It is not uncommon for nations to take on names that are symbolic or metaphorical images of the country in the minds of their citizens and the world. The US, for example, has at different periods in its history been referred to as a “shining city on a hill” or a “melting pot” of cultures.
China, of course, is well known for being the “Middle Kingdom,” Japan is called the “Land of the Rising Sun” and Ireland is the “Emerald Isle.”
Taiwan is no exception. Early on it got the moniker Ilha Formosa (“beautiful island”) from the Portuguese. This name later morphed into Formosa, a name that stuck and has been used in its history. US General Douglas MacArthur in 1950 called Taiwan an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” to portray its strategic military importance. More recently former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) suggested that Taiwan could be the “Switzerland of Asia,” a nation of neutrality and strength, open to all, but with no territorial ambitions.
However, times change, and Taiwan and the Asia-Pacific last month witnessed two major events. The Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress ended with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) promising a “new era” of progress for Chinese. That was followed by the APEC summit in Vietnam to discuss how all could benefit from free trade.
In line with the above, US President Donald Trump made his first visit to Asia. Whether or not it can be simply dubbed a “festival of flattery” remains to be seen; at present it appears to have been a visit that came and went with hoopla, but little seeming resolution.
Trump has continued to stress his protectionist role for the US and did nothing to change the US’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Many are expecting that China might once again use these events to begin ratcheting up pressure in the South China Sea.
However, in response to the US withdrawal, a separate result of the APEC meetings has presented Taiwan with new opportunities and the chance for a new image, role and even a new name.
What is this new image and name? It is the Gibraltar of Asia, a name that manages to combine the surprisingly diverse ideas of an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” and the Switzerland of Asia.
Taiwan is a mid-sized nation with a vibrant economy; and in a region where many nations still lean toward one-party state control, Taiwan has earned a positive reputation for its strong democratic system.
In terms of economic capability, with a high GDP ranking in the upper 80th percentile of nations in the world, Taiwan makes a good trading partner. This along with its location makes Taiwan an excellent potential participant in the newly developing Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership that is replacing the TPP.
Taiwan’s neutrality, like that of Switzerland, gives it importance; the same applies to the sense of its role as the Gibraltar of Asia. It is important that a bastion of entry and control should be one that maintains democracy and neutrality.
Analogies and comparisons of course do have limits, but examine Gibraltar’s role in history. As the gateway from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, Gibraltar has been under British rule since the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. It played a vital role in protecting trade (British and otherwise) flowing there; this was even more important after the Suez Canal was opened in 1869. During World War II, Gibraltar became the bastion that prevented the Axis powers from making the Mediterranean their mare nostrum.
By location and by strength of purpose, Taiwan fills a similar role for free trade in Asia. Taiwan sits at the crossroads of the East and South China seas. Not only is Taiwan the entry portal and gate of passage for all ships and trade passing between these two seas, but also to the Pacific Ocean.
Taiwan has its own vested interest here as well. It is a nation that depends on trade, and it controls the Pratas (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) and Spratly (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) islands in the South China Sea. Freedom of navigation is important to this nation, while at the same time it has no reason to impinge on the freedom of other nations.
It is no wonder that Taiwan is a coveted geography for any nation that has hegemonic goals in Asia. Nonetheless, protecting the interests of all nations as well as its own is a role Taiwan can fill.
Taiwan knows the dangers of a one-party state; its democracy has been hard-won for anyone who knows its half-century history since World War II and how Taiwan threw off the yoke of the one-party state of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
This democracy and self-rule is what the UN Charter is all about. This is also one of those unspoken secrets that other nations in the region need to face and admit; they have a stake in Taiwan’s democracy.
Instead of being a flash point, a free and democratic Taiwan should be seen as a stabilizing factor in the region. Other nations in the region need to see Taiwan as more than a resource for trade, but also a key player in maintaining balance and stability.
These are the things that should inspire Taiwan’s citizens: They can see their nation as a Switzerland; it has no hegemonic territorial wishes for the region; and more importantly, it plays a vital stabilizing role.
There is no doubt that the citizens of Taiwan can take pride in this newfound role and image. However, the time has come for other nations to step up and openly acknowledge that a free, democratic Taiwan is of long-term value to the region. It is their rock of security; it is their Gibraltar.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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