Taiwan Deserves to Be a Normal Country

It’s time to stop playing games about the nation’s status.

Supporters celebrate the victory of Tsai Ing-wen
Supporters celebrate the victory of Tsai Ing-wen outside the Democratic Progressive Party's headquarters in Taipei on Jan. 11. Chris Stowers/AFP via Getty Images

This weekend, the people of Taiwan overwhelmingly voted to renew the mandate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and President Tsai Ing-wen for another four years, in an election that saw the incumbent win more votes than any other presidential candidate in Taiwan’s history. Tsai’s DPP campaigned for clean energy, pension reform, and LGBT rights, in contrast to the more conservative policies of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and its unsuccessful presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu. But the press has all but ignored these bread-and-butter issues in its coverage of the Taiwan elections, and with good reason. The overriding issue in this weekend’s vote can be summed up in one word: China.

The incumbent DPP has long held that Taiwan is an independent country, while the opposition KMT insists that Taiwan is an inseparable part of China—that just happens to be separated at the current moment. China is forced to tolerate the de facto political independence of the government on Taiwan, thanks largely to the explicit promise of U.S. military protection, but will not abide any suggestion that the island itself does not form part of the sovereign territory of China. The KMT—descended from the losing side of China’s civil war—long maintained the ambition of retaking the mainland, until it settled into a semi-comfortable, mutually profitable relationship with Beijing. During the period of (relative) Chinese liberalization in the 1990s and 2000s, the idea that Taiwan could strike some kind of Hong Kong-plus deal, retaining effective independence while joining Beijing under “one country, two systems” seemed plausible.

Today, that idea is dead. Taiwanese crowded the streets after the election, holding up five fingers for the five demands Hong Kongers have called for in recent mass protests. Relations between China and Taiwan have been especially icy ever since the DPP unseated the KMT in 2016. Now that Tsai and her party have been reelected, relations are likely to remain on hold for another four years.

The United States recognizes the People’s Republic of China as “the sole legal government of China” and acknowledges the Chinese position on Taiwan without endorsing it. In any case, the government in Taiwan, which under Chiang Kai-shek once aspired to return in force to the mainland, has long since given up such fantasies. The Taiwanese state is still legally called the Republic of China (zhonghua minguo), but it consistently brands itself as “Taiwan” and even uses the .tw internet domain. Tsai, in her victory speech, referred to the country as “The Republic of China: Taiwan” (zhonghua minguo taiwan)—a usual term nowadays, and a shift from the previously favored term “The Republic of China in Taiwan” (zhonghua minguo zai taiwan).

Ironically, the only thing stopping Taiwan from giving up the Republic of China name entirely is… China. Beijing would throw a fit (and maybe a few missiles) if Taiwan ever removed “China” from its official name. Yet little by little, as with its internet domain, Taiwan is giving up any pretense of being Chinese. The vestigial mainland seats were removed from its legislature in 1991. Its maps and tourism posters show only the island of Taiwan. It maintains its expansive Chinese-heritage claims to the South China Sea, but without much conviction. Slowly but inexorably, Taiwan is going its own way.

More than 90 percent of Taiwan’s current population was born after the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, and fewer than 2 percent were adults when the two Chinas parted ways. Most of those who were adults in Taiwan back then actually grew up Japanese: The island was ruled from Tokyo between 1895 and 1945. In fact, Taiwan has only been governed from the mainland for five of the last 125 years, and even during that short period, the mainland-based KMT authorities managed to massacre tens of thousands of Taiwanese civilians. Whatever the legal status of Taiwan, its moral connection to China is tenuous at best.

