The battle over boarding-pass nomenclature became an instructive episode in contemporary cross-Strait relations once the United States joined in. As part of its long-standing strategy to marginalize Taiwan internationally, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) often directs international corporations to refer to Taiwan as a Chinese territory. This fits the “one-China principle” that is Beijing’s mandate. It also omits the fact, uncomfortable for the Communist Party of China, that a prosperous Chinese democracy thrives on that fractious island. Nonetheless, Western companies — Marriott, Gap — tend to roll over once the command is given and apologize for any language that treats Taiwan as what it functionally is: a free nation.
But on May 5, the White House rebuked the practice when President Trump issued a statement accusing the PRC of resorting to “Orwellian nonsense.” Orwellian nonsense indeed: Taiwan, officially the Republic of China (ROC), is a sovereign democracy with clearly defined borders, its own military, and a burgeoning national identity. Yet despite this, and despite the Trump administration’s statement, several airlines have heeded China’s demand — making the episode all the more illuminating.
The statement was a shot in the arm for the tiny island. Over lunch held to welcome a group of foreign journalists (of which National Review was a part), a Taiwanese foreign-affairs official effusively praised the statement. But it was bookended by a series of setbacks: On May 1, the Dominican Republic severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established them with the PRC; on May 7, Taiwan was officially excluded from the World Health Assembly, one of the few international conferences to which it had recently been invited. On May 24, Taiwan lost another diplomatic ally in Burkina Faso. The PRC policy of diplomatic quarantine is increasingly successful.
Decades ago, Taiwan benefited from diplomatic contacts with anti-Communist nations that refused to engage with the PRC and openly chose sides during the Cold War. That was once the United States’ position, but realpolitik and the desire to partner with a fellow opponent of the USSR led Richard Nixon to travel to China in 1972 and Jimmy Carter to transfer recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.
Ever since, American policy has rested on two seemingly incompatible planks: 1) There is one China, and its capital is in Beijing; 2) as a democratic and open society whose prosperity, safety, and geographic location serve American interests, Taiwan is entitled to military protection from the United States. Somewhere in the space between these two positions lies our “one-China policy,” distinct from the one-China principle in that the U.S. is unwilling to declare Taiwan a PRC territory and stresses its abiding interest in finding a peaceful resolution to the dispute in the Strait. This has held a delicate situation in balance for decades. Lately, however, Beijing’s growing confidence in its hard power and Taiwan’s growing confidence in its own independence have led to more-explicit demands for clarity on the question.
Despite the implication in the “ROC” moniker that the legitimate government of all China is temporarily sheltered on the island of Taiwan, the struggle over who rules the mainland is no longer contested. Instead, what is now contested is the palpably false notion that Taiwan has no claim to nationhood. For years, Taipei’s government was a one-party operation ruled by Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang party (KMT). (Chiang had fled from the mainland, protected by American naval cover, when his KMT lost the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong in 1949.) This gave Americans wanting better relations with the mainland rhetorical ammunition to charge that Taiwan was no more democratic than the PRC. But the democratic wave reached Taiwan’s shores in 1986, when the KMT recognized the Democratic Progressive party (DPP) as its opposition.
The island’s political culture has adopted democracy with exuberance. Here, elections are regularly, bitterly, and openly contested. The KMT, which once kept offices nominally representing each mainland province, no longer stresses the lost dream of unification. Today, it preaches amicable relations with China, its supporters forming the anti-independence Blue coalition. Supporters of the DPP form the pro-independence — or at least independence-curious — Green coalition. The DPP rejects the 1992 Consensus, under which the two countries agree that there is “one China” but, like modern literary critics, form their own interpretations of what that means.
President Tsai Ing-wen was elected in 2016, giving the DPP control of both the presidency and the legislature for the first time. Younger Taiwanese constitute the bulk of the emerging DPP majority, and have no nostalgia for either the mainland or the old Chiang regime. Research conducted by National Chengchi University confirms two salient trends: Support for unification has been falling for decades, and a growing number of citizens consider themselves to be exclusively Taiwanese.
“As far as the DPP is concerned,” Mainland-Affairs Deputy Minister Chang Tien-chin explained, “Taiwan is already independent.” On the other side, a KMT politician recently told the Financial Times: “Of course we are against Taiwan’s independence, but we don’t think right now is the time to talk about reunification.” Though there are no plans to enshrine independence in the constitution, which contrasts the “free area of the Republic of China” with the “mainland area,” the Overton window is shifting.
Chinese settlers, hailing from different regions of the mainland, began relocating in the 17th century, pushing aside the aboriginal Formosans, who today represent 2 percent of the population. But as Perry Anderson wrote in the London Review of Books, Taiwanese national identity does not reduce to “cultural claims of difference.” “The principal definition of national identity,” wrote Anderson, “lies instead in the contrast between democracy on the island and dictatorship on the mainland.”
