Sun, Sep 11, 2005 - Page 8 News List

The nation needs more `oceanic thinking'

By James Holmes

The Taiwanese don't think of their nation as an island nation at all, Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) said. Lu credited a recent trip to the island Republic of Palau for opening her eyes to East Asia's maritime geography. She said that her brief sojourn on Palau, surrounded by water, had impressed upon her Taiwan's "dwindling oceanic culture." Taiwan, she said, sorely needs that kind of "oceanic thinking."

Lu's brainchild, the Democratic Pacific Union (DPU), aspires to build a common culture -- she calls it a "blue civilization" -- among the 26 democratic countries adjacent to the Pacific Ocean. Seagoing culture, commerce, and security are central to the DPU's mission. She can start at home by reinvigorating Taiwan's own maritime culture.

Taiwan often seems to be a land-based society, but it sits about 160km off the Chinese landmass, at the midpoint of the "first island chain." Its Aboriginal tribes excelled at nautical pursuits such as fishing. Well-known seafarers such as the explorer Zheng He (鄭和) and the naval commander Shih Lang (施琅) figured prominently in its history.

Traders operated from its coasts, flouting the Confucian injunction against profit-making. Pirates set up shop on the island, harrying shipping that, then as now, took the convenient route through the Taiwan Strait to Chinese seaports. Dissident Chinese intellectuals made the island a haven, a buffer against imperial oppression.

Over the centuries, however, emigration from the mainland eclipsed Taiwan's nautical culture. The Ming dynasty outlawed seagoing commerce in the 1500s, dismantling China's formidable navy. In the 1600s and 1700s, after the ban was lifted, settlers poured across the Strait in search of economic prosperity, bringing with them a culture that regarded China as the "Middle Kingdom," the epicenter of civilization.

To call China a land-based culture understates matters. Settlers from China superimposed their own culture, which placed enormous weight on ties to the ancestral homeland, on Taiwan's indigenous seafaring culture. The sea had little place in the worldview of the island's dominant group.

In the late 1940s, after battling vainly against Mao Zedong's (毛澤東) Red Army, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) led his army across the Strait, re-establishing his nationalist government in Taipei. This new influx of Mainlanders imprinted their own China-centric view on Taiwan's culture. Followers of Chiang thought of Taiwan as little more than a base from which to "recapture the mainland."

Official dogma backed by martial law perpetuated the land-based view. Although Taipei has quietly abandoned its claim to rule all of China, the traditional attitude persists among older Taiwanese, especially those born in China, who tend to regard Taiwan not as an island nation in its own right but as a temporary outpost. Rejuvenating oceanic thinking will not be easy.

In part because of the land-oriented view, Taiwan's leadership has let the nation's maritime defenses slip at a time when China's naval power is surging, and the US military, the island's long-time protector, is tied down elsewhere.

Lu and like-minded maritime enthusiasts need to help others appreciate the dangers and opportunities emanating from the sea. Reaching out to young Taiwanese who harbor no illusions about "taking back the mainland" would be a good start. Celebrating the island's maritime heritage would also help. Interest in Taiwan's Aboriginal seafaring culture is on the rise, while the 600th anniversary of Zheng He's voyages is fast approaching. And the DPU's efforts to nurture a common Pacific culture could pay off in the long-term. Taiwan must look seaward.

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