“We got rich fast here,” a man in Beijing told me, “and we’re fast getting richer. Those lazy Taiwanese aren’t getting richer at all.” It is fashionable on the mainland to diss Taiwan, but – as I was too polite to inform my interlocutor – Taiwan residents have created a fine civil society and have learned to get along well with each other, tasks that are much harder than just getting rich.
As Kenneth Boulding said, things are the way they are because they got that way. When I first visited Taiwan in 1976, it was much like China is today: unruly pushing and shoving, haphazard cleanliness, little to no internationalization. Taiwan residents who came from the mainland in 1949, and their descendants, called themselves Chinese, reserving “Taiwanese” to refer to the island’s indigenous tribes. Taiwan culture then rapidly diverged from mainland culture, becoming the courteous, convenient, and friendly society where I was proud and happy to live in the years 2014-18.
Changes continue. Ten years ago, my friends there, who without exception and regardless of ancestry had come to call themselves Taiwanese, saw little imminent threat of invasion from the mainland. They declared no intention of emigrating. Now, the same friends are buying apartments in Vancouver and land in Australia.
Today, following Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Chinese aircraft are aggressively violating the midline of the Strait of Taiwan. Why does Beijing want Taiwan? First, because of its world-leading semiconductor technology. Second, because of its militarily strategic location, which in Chinese hands would weaken American force projection in the region, and help enforce Chinese claims to islands in the South China Sea. Third, because of face, pride, and imagined historic possession.
I’ll comment one each of these reasons, but you can anticipate my overall theme: China would do far better to learn from Taiwan than to invade it. This avenue would in fact accord with the 1972 US-China “Shanghai Communique,” in which America expresses “interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.”
China is already Taiwan’s biggest trading partner. China gets the Taiwanese semiconductors that it wishes to pay for. Invading the island risks destruction of the fabs and emigration of critical knowledge workers. Even if that downside isn’t realized, many countries are banning import of Chinese electronic products. China could use Taiwan’s technology for internal (read, military) purposes, but not to build export markets.
The Ukraine conflict has shown two distinctive innovations: First, the rapid rallying of countries that sympathize with the defender, fairly generously deliver weapons, and sign on to sanctions against the aggressor; and second, the marked success of cyber-warfare. The contribution to victory of “blowing stuff up” relative to “shutting stuff down” via hacking has shifted significantly to the latter. Occupying Taiwan would help China with its blowing stuff up options, but would give it little added advantage vis a vis shutting stuff down.
China’s repeated insistence that there is one China (including Taiwan) with capital in Beijing (even as Kuomintang adherents agree there’s one China, but with capital in Taipei!) means China cannot back off this position without serious loss of face. What about Taiwan’s face? Having witnessed the Hong Kong fiasco, Taiwanese know that capitulating to Beijing would offer no subsequent opportunities to save face. None, zero. Face lies only in adamant resistance to Beijing.
Chinese-speaking people first colonized Taiwan in numbers in the 1600s, beginning to displace the Austronesian-speaking indigenes. In 1871 after the first Sino-Japanese war, the Chinese emperor ceded the beautiful, mango-shaped island to Japan. Japan of course lost Taiwan to the allies in World War II. The allies included Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist Chinese government. Chiang’s other allies – USA, England, France, etc. – agreed the nationalists should govern postwar Taiwan.
Now that’s a complicated provenance. What country, what faction, can most justifiably claim ownership of Taiwan? Into all this we throw the fact that it was Western countries that invented the idea of national borders. China historically has been concerned with its sphere of influence, not with lines on a map. Given the intensity of Taiwan-mainland trade, Taiwan is undoubtedly within Beijing’s sphere of influence. Should be enough for Beijing, but…
All this is to show that there’s no logic to the China-Taiwan-USA tension. There’s small role for logic in any solution. Diplomacy must focus on “face” and on balancing China’s muscle-flexing with America’s, crafting a regime in which neither Beijing, nor Taipei, nor Washington feels unduly threatened.
After a dozen years as a market research executive, Fred Phillips was professor, dean, and vice provost at a variety of universities in the US, Europe…
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