The Duck of Minerva

Impressions from Taiwan (1): Background

26 June 2012

Taipei 101
Photo Credit: Dan Nexon
I spent 2-9 June in Taiwan on a trip sponsored by the government of the Republic of China. Taipei funds these trips, and others like them, as part of an effort to influence academics and opinion-leaders; while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs(MOFA) would certainly be pleased if its outreach resulted in more voices advocating on behalf of ROC interests, it would, I think, be satisfied if we simply paid more attention to Taiwan.
As one of the China experts on the trip explained to me, Taipei has seen a significant loss of influence in the United States. Many of its core supporters are no longer in congress. US-based China experts used to receive their language and cultural training in Taiwan, but now that the mainland is open to westerners that’s no longer the case. Despite the fact that the ROC is one of the America’s largest trading partners — our tenth-largest exporter and fifteenth-largest market for US goods — most of Washington’s attention is of focused on the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) without particular regard for the ROC. Meanwhile, you may or may not know that US-ROC open-trade processes have frozen up over Taipei’s ban on theimport of US beef.
I used the trip as an excuse to read up on the history of the island, which is quite complicated. The wikipedia entry covers most of the basics, but here are a few key points.
  • Taiwan has experienced many waves of settlement, including by “indigenous” Austronesians, Hakka Chinese, and Han Chinese. 
  • The indigenous tribes were headhunters, and until the period of Japanese rule they remained pretty much in control of the eastern part of the island. 
  • The Dutch established two settlements on Taiwan to use as bases for trade with Ming China. 
  • They were defeated and forced out — although genetic traces remain — by “Koxinga” (Zheng Chenggong), the son of the leader of pirate confederation who had become an admiral to the Ming dynasty. 
  • After the Manchu conquest, Koxinga fought for Ming restoration; Taiwan became his redoubt and home to the Ming claimants to the throne. 
  • The island’s leadership eventually accepted Qing rule.
  • The 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War concluded with a treaty that transferred Taiwan to the Japanese Empire. A group of islanders reacted by declaring the existence of a “Democratic State of Taiwan” (often called the “Republic of Taiwan), which did not last long at all, but has historical resonance for advocates of Taiwanese independence. 
  • Japanese rule was harsh — and practically genocidal toward some Austronesian inhabitants — but also did much to develop Taiwan’s economy, infrastructure, and the education of its people. The efficiency and professionalism of Japanese colonial administration compared favorably to the early years of KMT rule, which was corrupt, inefficient, and brutal toward the Taiwan-born population. Many Taiwanese therefore view the Japanese in a much more positive light than do Koreans and mainland Chinese.
  • In the 1980s the KMT began the process of democratizing the country. In 1988 Lee Teng-Hui became the first ethnically Taiwanese President. In the 2000 elections a two-way split in the KMT led to the election of the opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has strong pro-independence leanings (since moderated). It rejects the KMT’s position that the “end game” is necessarily reunification between the mainland and Taiwan. DPP rule was marred by inexperience — most of its ranking members were opposition activists during KMT authoritarian rule — and the fact that the government bureaucracy is firmly controlled by, and oriented toward, the KMT. The DPP was re-elected in a surprise victory after an assassination attempt on the President in 2004. In 2008 the KMT regained power, and President MA was re-elected in 2012. His popularity has subsequently tanked (for some comparative perspective on Asian democratization, see Slater and Wong).
  • The ROC’s democracy is vibrant to the point of raucousness, but the DPP insists — not without cause — that the process is incomplete. The KMT made a lot of money during the period of one-party rule, and its economic interests give it a major monetary advantage. The pro-KMT biases in the civil service — which were very much in evidence during our meetings — also present challenges to the DPP.
  • Mainland China is much more comfortable with the KMT than the DPP, in large part because of KMT opposition to independence. Despite much sabre-rattling during the DPP period — and, in fact, during Lee Teng-Hui’s last term — the last 10+ years have seen growing economic and travel ties between Taiwan and the mainland. Mainland tourists now flood, for example, the Royal Palace Museum. The noise level there is so high that our guide used personal radios to communicate with us. Many important industrial operations in China, including the famous Foxconn, are owned by Taiwanese businessmen. 

ROC officials spent a fair amount of time attempting to explain its legal status, which can be rather confusing. The PRC views it as a renegade province. Beijing has threatened to invade if the island “secedes” to become the Republic of Taiwan.

Under the ROC constitution, Taiwan is also a province of China. The KMT views the ROC as the legitimate government of all of China. As supporters explained to us, the ROC predates the PRC and the latter is simply in unlawful rebellion against the rightful government of China. As I noted above, the DPP is more pro-independence, but has moderated to an official position of keeping the status of Taiwan “open” while the KMT is pledged to reunification once mainland China democratizes. They hope, as the only example of a functioning democracy in “greater China,” to demonstrate the viability and desirability of democratization on the mainland.

In practice, the ROC has gone from being widely recognized as the legitimate government of China to having only a handful of countries support its claim. The turning point occurred in 1972, when the US pivoted to support Beijing as part of its anti-Soviet strategy. Kissinger was apparently willing to abandon Taiwan, but congressional and public support for the island averted such an outcome — enshrined by the passage of the US-Taiwan relations act of 1979 and Ronald Reagan’s “six assurances” (for details on the “one China policy,” see this CRS report). Whether Washington has made good on its commitments is a matter of some debate: arguably, the US refusal to upgrade the ROC’s air-defense capabilities — the ROC currently flies F-16 A/Bs and is seeking F-16 C/Ds — violates its legal obligations. But the deteriorating strategic position of the ROC is the subject of my next post.