Today, surveys suggest that 56.9 percent of Taiwan’s people consider themselves to be solely Taiwanese, with a further 36.5 percent identifying as both Taiwanese and Chinese. Only a residual 3.6 percent identify as solely Chinese (with the remainder declining to respond). China’s crackdown in nearby Hong Kong (where any sense of Chinese identity has also plunged) has made the prospect of rule from Beijing even less appealing than it was when this data was collected in June 2019. Most analysts attribute the DPP’s late surge in the polls (just six months ago, the party was projected to suffer a crushing defeat with Tsai at the helm) to a reaction against the repression in Hong Kong, combined with the incumbent president’s strong response. Tsai herself almost lost a primary challenge, until the Hong Kong crackdown broadened the appeal of her vehement anti-China rhetoric.

There is no debating the fact that Taiwan draws its culture mainly from China. But Taiwan is not China, any more than Austria is Germany or the United States is England. Like everywhere else in the world, Taiwan has a complex history. China is a big part of that history, but it makes up a smaller and smaller part of Taiwan’s present. The days when China could consider Taiwan its so-called little brother, a mere appendage of Fujian province across the strait, are over. Taiwan has grown up—and is ready to move out.

A plurality of people in Taiwan prefer to maintain the current ambiguous legal status of their country, according to the most recent survey data. But that survey was conducted last June, just as the current wave of Hong Kong protests was getting started. This weekend’s election results suggest that anti-China sentient may have hardened. Whether or not that means Taiwan’s people are prepared to face the geopolitical uncertainties that would accompany a formal declaration of independence is unknown. Most Taiwanese probably just want to be left in peace—and that means not provoking China.

But after seven decades of de facto independence on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, the “One China” myth is wearing thin. Taiwan is never going to vote to become a province of China, and China is never going to invade Taiwan, one hopes. Although Chinese leaders have repeatedly left open the possibility that they might use military force to take over the island, China’s capacity to undertake such a logistically challenging amphibious assault is doubtful, to say the least. Threats of future hostility are no reason to keep a country of 24 million people in perpetual limbo. It’s high time for the world to recognize Taiwan as a member of the global community of nations. If not now, when?

Taiwan has not declared its independence, though the DPP maintains that the country is already independent. Either way, the most practical next step isn’t a formal declaration that throws down a gauntlet to an already-embattled China. It’s the simple recognition of realities on the ground through actions that treat Taiwan more like an ordinary country. No one can reasonably expect Washington to recognize Taipei out of some vague sense of historical responsibility. But the United States is now locked in an epic struggle with China to shape the character of the Pacific Basin for generations to come. Taiwan is a key node in pan-Asian technology and production networks. With Hong Kong’s autonomy now compromised, Taiwan may also become the last free media zone in the Chinese-speaking world.

The United States doesn’t need naval facilities or air force bases in Taiwan. Such trifles are the stuff of geopolitical fantasies, of overgrown boys playing at war by putting markers on maps. But the United States would benefit from seeing Taiwan’s autonomy put on a firmer footing. Obviously, nothing so dramatic as full U.S. diplomatic recognition of Taiwan is imminent, and little could realistically happen before the November elections. But—if Tsai asks for it—a gradual escalation of U.S.-Taiwan relations should be on the next American administration’s agenda in 2021.

On Dec. 2, 2016, then president-elect Donald Trump took a historic congratulatory phone call from Tsai. Renewed efforts to raise the status of Taiwan could start with more of the same: phone calls, trade delegations, official visits, and the like. There’s no rush to get to the end goal of bringing Taiwan in from the diplomatic cold. In any case, the main benefits to the United States are to be gained from the process of recognizing Taiwan—from the slow but consistent ratcheting up of the diplomatic pressure on China—not from reaching the end goal of normalized relations.

Taiwan deserves to be a normal country. That’s not America’s problem, but the United States can use gradual steps toward the recognition of Taiwan to help it achieve larger goals such as economic liberalization and the promotion of human rights. Regional allies such as Japan and South Korea, as well as emerging partners such as India and Vietnam, can and should be brought into these efforts. Taiwan is not the only country being bullied by China. If the United States starts the wheels turning, it may find the rest of Asia bandwagoning on its side.

Salvatore Babones is a Foreign Policy columnist and an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. Twitter: @sbabones

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