Hong Kong solidarity rally in Taipei. Photo by Brian Hioe.
Cold War Island
The post-war history of Taiwan was powerfully shaped by the Cold War. After Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang (KMT) fled to Taiwan following defeat by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the Chinese Civil War, bringing the institutions and constitutional framework of the Republic of China (ROC) over with them, the Chiang regime ruled over Taiwan for decades–with Chiang Ching-kuo eventually succeeding his father as dictator of Taiwan.
The authoritarian rule of the Chiangs, father and son, over Taiwan for decades was propped up by the United States, in what became the post-war classic pattern of the US backing right-wing strongmen in the interests of anti-Communism. In particular, backing Chiang Kai-shek served to undermine the legitimacy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with the ROC counterposed to the PRC as “Free China” versus the “unfree” Red China. As memorably phrased by US general Douglas MacArthur, Taiwan was an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for the US and other western powers, offering a military base with which to counter alleged Chinese power. Like other Asia Pacific countries such as South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, Taiwan originally had US bases on its soil after World War II.
While the KMT originally entertained ambitions of retaking China, this gradually receded as a historical possibility. Taiwan became increasingly marginalized internationally after the US broke diplomatic relations with the ROC to establish diplomatic ties with China in 1979. Chiang withdrew the ROC from the UN after the UN voted to recognize the PRC instead of the ROC, refusing to consider any idea of dual representation, but this had the inadvertent effect of Taiwan being edged out of international organizations and the loss of diplomatic recognition by the majority of the world’s nations. The breaking of diplomatic relations between Taiwan and the US also resulted in the departure of US troops from Taiwan, though Taiwan continued to be a popular vacation spot for soldiers during the Vietnam War, and was still treated as an ally; arms sales to Taiwan by the US still took place.
In the absence of formal diplomatic ties, America still backed Taiwan, a contributing factor to the continued rule by the KMT. America also continued to serve as Taiwan’s security guarantor in the event of Chinese invasion, while officially remaining committed to “strategic ambiguity” regarding its support for Taiwan. The democracy movement that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s from within Taiwanese society was able to successfully push for democratic reforms, eventually resulting in the first direct presidential election in 1996, and the unusual phenomenon of a former authoritarian party participating in elections that it had previously sought to prevent from taking place. Despite the trumpeting by modernization theorists of Taiwan as a successful example of economic liberalization inevitably leading to democratization, claims that Taiwan has been post-authoritarian since the 1990s may be somewhat premature; it was not until 2016, when the historically independence-leaning DPP took power under current president Tsai Ing-wen for the second time ever, that the KMT was ousted from dominance over the legislature for the first time in Taiwan’s ROC history. 1
Despite democratization, Taiwan’s international marginalization has continued. Today Taiwan currently is only formally recognized by fifteen nations. Compared to 1979, the situation is even more precarious, given the political and economic rise of China in the four decades since then.
Though the last time that economic growth in Taiwan was higher than that of China was in 1990, Taiwan’s then-more developed economy allowed for substantial Taiwanese investment in China. Through the 1990s and the 2000s,Taiwanese companies such as FoxConn or other contract manufacturers built large factories in China, which became noted for harsh working conditions after a wave of worker suicides in the 2010s. In these decades, China’s economy has far overtaken that of Taiwan, with concerns regarding the effects on democratic freedoms in Taiwan because of Taiwan’s increasing economic dependence on China. .
Taiwanese business interests that operate in China have largely aligned with the KMT, which has long since shifted from a party that sought to retake the Chinese mainland by force to a party that seeks the unification of Taiwan and China regardless of the circumstance–even if that would likely take place through acquiescing to the hegemony of the CCP. This can perhaps be explained by the fact that the 10% or so of the population descended from those who came with the KMT to Taiwan, so-called waishengren 外省人, comprised the most powerful factions of a political and economic elite during authoritarian times.
As attested to by identity polling, three generations later, many waishengren now identify with Taiwan rather than China, pluralistic notions of identity increasingly prevalent among waishengren, the 88% “benshengren” 本省人 that were present in Taiwan from earlier waves of Han migration, and the 2% indigenous population. As such, support for unification increasingly comes from a minority, but a vocal one with large resources at their disposal.
In other words, while many of those that came to Taiwan with the KMT now identify with Taiwan, rather than China, the leadership of the KMT is no longer so antagonistic to China that unification under the auspices of the CCP becomes an unacceptable political outcome. That the interests of the KMT leadership and economic elites aligned with them differ from those of the residents of Taiwan, whether waishengren or benshengren, returns to how the KMT elite can viewed as a settler colonial class that came to Taiwan, which is perhaps both colonial and postcolonial simultaneously in this respect.
