Taiwan possesses one major asset and is challenged by one major threat.
Taiwan’s major asset is its democracy. In Asia, only four countries have stable, consolidated democracies. The democracies of India and Japan date back to just after World War II, while the democratizations of South Korea and Taiwan began in the late 1980s. No other Asian nation has consolidated its democracy, though such countries as Indonesia, Philippines and Mongolia have taken important first steps.
Taiwan’s democratization has given it important new support in the democratic world. During the authoritarian regimes of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), conservatives in places like the US supported Taiwan because it was anti-communist.
Now, because it is a democracy, support for Taiwan is much more widespread and encompasses several political parties in many nations. Thus, in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and various European nations, many parliamentarians on both sides of the political aisle support Taiwan as a democracy and, despite their official “one China” policies, the governments of these countries show considerable sympathy for Taiwan and its international difficulties.
Taiwan also faces one major threat: China, which claims Taiwan as its territory. This claim has no historical basis. No permanent Han Chinese communities existed in Taiwan until after the Dutch colonial regime imported Chinese laborers after 1624. In 1936, in his famous interview with Edgar Snow published in Red Star Over China (which was carefully vetted before publication by both the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] and the American Communist Party), former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東) stated that Taiwan should be independent.
What is the nature of this force that endangers Taiwan’s security? If we look for contemporary and historical parallels to the current Chinese regime, the closest analogies are the German Nazi and Japanese Fascist regimes of the 1930s and 1940s, with which the current Chinese regime shares at least six characteristics:
First, all three regimes became intensely nationalistic. China’s leaders use nationalism because they believe it gives them domestic legitimacy.
Second, all three regimes were or are strong dictatorships. Even non-violent protest leads to imprisonment. The brave Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) is only one well-known case among many, many thousands of cases in China where people have been imprisoned for non-violent “political crimes.”
Third, racism is or was at the heart of all three regimes. China today makes frequent appeals to Taiwanese — and people of ethnic Chinese descent internationally — as having “the same flesh and blood,” and “shared blood vessels.” So-called “ethnic minorities” like Tibetans and Uighurs face constant and systemic political, economic and social discrimination in China.
Fourth, all three regimes established vast prison camps to house political prisoners and others who the state has deemed to be threatening. Some might argue that China does not have “death camps,” but the Nazis only created their death camps in 1942, quite late in their regime.
Fifth, like the Nazis and the Japanese militarist regimes, the Chinese today have become territorially expansionist and perceive “appeasement” as weakness on the part of their opponents. In response to appeasement, all three regimes push or pushed their claims with even more firmness and inflexibility.
Finally, all three regimes have used the “Big Lie,” a propaganda technique successfully employed by Joseph Goebbels, which believes convincing the public is easier with a large lie rather than a small one. As used by Beijing, the “big lie” has proven at least partially successful in convincing people around the world that China has valid historical claims to islands in the East China Sea, almost the entire South China Sea, Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan.
China’s expansionist aims can be demonstrated through its actions in the South China Sea. As shown on a map, China claims virtually the entire body of water. This line dates back to the days of Nationalist China in 1947 when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government made this claim, which then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) reiterated after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Naturally, many Southeast Asian countries have protested.
The absurdity of the Chinese claim is that it stretches to waters south of Vietnam, which extends 1,650km from north to south. Thus, the Chinese claim goes more than 1,000km south of China’s southernmost border at Hainan Island.
Beijing also argues that the South China Sea belongs to China for historical reasons, noting that Chinese porcelains have been found in various areas around the sea. Chinese porcelains (and many other goods) were widely traded and transported to many places, but in the South China Sea most of this trade was conducted by Arabs and by Southeast Asians, not by Chinese traders. China’s claims to the whole of the South China Sea are part of the “Big Lie.”
In this context, it should be noted that Taiwan has a claim to islands in the South China Sea that differs from that of China. During the Japanese colonial period (from 1895 to 1945), Japan administered these islands as part of Taiwan through Kaohsiung Prefecture. Thus one can argue that they have long been part of Taiwan and remain so today.
The Chinese make the South China Sea problem even more difficult to resolve by insisting on negotiating with each of the claimants separately. Clearly, if more than two countries claim the same place, it would be preferable to have multilateral discussions, but China refuses because it believes it can use its size and strength to intimidate smaller countries in one-on-one negotiations, and multiple opponents cannot coalesce against it in them.
China believes that a strong enmeshing of the Chinese and Taiwanese economies will eventually lead to unification. This belief is wrong in that political unification does not follow close economic ties. Yet, China clearly is beginning to influence Taiwan’s economy in undesirable ways. For example, Chinese influence in Taiwan’s media is becoming stronger with such people as Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明) controlling the China Times and Want Want media groups, as well as Cti television and various cable TV companies.
The China Times, Want Daily and CtiTV have proved to be handmaidens of China, unwilling to publish news that might displease the leaders in Zhongnanhai. In Taiwan many believe these media serve the interests of the Chinese and no longer work on behalf of Taiwanese.
When he became premier in 2009, Taiwanese Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) warned on several occasions about Taiwan’s economic overdependence on the Chinese market and urged that Taiwan expand its trade with virtually every other place in the world. This advice remains valid today.
What should Taiwan do in the face of the threat from China? First, it must realize, as James Mann cogently observes in The China Fantasy, China is not going to democratize in the near future. The powerful CCP has aligned with wealthy people, various security agencies and the military, creating a coalition determined to maintain the political “status quo.” The Chinese Communist regime is not likely to disappear without the intervention of outside forces.
Both Nazi Germany and Fascist Japan literally had to be pulled apart by the war machine of the Allies during World War II before they were defeated.
Second, Taiwan’s leaders must cease their flirtation with the “one China” principle, irrespective of any consensus that may or may not have been reached in 1992. The insistence that other countries adopt a “one China” policy is a holdover from the days of the Chiang Kai-shek government.
Today, China uses it to blockade Taiwan’s international space. Chiang Kai-shek implemented an authoritarian and discriminatory government in which the people of Taiwan had no input. Today, as a democratic nation, Taiwan has no obligation to adhere to the policies of the former dictatorship.
Third, Taiwan must realize that it is not a “small” or “tiny” country. Rather, Taiwan is a “medium size” nation or, to use another term, a “middle power.” Its population, equal to that of Australia, is larger than that of two-thirds of the world’s nations and its area is greater than that of two-fifths of the world’s countries. Furthermore, Taiwan boasts an advanced economy and a functioning democracy. Taiwan clearly is — and should act as — an important world “middle power.”
Fourth, in classical balance-of-power theory, when a nation becomes strong and threatening, other nations coalesce against it to balance world power. In today’s world, with a rising China that is both dictatorial and expansionist, democratic Taiwan must clearly align with the powers that are coalescing against authoritarian China. This means clearly aligning with such countries as the US, Japan and South Korea, as well as with such countries as Vietnam (which is not democratic) and the Philippines.
This suggests, for example, that South Korea should be considered chiefly as an ally rather than as a competitor. It also suggests that when bilateral disputes arise with countries such as Japan and the Philippines, Taiwan — while preserving its interests — should seek to solve these problems peacefully and in the interests of both parties.
In summary, China presents the world, including Taiwan, with an expansionist dictatorship that is unlikely to vanish. This requires considerable caution on the part of Taiwan as well as other nations of the East Asian and Southeast Asian regions. It also requires a clear-sighted vision of the dangers that Taiwan and other nations face.
Bruce Jacobs is a professor of Asian languages and studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. This article revises a keynote address delivered to the 2013 Defense Forum on Regional Security sponsored by the Ministry of National Defense in Taipei early last month.