Taiwan and US politics

Taiwan and US politics

It was interesting watching the foreign support for the Hong Kong riots three years ago. The riots on the surface were in protest at a new extradition bill that the government was trying to pass, but in practice also speak to the lack of opportunities and progress felt by so many young people there who struggle to buy property and provide the basics needed to provide for a good life for their families. As I walked past railings being trashed, bank and shop windows being smashed in, shopping malls being broken to bits and set on fire, roads being blocked and arson attempts at subway stations, I got caught in tear gas on my way home. Not very pleasant. I read in the US and European media's continual support for the "protestors" (not rioters) including Ted Cruz's visit to Hong Kong: A visit where he was proud to state support for the rioters but then, upon return, blocked a bill giving Hong Kong dissidents refugee status. Honestly, what was happening in HK was none of the USA's business. A little later, the typically self-serving republicans got a taste of their own medicine with the raid on the capital in Washington under Donald Trump.

More recently we've seen the US and China both meddling more with Taiwan. Nancy Pelosi's visit was expected to trigger instability and it delivered; the whole trip very effectively stirred up mainland China, and rather than president Xi being a big boy and realising that the US is just tickling nerves, he chose to behave like a little man and send out lots of ships to blow up the ocean and kill fish to show his manliness. Pretty pathetic and completely unnecessary behaviour on both sides.

How did we get here? Is Taiwan part of China, or is it an independent country? There isn't a clear answer. Historically, Taiwan had its own indigenous population but Chinese people have been settling there since the 13th Century. After being run briefly by the Dutch, Taiwan became part of China for about 250 years under the Qing dynasty. It was then ceded to Japan in 1895, and back to China under the Kuomintang party in 1945. Four years later, the Kuomintang lost control of China and fled to Taiwan while the mainland became ruled by the Communist Party. The Kuomintang ruled Taiwan without democracy until reform started in the 1980s, leading to the first directly elected president in 1996.

So in the last roughly 100 years — the timeframe that matters to currently living people — Taiwan has been occupied by Japan for longer than it's been united with China. If we extend history to 1,000 years, Taiwan has been independent longer than it's been united with China. After independence, China is the longest standing association.

Most of the population of Taiwan are ethnically Chinese but the original, indigenous aboriginal population (about 2.5% of today's total) aren't. Despite its association with China, Taiwan has never been ruled by the Communist Party and most people living there would, understandably, prefer not to be ruled by it. The mainland wishes to re-unite the two countries under the "One Country, Two Systems" model which has turned out to be somewhat of a failure in next-door Hong Kong. Had the model worked really well, perhaps more Taiwanese would have supported this model but because of its failure next door nobody really has an appetite.

This means that, in practice, Taiwan's situation has been ambiguous. Ambiguous didn't mean unstable; the economy has performed well, people are happy, and the situation with the mainland has continually improved economically speaking until the current Taiwan president Tsai failed to acknowledge some of the baseline of the ambiguous consensus (most importantly that both sides agree there's something called "one China" that nobody knows what it is). After a long time of the situation becoming less tense, as a direct result it's become more tense. Nancy Pelosi's trip to Taiwan has massively increased tensions - so why would this be a good idea, given that clearly the best thing for everyone concerned is probably to acknowledge the ambiguous principle and just leave everyone happy and alone?

Why would the USA have then deliberately stirred the pot? My own somewhat cynical feeling is that the US political system actually needs an enemy in order to govern and get things done. Historically the US was founded as an ideological construct for a colonial population with fear and paranoia, with revolutionaries facing enemies internal and external. It's also a country that's founded its global identity on the "export of democracy and freedom" — such an identity needs to have an enemy in need of being exported to. And finally, to fund the military/industrial complex and fuel innovation (just look at the amazing stuff that came out of world war 2, from jet engines and radar to microwave ovens and computers) there has to be an external enemy to appease the public to justify the continual spend.

The increasingly angry China unites the Republicans and Democrats and an unstable Taiwan will will further justify investing in US industry. With China as an enemy, the US was able to pass the CHIPS and Science Act into law two days ago: A $250bn bill, a chunk of which encourages domestic chip-making in a particularly crafty way — any chip maker that takes subsidies isn't able to invest in making any modern chips in China. A directly combative trade action that's the beneficiary of stirring the pot in Taiwan. Other similar bills are set to follow. The passing of the bill is probably a good thing given aspects of US domestic innovation such as AI development, quantum communications and cellular standards are either getting caught up by China or overtaken. Stirring the pot in Taiwan definitely greased this one through.

The nicest thing that could happen here is if China grows up and decides to start playing nice and mature. I state this because there's no way the US will stop meddling for the former reasons. The outcome of the situation with Taiwan can be accepted — that the people there don't want to be part of a communist country. A union of nations united by Chinese identity or economic cooperation could be built, including, of course, China, Taiwan, and giving freedoms back to Hong Kong and Macau, with the members collaborating in a similar way to those in the European Union allowing free trade and cooperation on a large number of legal issues where systems are compatible. Such an alliance could grow to include other regional countries such as Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia — just as the EU grew to include former soviet countries — as they see the benefits. This would be a way of constructively, rather than destructively and assertively, exporting the concept of One China, enabling a reunification in the economic terms that's most impactful to people's lives. However, doing so requires more maturity than we are seeing these days.