Those that enjoyed elite privilege under the KMT believe that since Taiwan’s democratization, they have lost their privileges. Facilitating the political unification of Taiwan and China and serving as the CCP’s anointed proxies in Taiwan might be one way to regain those privileges. Furthermore, one notes that for KMT-affiliated capitalists such as Terry Gou, the owner of FoxConn, it hardly matters if Taiwan loses its political freedoms if this means maintaining access to the Chinese market and labor force in order to continue to make profits. This rapprochement with China by the KMT elites itself can be viewed in parallel to shifts toward strengthened Taiwanese identity.
From Periphery to Center During the New Cold War
This, then, is the backdrop in which Taiwan has been dragged into the so-called “New Cold War”, as well as the origin of the paradoxes faced by Taiwan as a political entity. If Taiwan’s Cold War history was one of increasing marginalization, to borrow the phrase of Taiwanese anarchist theorist Wu Rwei-ren, this has long led to attempts by Taiwan to “reclaim the world”–in other words, to pursue international recognition as a political entity, in the hopes of again being admitted to the very international institutions from which it was ousted by the recognition of the PRC.2
But, by contrast, the “New Cold War” has so far charted the opposite trajectory for Taiwan–elevating Taiwan’s geopolitical quandary from international obscurity and placing it front and center. This began shortly after Donald Trump’s election, with his surprising phone call to Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, in December 2016. Though the exact circumstances of how the phone call came to be are still debated, Trump broke from long-standing American diplomatic precedent in referring to Tsai as “president”. And Taiwan’s successes fighting off COVID-19–Taiwan has had fewer than 1,000 cases and only experienced nine deaths as of February 2021 –has further put a spotlight on Taiwan.
This has coincided with a period of escalating tensions between the US and China, which, in turn, has led to ever increased support for Taiwan by the Trump administration. Apart from the continuation of arms sales between Taiwan and America, legislation such as the Taiwan Travel Act and TAIPEI Act were passed under the Trump administration. Taiwan also saw diplomatic visits from high-ranking American government officials such as Undersecretary of State Keith Krach and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar. Diplomatic visits from America on such a high level had not taken place since the US and Taiwan broke ties in 1979.
Support for Taiwan by Trump unfortunately has led to idealized views of the Trump administration in Taiwan, viewed by some as the “most pro-Taiwan American presidential administration in history.” This continues the longstanding idealization of the US in Taiwan–despite the US having propped up the KMT for decades. Even the historically independence-leaning DPP, which emerged from the Taiwanese democracy movement to defeat the KMT’s one-party rule, also has historically idealized the US, viewing the US as the defender of Taiwan’s democratic freedoms.
The victory of Joe Biden in 2020 has led to concerns that the Biden administration would oversee a reversal of course The Obama administration had long been viewed as having been soft on China and allowed for its political rise through inaction; it is feared in Taiwan that the Biden administration will act similarly. Such concerns are likely to fade away, however, seeing as the political trajectory of the Biden administration is also likely to be configured around confrontation with China.
However, what is certain is that in the “new Cold War”–as with the original Cold War before it–Taiwan stands to be used as a geopolitical pawn between America and China. The Trump administration’s actions clearly illustrated that its support for Taiwan was simply in order to hit back at China, as observed in the last-minute lifting of long-standing restrictions on diplomatic contacts between the US and Taiwan by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mere weeks before the Trump administration left office. This was done as a response to the arrest of pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong, but if the Trump administration had truly cared about the issue, it could have lifted these restrictions earlier in office, rather than haphazardly doing so on its way out.
Indeed, all along, the Trump administration made the disposability of Taiwan for the US quite clear. Admissions of this have come from some surprising quarters. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton commented in his tell-all about the Trump administration, The Room Where It Happened, that Taiwan stood to be discarded by Trump, much as the Syrian Kurds were, to secure a trade deal with China. Bolton cited a time when Trump compared the size of Taiwan’s economy to that of a pen and the size of China’s economy to the size of the Resolute Desk used in the Oval Office.3
The relationship of convenience between the US and Taiwan is not something that can simply be attributed to the unstable political behavior of the Trump administration. Taiwan has always been treated as a chess piece to be traded off by America.
