Is Taiwan a Country?

On Which of the Eight Criteria for Being a Country Does It Fail?

A beautiful picture of Peace Park in Taipei, Taiwan
Peace Park in Taipei, Taiwan. (Photo by Daniel Aguilera / Contributor / Getty Images)

There is much controversy around the question of whether Taiwan—an island in East Asia that is about the size of Maryland and Delaware combined—is an independent country.

Taiwan developed into a modern power following the Communist victory on the mainland in 1949. Two million Chinese Nationalists fled to Taiwan and established a government for all of China on the island. From that point on, until 1971, Taiwan was recognized as "China" by the United Nations.

Mainland China's position on Taiwan is that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China; the People's Republic of China is awaiting reunification of the island and mainland. However, Taiwan claims independence as a distinct state.

There are eight accepted criteria used to determine whether a place is an independent country (also known as a State with a capital "s"). Let us examine these eight criteria in regard to Taiwan, an island located across the Taiwan Strait from mainland China (the People's Republic of China).

Has Territory That Has Internationally Recognized Boundaries

Somewhat. Due to political pressure from mainland China, the United States and most other significant nations recognize one China and thus include the boundaries of Taiwan within the boundaries of China.

Has People Who Live There on an Ongoing Basis

Yes. Taiwan is home to almost 23 million people, making it the 48th largest "country" in the world, with a population slightly smaller than that of North Korea.

Has Economic Activity and an Organized Economy

Yes. Taiwan is an economic powerhouse—it's one of the four economic tigers of Southeast Asia. Its GDP per capita is among the top 30 of the world. Taiwan has its own currency, as well: the new Taiwan dollar.

Has the Power of Social Engineering, Such as Education

Yes. Education is compulsory and Taiwan has more than 150 institutions of higher learning. Taiwan is home to the Palace Museum, which houses over 650,000 pieces of Chinese bronze, jade, calligraphy, painting, and porcelain.

Has a Transportation System

Yes. Taiwan has an extensive internal and external transportation network that consists of roads, highways, pipelines, railroads, airports, and seaports.

Has a Government That Provides Public Services and Police Power

Yes. Taiwan has multiple branches of the military—Army, Navy (including Marine Corps), Air Force, Coast Guard Administration, Armed Forces Reserve Command, Combined Service Forces Command, and Armed Forces Police Command. There are almost 400,000 active-duty members of the military and the country spends about 15 to 16 percent of its budget on defense.

Taiwan's main threat is from mainland China, which has approved an anti-secession law that allows a military attack on Taiwan to prevent the island from seeking independence. Additionally, the United States sells Taiwan military equipment and may defend Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act.

Has Sovereignty

Mostly. While Taiwan has maintained its own control over the island from Taipei since 1949, China still claims to have control over Taiwan.

Has External Recognition by Other Countries

Somewhat. Since China claims Taiwan as its province, the international community does not want to contradict China on this matter. Thus, Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations. Only about 25 countries recognize Taiwan as an independent country. Due to political pressure from China, Taiwan does not maintain an embassy in the United States, and the United States has not recognized Taiwan since January 1, 1979.

However, many countries have set up unofficial organizations to carry out commercial and other relations with Taiwan. Taiwan is represented in 122 countries in an unofficial capacity. Taiwan maintains with the United States through two unofficial instruments—the American Institute in Taiwan and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office.

In addition, Taiwan issues globally recognized passports that allow its citizens to travel internationally. Taiwan also is a member of the International Olympic Committee and sends its own team to the Olympic Games.

Recently, Taiwan has lobbied strongly for admission into international organizations such as the United Nations, which mainland China opposes.

Therefore, Taiwan only meets five of the eight criteria fully. Another three criteria are met in some respects, but not completely because of mainland China. In conclusion, despite the controversy surrounding the island of Taiwan, it should be considered a de facto independent country.