Over the past 30 years China’s economic, social and political rise has astounded the world.
China’s economic growth has enabled hundreds of millions of people to rise out of poverty and has engendered the largest increase in living standards for the largest number of people in world history. These are without doubt good things.
China’s economic growth has also led the country to seek a larger role in the global political system and to invest heavily in a military commensurate with that role. While these are not, in and of themselves, negative developments, they do pose challenges for other countries.
No country is more attuned to or sensitive to these challenges than Taiwan. As Taiwan continues to carefully navigate its relationship with China, no friendly country is more crucial to Taiwan than the US and no relationship in the region is a more important bellwether of Washington’s commitment to its friends, allies and ideals than its relationship with Taiwan.
Fortunately for Taiwan and its people the country has many friends in Washington.
Taiwan’s democracy, vibrant civil society, free economic system and openness make it both easy to like and a model for other countries undergoing political, economic and social transformation — not only in Asia, but throughout the world.
Despite this strong basis of friendship and mutual understanding and the shared values of democracy, free enterprise and liberalism, the US-Taiwan relationship is facing some serious headwinds. Over the past 30 years Taiwan has received less and less attention in the US.
In many ways this is a result of Taiwan’s own success in developing a robust democracy.
Issues such as human rights abuses, political repression and even assassination that once got great attention in the US are no longer significant problems in Taiwan.
Furthermore, Taiwan’s own government authorities, media and non-governmental organizations are now empowered to address those issues and do so with great energy and dedication.
China’s dramatic changes over the past 30 years and the evolution in US-China relations have also led to less attention being paid to Taiwan by Americans.
While the American Institute in Taiwan continues to do nearly everything that is normally done by a US embassy and programs such as the Fullbright Fellowship and the Luce Fellowship continue to send young Americans to Taiwan, the overwhelming shift of attention to China has led to a marginalization of Taiwan. Neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post maintains a bureau in Taiwan. They cover Taiwan (only sporadically) from Hong Kong, Shanghai or Beijing.
More worrying, and likely with longer term consequences for Taiwan’s security, is the decline in interest on the part of young Americans — the next generation of US government officials, professors, policymakers and others — in studying in Taiwan.
Through the 1950s, 1960s, 1970 and 1980s and even the early 1990s many — perhaps most — young Americans interested in Chinese language and Chinese-speaking regions spent some significant period of time in Taiwan.
Whether as English teachers, military officers, diplomats, graduate students or researchers, a large proportion of the US’ Asia specialists — and the overwhelming majority of China specialists — spent time in Taiwan.
For many of course it was a Taiwan very different from the Taiwan we know today.