Taiwan faces threats both internal and external from its neighbor across the Taiwan Strait. There is an aggressive tug-of-war between it and China that is being waged through military threats, economic pressures and cultural wars.
The cultural challenges of national identity serve as an argument for Beijing’s claim that Taiwan is part of China’s own traditional heritage, and therefore a part of China itself, while Taiwanese claim that it is not part of China either historically or geographically.
The propaganda from China that claims it has ownership of Taiwan is based on the dogma that there is only “one China.”
Taiwan has rejected this claim, but it has not shown a strong counter identity to obtain the loyalty and emotional support of its population, although most Taiwanese do not consider themselves Chinese.
There is, however, an argument that a non-Chinese identity could be used to distance Taiwan further from China, and create an attachment with the nation’s history, incorporating a strong identity for Taiwanese.
There is a Taiwanese identity that is separate from the continental centrifuge of Chinese history. As long as Taiwanese consider themselves part of China or a subset of Chinese culture, it would be difficult to argue for a separate independent status for the nation.
The issues of loyalty to tradition, to the family homestead and respect for ancestors would create a strong magnet for keeping Taiwan anchored to China.
The immediate political consequence of this energy has resulted in the lack of a strongly expressed feeling by Taiwanese that they are willing to fight for their government or homeland.
The economic pull of China is evident in the more than 10 percent of Taiwanese who do business in or reside there.
There is also a significant population that has settled abroad in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and even Japan. These demographics further erode an attachment to Taiwan.
The first long-term program needed to develop a Taiwanese national identity would be within the education system. Lesson plans for kindergarten through high school should create a graduated program of knowledge in the study of the nature of a maritime state.
This study should introduce a range of topics, as well as field trips, experiential learning, research, documentation, and skills in engineering, wave physics, sailing, oceanic biology, and botany, and the ocean as a food and energy source.
Specifically, these lessons should use Taiwan as a model of how it fits into the definition and nature of a maritime civilization. An early expression of this was the carpet in former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) office that was designed to represent the waves of the ocean. Chen sat on the waves that were destined to arrive on the shores of Taiwan — and from the east, not the west.
Taiwanese youth must become emotionally attached to the nation’s marine existence. It is true that Taiwanese have an almost innate love for its mountains, forests, animals, rivers and seascapes. However, there is not an equally deep appreciation, and certainty not a sense of enchantment, with its oceanic history.
Taiwanese should be just as enthused and active about the sake of their ocean heritage as they were in the 1970s and 1980s with their commitments to democracy, environmentalism, civil rights and the nation’s history.
Taiwan must produce professionals who enter the world’s universities, philanthropic organizations, public institutions and businesses with a knowledge of maritime Taiwan that they would share and use for defending Taiwan’s identity.
The threat to Taiwan’s maritime identity in thought and practice has already begun. For instance, China’s so-called Belt and Road Initiative is in fact a maritime undercurrent whose purpose is to submerge Taiwan under Beijing’s control. China is creating a tsunami against Taiwan that is not just political or territorial, but is global.
As described by Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell in China’s Search for Security, Beijing has developed a strategy of “Four Rings of Security.”
The first ring encompasses Taiwan, while the next three are attached to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Europe and North America are not included.
The authors depict this strategy with a diagram: China’s first red-colored ring encompasses the Taiwan Strait and Taiwan. It stretches out to sea. Taiwan is not identified or named. It is hidden in China’s tidal marsupial pouch as just another part of China.
Taiwan’s purpose would be to generate and facilitate imports into China and provide the knowledge and skills for providing value added to exports.
Nathan and Scobell do not question Beijing’s right to present Taiwan as part of China. In a presentation of the thesis at a university lecture, one of them confirmed that China’s claim to unite Taiwan had historical legitimacy and was justified for the security of China.
The purpose of the other rings, they argued in the book, was not colonialist, but a matter of economically beneficial relationships.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has focused on the 2020s to unite Taiwan with China. To many observers, he is not planning on a military invasion, although this is possible. Rather, Xi wants to slowly link Taiwan irrevocably to China. His most dramatic ploy is to orchestrate a physical connection between Taiwan and China.
Last year, China proposed to build a 135km “umbilical” tunnel under the Taiwan Strait. The high-speed train would traverse between the nations in less than 60 minutes. This feat of engineering would tether Taiwan to China, forever harming its maritime identity. The result would be to flood Taiwan with Chinese.
They would form a voluminous cadre of officials, financial institutions, bureaucrats, residents and propagandists.
Any attempt to organize an opposition in the press, in a referendum or in the culture would be thwarted.
Taiwan would no longer be divided from Beijing by a strait: A division would only occur in the failure to get a seat on the train. In this way, Taiwan would truly be linked to the history of China.
Taiwan must focus on the long term to identify not with China, but with a maritime policy. To do this would break it free from the “one China” dilemma.
The issue of a Chinese identity does not relate fully to the population of Taiwan — not to the aboriginal inhabitants, the high number of Southeast Asian migrants, refugees or workers, and not to many Taiwanese themselves.
The demographic changes in the future would result in sizable immigration into Taiwan from Asia and Oceana. The consequences of climate change could flood many populated areas in Asia, resulting in a surge of refugees and displaced people. Taiwan must meet these challenges on its own terms, and not Beijing’s.
Realizing its identity as a maritime nation, will provide Taiwan with a new and sustainable future in Asia and the world.
Richard Kagan is a professor emeritus at Hamline University in St Paul, Minnesota.
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