Heads of state from across the Asia Pacific congregated in Vietnam this November for the annual APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting. As global political heavyweights gathered around the diplomatic roundtable in Da Nang, however, one placard may have seemed out of place.
Squeezed between household names like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe sat a Taiwanese politician from a minor opposition party, under the banner of ‘Chinese Taipei’.
‘Chinese Taipei’ is the humiliating label for the largely unrecognized Island nation of Taiwan. This unofficial name printed on placards in front of an unfamiliar flag, flown by an unknown political representative – all echo a history of bloody civil conflict and divisive cold war politics. The fact that Taiwan even has a seat at the table however, tells a far subtler story of East Asian rivalry and grand strategy.
The true epicentre of the region’s seismic strategic relations, Taiwan represents a microcosm of East Asia’s major diplomatic challenges. How the nations of East Asia chose to handle Taiwan and where they are willing to compromise, provide a potential model for future regional relations in an era of impending strategic uncertainty.
The People’s Republic of China and Taiwan
The Cross Strait relationship between Beijing and Taipei is one of jarring hostility and quiet cooperation.
Despite Beijing’s Peaceful Development Doctrine, a 2004 Official Statement from a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson stressed that “If Taiwan leaders move recklessly to provoke incidences of Taiwan independence, the Chinese people will crush their schemes firmly and thoroughly at any cost.”
In the face of this major aversion to displays of Taiwanese Independence however, China has puzzlingly also permitted Taiwan to participate in a number of multilateral organisations such as APEC. While there are a handful of restrictions placed on this participation, Beijing has for the most part respected Taiwan’s role as an autonomously governed economy with significant regional economic interests.
This confusing strategic cognitive dissonance is intimately linked to Xi Jinping’s notion of the China Dream 中国梦. A political concept-cum-nationalist ideology, the China Dream is a push for national “rejuvenation”, attempting to redefine the concepts of ‘Chineseness’ and of Chinese nationhood to consolidate and galvanise Greater China under a single authority.
The Cross Strait relationship is the most transparent testing ground for this new strategy. Whether a peaceful slumber or an offensive nightmare, the pursuit of the China Dream in Taiwan will set the terms of engagement for China’s future relationship with its autonomous regions. The lessons learnt by Taiwan and its significant gains in economic autonomy provide practical utility to keen-eyed observers Hong Kong, Macau, Xinjiang and Tibet.
Japan and Taiwan
The nuance at the heart of Japan–Taiwan relations, as is often the case in Asia, arises from a legacy of colonialism.
Following a humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, the Qing Dynasty was forced to cede the island of Taiwan to Japanese sovereign control. It was during this period of harsh treatment and widespread discrimination that Taiwanese intellectuals began calling on citizens to challenge the militaristic leadership and to purse modernity alongside mainland China. The very notion of an independent Taiwan only surfaced in opposition to Japanese Occupation.
When one examines the mood in Taiwan today however, this anti-Japanese strand of nationalism is almost non-existent.
Unlike other former Japanese colonial holdings like the Koreas, China, the Philippines and Malaysia, Taiwan seems to greet its colonial past with a degree of nostalgia and amity. While some literature has dismissed this as simply a by-product of elderly Taiwanese citizens sentimentally reflecting on their childhood memories, the trend of Japanese rapprochement is in fact an intergenerational one.
Japan has managed to recontexualise its colonial legacy with Taiwan into a story of shared democratic values, security concerns and opposition to an increasingly assertive Beijing. Japan’s unofficial diplomatic representatives in Taipei have, since the late 1990s, stressed the importance of the triangular security relationship between the United States, Japan, and Taiwan – a move which has time and time again been met with great public enthusiasm in Taiwan.
Japan has also provided open support for Taiwanese participation as an observer in the World Health Organisation and was a key driving force in the decision to include ‘Chinese Taipei’ at APEC.
In order to continue to challenge the interests of a rising China, Japan will have to win over its former colonial holdings. Taiwan provides a model for reframing colonial contempt into a more positive and enduring relationship. The negative historical burden which still weighs on the Koreas and the Philippines represents a major roadblock to a strong unified region. If a regional-led containment policy to oppose China is a major aspect of Tokyo’s grand strategy, policy makers will be looking to the Taiwan case to inform bilateral relations in the coming decades.
The Republic of Korea and Taiwan
The South Korea – Taiwan relationship is a rarely addressed, but fascinating case study in political parallels. The key security concerns in both Taipei and Seoul are their rogue neighbours which present alternative governments that claim the ancestral homeland as their own.
North Korea is to South Korea, as Taiwan is to China.
This parallel complicates the triangular relationship between South Korea, China and Taiwan – three sizable economic forces which all benefit from economic cooperation.
Despite potential economic benefits, China frequently employs economic sanctions to coerce its neighbours. But no one is more familiar with Chinese sanctions than Taiwan.
In 2000, upon the election of its first pro-independence president, Taiwan incurred significant diplomatic and economic costs from Beijing – as many in the international community expected.
What was more surprising however, was Beijing’s response to the March 2008 election. Following the success of candidate Ying-jeou Ma, Beijing endorsed the new President’s more neutral cross-strait stance, lifting numerous sanctions for the first time in decades. Beijing abandoned its policy of poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, permitted further multilateral autonomy and even looked the other way as Taiwan signed free-trade agreements with Singapore and New Zealand.
This behaviour demonstrated to international observers that China was no longer the spiteful, unwavering Cold War patron it was once considered. Chinese foreign policy had matured as it entered the 21st century – using economic and diplomatic coercion to both punish and reward behaviour in its sphere of influence. It is this maturity that South Korea needs to acknowledge as it shapes its own relationship with Beijing and Taipei.
Beijing’s decision to sanction Seoul earlier this year is less to do with broader relations and more so a response to specific policy issues. Beijing has signalled repetitively that it disapproves of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system installed in South Korea early last year. Heeding the lessons from the history of cross-strait sanctions, Seoul must think carefully about the risks of compromising Beijing’s strategic deterrent capabilities.
China’s sanctions must be understood as a redeemable act of economic coercion. Policy change has proven in the Taiwan case to motivate a rapid retraction of economic punishment.
Why bother with Taiwan?
When faced with the question – “why bother studying Taiwan?” – it is hard not to formulate an answer that comes across as patronising. Ultimately Taiwan is the junction of its region. It is has been occupied, bombed, sanctioned, unrecognised – but has always remained central. To understand East Asia’s major challenges, it always prudent to glance first at Taiwan and consider its potential as lens for viewing the region. After all, should push come to shove, and the superpowers of the regions begin to tussle – Taiwan will likely immerge as the seismic epicentre.