and debate the claims that Taiwan and China have to the island.

Unit Goals

Each of the five lessons in this curriculum unit has specific learning objectives listed. The following are larger goals for the curriculum unit as a whole. Students will

  • understand the three types of sovereignty as explained by Professor Stephen Krasner;
  • examine the impact of Dutch and Japanese colonial rule of Taiwan and the results of the tenuous control China exercised over Taiwan;
  • understand the relationship between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China from 1945 to the present; and
  • understand Taiwan's struggle to establish an alternative system of international relations to replace the international legal sovereignty Taiwan lacks.