Editor’s note: Paul Varian visited Taiwan in November on behalf of Global Atlanta as a guest of the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is the second in a series of stories about the trip.
Standing beneath a windmill on the Taiwan side of the Straits of Taiwan, on a clear day you can just barely see China.
But for Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Republic of China is always painfully visible as “the giant next door,” as one official put it.
The foreign ministry recently sponsored a tour for reporters from 16 countries — four from the United States, including Global Atlanta — as part of its effort to expand international recognition of Taiwan and its global trade potential.
Though it’s a world leader in the production and export of computer components and technology, it now faces growing competition from China, which also is its main trading partner.
Tensions have grown in what’s known in international affairs circles as “cross-strait relations” since the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen of pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.
As president, the first woman to hold that office, she has emphasized Taiwan sovereignty and, as recently as Dec. 29, criticized China’s military buildup and increased aerial and naval drills near Taiwan.
“The major issue in Taiwan is unification or independence,” Hsu Szu-chien, president of the non-governmental Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, told our group.
But polls show a large majority of Taiwanese favor maintaining the status quo, and the president says she does not plan to formally declare independence — a perilous step that would enrage China.
Other government officials who briefed us during our week in Taiwan cited China’s aggressive military posture as a top concern and nervously watched the China visit of U.S. President Donald Trump, worried he might say or do something to heighten tensions. Mr. Trump, for instance, took a phone call from President Tsai after his own election, breaking with tradition and causing consternation in China. He then questioned whether the U.S. would honor the “one-China policy” upon which its posture toward the Taiwan-China split is based.
Fortunately from the Taiwanese perspective, his Beijing visit turned out to be uneventful.
“Taiwan is 100 percent focused on Beijing, but Taiwan is only one of many issues China is dealing with,” said Lin Cheng-yi, deputy minister of the Taiwanese government’s Mainland Affairs Council. “We are in keen competition. For us it’s survival. For them, it’s not. We want to make sure we maintain the status quo.”
But the status quo can get murky.
Taiwan still officially calls itself the Republic of China (ROC), the Nationalist insignia Chiang Kai-shek carried into exile after being ousted from his mainland stronghold by Mao Zedong‘s communists.
Nearly 70 years later, the tiny island crowded with 23 million people is a vibrant and prosperous democracy still trying to solidify its identity.
Is it the sovereign nation it aspires to be, with the formal diplomatic recognition of just 20 countries? Or is it the renegade province China has targeted for “peaceful reunification?”
The ROC lost its United Nations seat to the PRC in 1971 and the United States switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing eight years later but promised to help the island defend itself. (Arms sales continue to this day, perpetually riling the PRC.)
Since then, other countries have switched to Beijing, most recently Panama — under pressure from China, according to Taiwan — this past June.
“We have no guarantees we won’t lose diplomatic recognition of other countries,” Dr. Lin said. “We’re trying to hold on to the 20.”
He said China is trying to isolate Taiwan by seeking to “block every opportunity Taiwan has to reach out to the international community.”
Since Ms. Tsai’s election, China has been curtailing tourism to Taiwan, cutting a source of revenue that developed as Ma Ying-jeou, her Kuomintang predecessor, established direct air routes to the mainland.
But both sides are heavily invested in each other. Student exchanges are proliferating and inter-marriage is on the rise. Some argue that Taiwanese businessmen have been largely responsible for China’s manufacturing boom. Dr. Lin said 1 million Taiwanese are doing business there.
Conversely, he said, China may be learning “it’s cheaper to purchase Taiwan than to attack Taiwan.”
Before leaving on this trip, I learned that most of my friends knew very little about Taiwan.
Even its general location was a mystery to some — off the Pacific coast of China between Japan to the north and the Philippines to the south.
But the question of Taiwan’s identity can be more vexing at home than abroad.
“The younger generation is more attached to the Taiwan identity,” said Wang Wan-li, a minister for International Information Services. “They consider themselves Taiwanese.”
Their elders, he said, still “think of themselves as Chinese.”
Many young people leave, spurning Taiwan’s manufacturing sector to seek more lucrative careers abroad.
The government is trying to figure out how to keep more at home and attract skilled workers from abroad to bolster a shrinking labor force.
“Taiwan is in this very embarrassed situation,” said our tour guide at scenic Sun Moon Lake, a resort 150 miles from Taipei known for its pristine waters, bicycle paths, butterflies and bamboo rock gardens.
“We use the name Republic of China. That’s wrong; Taiwan is not China,” he said.”We are Taiwanese. We are not Chinese.”