That bodes well for the country’s democratic health. Sure enough, democratic politics flourish here. Participation is relatively high in national elections, with issues such as pension funding and LGBT rights attracting robust civic debate. The government is experimenting with ways to crowd-source public opinion on issues before legislation reaches the floor, part of its innovative open-government initiative. And internationally, says the vice president of the nonprofit Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, Taiwan aims to be the “hub of democracy in East Asia.”
Of course, the existence of a free China is unacceptable to the PRC. Communist Party propaganda maintains that the values of Chinese people simply are at odds with democracy. Because Taiwan represents a glaring counterexample to that claim, China is bent on making life as hard as possible for the island.
When Taiwanese elections were relatively new, China tried to disrupt politics with military might. In 1996, it fired ballistic missiles toward the island to intimidate voters into voting against the DPP candidate, sparking a crisis that ended only when the U.S. Navy sent aircraft carriers in Taiwan’s direction. That year, the KMT candidate won in a landslide. But four years later, Chen Shui-bian became the first DPP president.
Luckily for the PRC, however, Taiwan’s economy relies heavily on access to the huge mainland market. Taiwanese companies export tens of billions of dollars’ worth of goods to China, Taiwanese manufacturers use Chinese natural resources, and a large, though falling, percentage of foreign direct investment from Taiwan goes across the Strait.
As Anderson points out, this entanglement complicates the struggle for independence. Other “settler nations,” such as Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Australia, were able to secure nationhood as they became independent from their faraway imperial rulers. Taiwan, on the other hand, depends on China for prosperity — and is a mere stone’s throw away.
This gives China plenty of leverage, which, naturally, it exploits. “Like the U.S.,” Deputy Minister of Development Chiou Jiunn-rong ruefully explains, “Taiwan has been hurt by Chinese economic policies” such as joint-venture requirements and the theft of intellectual property. China also uses its economic leverage over other countries to hurt Taiwan. Take the “one belt, one road” initiative, a neo-colonial enterprise in which China builds infrastructure for developing countries across Eurasia in exchange for assumed future payoffs — and for those countries’ ruling out any relations with Taiwan. As it turns nations such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan into satellite states, China manages to enrich itself while shortening the list of potential Taiwanese allies.
Taiwan’s population is aging; its economy, one of the major success stories of the late 20th century, has stagnated in recent years; and a “brain drain,” whereby skilled Taiwanese and successful local businesses depart for the mainland, is under way. An estimated 1 million Taiwanese live across the Strait.
But the country has intelligent leaders who are aware of these challenges. One of Tsai’s priorities is an economic pivot to southeast Asia designed to unshackle Taiwan’s economy from the mainland. Taiwan has a history of making itself indispensable in global markets by finding, and dominating, a niche: Hence it is the world’s second-leading producer of integrated-circuit designs, an essential part of the supply chain for consumer electronics. Now, the minister of science and technology is orchestrating a shift in policy to emphasize software and artificial intelligence, doling out grant money to professors and offering financial incentives to local companies. This might manage to keep the economy afloat.
In terms of hard power, however, Taiwan can’t go it alone. The mainland has been testing the limits of the free world’s commitment to the island. China’s increasingly bellicose stance in the South China Sea is accompanied by a buildup in amphibious capability, and Chinese fighters have been flying ever closer to Taiwanese airspace in recent months. Mainland-affairs officials argue that China won’t risk a potentially catastrophic military conflict with the United States just to reclaim sovereignty over Taiwan, but it’s hard to think they aren’t unnerved.
Enter the U.S. Taiwanese officials were encouraged by Trump’s phone call to President Tsai at the beginning of his presidency and heartened by his May 5 statement reproving the PRC’s airline shenanigans. For its part, Congress has passed the Taiwan Travel Act, opening the door to high-level contact between American and Taiwanese officials. Rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (to which Taiwan is not a party) would counteract China’s ambition of regional hegemony and be another helpful step.
Taiwan certainly would welcome a concerted effort to upgrade relations. So should Americans. Trump’s aim is to win the contest with mainland China for regional supremacy; fostering closer ties with Taiwan would further that goal. Beijing uses the reductionist bromide of the one-China principle to insist that Taiwan is the property of the PRC. It follows that if the People’s Liberation Army decided to launch itself across the Strait and bring Taiwan to heel, that would be an internal Chinese affair. But any one-China policy worth keeping should reject that obviously false predicate. Even if the U.S. doesn’t recognize it explicitly, we should support the sovereignty of Taiwan for strategic and moral reasons alike. Some presidents have kept the island at arm’s length to preserve a working relationship with the Communist mainland. Trump would be well advised to take a different tack. His statement criticizing Beijing is a promising sign — but the issue extends beyond the boarding pass.