Trump made no pretense of the extractive relation between America and many of its supposed allies in the Asia Pacific, now demanding billions of dollars of payments in return for maintaining military bases in Japan and South Korea that had been there since the old Cold War to ward off potential threats from China and secure the region for US influence. Many of those in Taiwan who did not idealize Trump will instead take away the opposite lesson, claiming the Trump administration simply represented an aberration from the norm, instead of a moment when the facade of diplomatic friendship with its client states was dropped. However, this extractive relation is broadly true of any presidential administration, even if the Trump administration had an unusual number of moments in which what normally went unsaid in other administrations was said aloud.
Some in Taiwan have sought to reassure against the possibility of Taiwan being discarded by America or other western powers by pointing to the centrality of Taiwan for global supply chains, such as those involved in producing semiconductors necessary for running everything from computers to cars. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company plays a role of outsized importance in global supply chains, as a result of which some have suggested that this would motivate other countries to defend Taiwan. Others have pointed to the centrality of Taiwan for shipping routes through the region.
But more generally, one notes that for global capitalism, there is no irreplaceable node or hub that cannot be routed around or substituted–having such points of weakness in the supply chain is, in fact, a risk that companies acknowledge and seek to mitigate. Although the world has become newly cognizant of the ways it is unusually reliant on Taiwan, one can expect efforts to disaggregate and wean global supply chains off of overdependence on Taiwan, given the geopolitical risks.
Taiwan currently faces the highest level of military tensions in decades. Over the past year (2020), incursions into airspace near Taiwan by Chinese military aircraft have increased in frequency; they are now nearly daily occurrences. Some analysts believe that this was to register anger by China because of strengthened US-Taiwan ties and increased international attention focused on Taiwan because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from that the Taiwanese government scrambled planes in response to these incursions, the US, too, has responded by sending its own planes near Taiwan or deploying naval vessels to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Seas. The pattern of tit-for-tat escalation between the US and China raises the possibility that some triggering incident, whether made in error or deliberately, could lead to conflict.
Two days after Biden’s inauguration, China sent warplanes to the airspace near Taiwan in numbers never seen before. International media read China as probing the Biden administration’s reactions. This targeting of Taiwan by China as a proxy for the US–and not only for the sake of territorial ambitions over Taiwan–is another way in which Taiwan is put in the line of fire due to the new Cold War.
China’s designs on Taiwan at present are unclear. China currently lacks the capacity to transport military forces of sufficient size to Taiwan to conduct a long-term occupation, though military experts believe that China is aiming to increase this capacity. The specter of China using the COVID-19 outbreak as an opportunity to invade Taiwan looms, especially given that responses by other nations would be limited; however, one notes that even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s economy was slowing down.
To put a finer point on it, though scarcely discussed, the co-dependent nature of the Chinese and Taiwanese economies would precipitate a global economic crisis in the event of a Chinese invasion, something that the CCP probably would not be able to handle at present. This is one key reason why the Chinese government is not likely to risk invading Taiwan at present. Estimates suggest that the CCP would suffer losses in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands from an invasion of Taiwan, and the CCP would need to be able–and willing–to swallow not only the blow to domestic political legitimacy of sacrificing tens of thousands of Chinese lives on a costly invasion, but the severe economic crisis that would also result.4
However, more broadly, in the time of the “new Cold War,” Arif Dirlik’s description of Taiwan as “the land colonialisms made” remains true.5 Or, to again borrow Wu Rwei-ren’s terms, Taiwan’s fate is deeply bound up with its origins as a “fragment of/f empires”.6 The “new Cold War” has unexpectedly centered Taiwan, whereas the original Cold War saw Taiwan slide into international marginalization, but Taiwan continues to be a geopolitical pawn caught between the US and China. As Wu Zhuoliu’s 1956 novel, Orphan of Asia, suggested, Taiwan’s orphan fate continued in the post-war period. It has continued into the “new Cold War.”
Possibilities for transnational solidarity to combat an increasingly divided world are not on the horizon at present. Ten years ago, Taiwanese political theorist Wu Jieh-min outlined in The Third Imagination of China a vision of civil society from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China uniting to combat their shared enemy–the CCP and its proxies, including transnational capitalists such as Terry Gou and others, who can be seen as the enemy of the collective working classes of the world.7 But such a vision seems even utopian now; when it is brought up by activists now, it is as the memory of a future that never came to be. Apart from increasing divisions between the three locations centered around national or proto-national identity, travel between all three locations for activists to conduct exchanges has become increasingly difficult, due to strengthened repression by the CCP–and in the past year, due to COVID-19 and the repression of HK’s movement against sedition. Non-governmental paths forward remain opaque.
Brian Hioe (丘琦欣) is a writer, editor, translator, activist, and DJ based out of Taipei. He is one of the founders of New Bloom Magazine.