No man's land: Taiwan is fighting for its rightful place in the world
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Taiwanese people go about their daily routines in the bustling streets of Taipei, where towering buildings and smooth-sailing highway traffic bespeak prosperity. The city’s vibrant nightlife begins when the sun goes down. People swarm to the festive night markets that are teeming with smorgasbords of Taiwan’s famous street foods, clothing shops and trinket stalls.
But lurking behind Taiwan’s peaceful and first-world life is the threat of China’s invasion that would shatter what travelers describe as Asia’s “hidden gem.”
Hence Taiwanese officials’ favorite Dickensian quote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It does not only suggest Taiwan’s paradoxical situation but also allegorizes the “tale of two Chinas.”
The Taiwanese are psyched up to confront their potential invaders, prepared to fight for their much-ballyhooed democratic order. Taking a cue from Ukrainians who are resisting the Russian aggressors, the Taiwanese are arming themselves, forming government-sanctioned and corporate-sponsored civilian forces.
“Defending Taiwan is our own responsibility, and we are determined to do so,” said Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister.
The Taiwanese government is beefing up its forces, allocating 2.4 percent of the island’s gross domestic product for defense, and training its soldiers as well as civilian volunteers.
“We have 160,000 soldiers in Taiwan— a majority of them are based on voluntary service,” Wu said. “After what they have seen in Hong Kong and Ukraine, we started seeing our young people’s desire to serve in the military in defense of Taiwan.”
Its complex history gave rise to the debate over Taiwan’s sovereignty status. In an article titled, “China and Taiwan: A Really Simple Guide,” BBC News capsulized the two Chinas’ history.
“Historical sources suggest that the island first came under full Chinese control in the 17th century when the Qing dynasty began administering it. Then, in 1895, they gave up the island to Japan after losing the first Sino-Japanese war. China took the island again in 1945 after Japan lost World War II.
“But a civil war erupted in mainland China between nationalist government forces led by Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong's Communist Party. The communists won in 1949 and took control in Beijing. Chiang Kai-shek and what was left of the nationalist party - known as the Kuomintang - fled to Taiwan, where they ruled for the next several decades.”
China and Taiwan interpret history differently. China insists that Taiwan was originally its province. Taiwan, on the other hand, argues that it was never part of China.
As the world watched in shock when Russia invaded Ukraine, Taiwan inadvertently shared the stage, what with yet another Dickensian parallelism. If it happened in Ukraine, it could happen in Taiwan.
“The conflict between Russia and Ukraine served as a wake-up call for us,” said Wu Tzu Li, a research associate at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research.
The government has organized a series of survival skills training for civilian volunteers and regular citizens, teaching them how to use weapons to defend themselves in the event of a Chinese troops’ foray. “We live on an island,” Li said. “In case of an attack, it will be impossible for our people to move.”
But Taiwanese officials appeal to the world not to wait until it’s too late. “In the process of preparing for our self-defense capabilities, this will be the period of time that we need support from other like-minded countries by providing the necessary defense weapons or engaging in security cooperations and a series of discussions,” Joseph Wu said. “This is something that we continue to discuss with the United States.”
Home to 23 million people, Taiwan is located in what is known as the "first island chain,” which comprises U.S.-friendly territories that are crucial to U.S. foreign policy.
Washington has complex triangular relations with China and Taiwan. While maintaining friendly ties with Taipei by virtue of the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States abides by its one-China policy. At the same time, however, Washington skates on thin ice with its relations with Beijing, which it considers “the most challenging competitor” in the Indo-Pacific region.
“As the development of China-U.S. strategic competition and China's increasing tension with its neighboring countries, Taiwan now receives more attention,” said Tsunghan Wu, an assistant research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research.
Tsunghan Wu speculates that the U.S. may eventually rethink its one-China policy. “As a result, Taiwan can strengthen its interactions with other governments, not just the U.S. but also its network,” Tsunghan Wu said. “What we’ve learned from the (Russia-Ukraine) war is that the support has to come before the war, and not when it’s already happening.”
Tsun-Yen Wang, an associate research fellow at the research institute, said Taiwan must not rely solely on the U.S. “We must also look to other countries including Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines," he said.
While Taiwan allocates sufficient resources to build its defense capabilities, its diplomatic status in the international community hampers its military empowerment.
“Due to international isolation played by China on Taiwan, we have difficulties in obtaining military elements,” said I-Chung Lai, president of the think tank Prospect Foundation. “We started having a more stable defense-sale commitment, especially from the U.S.”
But Taiwan’s goal to produce its own weapons is again hindered by its diplomatic status. “Some of the military designs and production involve technologies from other countries,” Lai said. “Defense spending is very different from other countries. They do not have the kind of problem that Taiwan has. We have the money but we do not know where else we can buy the military elements that we need. Right now, the source of defense articles is the United States, so our supply is more stable and that makes it easy for Taiwan’s defense."
Beijing has managed to strong-arm several countries into alienating Taiwan, consequently shrinking its diplomatic map. To date, Taiwan has diplomatic ties with only 14 sovereign countries plus the Vatican.
Taiwan seeks to counter China’s bullying tactics on other countries by embarking on a massive public relations campaign, hoping it helps pull the island out of isolation. In November, the Taiwanese government hosted a large group of journalists from 27 countries and a group of state leaders from the Pacific islands.
“Taiwan is facing a very unique situation. Our international space has been restricted,” said Catherine Y.M. Hsu, director general of the Department of International Information Services. “The government thinks the best way for the international community to know more about Taiwan’s unique situation is to invite them over to observe our situation here,” she said.
Taiwan is a member of approximately 70 international organizations, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the World Trade Organization. However, it has no seat in the United Nations.
Taiwan was a founding member of the UN in 1949 until it was replaced by China in 1971 following a resolution that pushed the renegade democratic province to the periphery. Taiwan has since been the world's dilemma. Its democratic system of government suits well with many democratic nations, but its status as a sovereign nation remains an unresolved issue.
The World Bank has classified Taiwan as “a high-income economy,” ranking 21st in the world, with a GDP estimated at $828.66 billion. Based on the World Bank’s projection, Taiwan’s economy will cross the $1 trillion mark by 2027.
While applauded for its successful control of the Covid-19 transmissions in the country, Taiwan was not called on to get on board with the global battle against the pandemic. Its aggressive net-zero initiatives addressing climate change have been generally overlooked as well.
“We have little access to UN specialized agencies. We were not allowed to go to their meetings and get access to information. This is very unfair to us,” Hsu said. “It’s just unrealistic for the rest of the global community to totally exclude Taiwan from broad issues.”
Acknowledging that the UN is “a highly political arena,” Hsu said Taiwan is seeking to at least gain observer status. “We hope that eventually we could redress this issue and allow Taiwan to have a meaningful participation in UN forums,” she said.
Why does Taiwan matter to the world? “These days, people are talking about the semiconductor industries,” said Joseph Wu. “Should China invade Taiwan, the semiconductor supply chain will be disrupted and it will have a heavy impact on the world’s economy, which depends on digital technology.”
Taiwan produces 62 percent of the world’s semiconductor output.
“If these technologies are so important to everyone, I hope that everybody will keep Taiwan safe. If Taiwan is destroyed, it will be a problem for the whole world,” said Miin Chyou Wu, founder of Macronix International, one of Taiwan’s leading semiconductor manufacturers.
Macronix developed specialized memory chips for the consumer electronics industry, including those used in Nintendo's 3DS and Switch devices, and Samsung's wearable electronic devices.
China’s threats, however, do not douse Chyou Wu's optimism. “We don’t have a crystal ball. I cannot tell you what will happen, but worrying is useless," he said.
Macronix employees are working normally, not thinking of any threats, he said.
“Whether there will be a bombardment is the last thing we need to worry about. Taiwan is very much in a leading position. If China and the U.S. government want our technologies, then hopefully nobody will bombard us.”