Used in the past as a pawn in the plans of larger powers, the international community should now treat Taiwan as the economic and cultural force that it is, an expert on the island said in Atlanta.

Shelley Rigger, a political science professor at Davidson College and the author of “Why Taiwan Matters”, visited Morehouse College April 10 to make her case for Taiwan’s importance as a nation all its own.

“All human communities should be considered ends in themselves, not just a means to others’ ends,” she said.

That point riles the communist People’s Republic of China, which considers Taiwan a rogue province. Taiwan, or the Republic of China, calls itself Asia‘s oldest democracy and finds its origins in a republic founded on the mainland in 1911.

Since the 1970s the U.S. has taken a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” acknowledging that both sides consider themselves to be the one true China but leaving them to work it out peacefully, Dr. Rigger said.

How they’ll reconcile this intractable difference has been a subject of intense speculation for the six decades since they split. 

Dr. Rigger said most Taiwanese are content with the status quo as represented in the slogan of the ruling Kuomintang, or KMT: “No unification, no independence, no armed conflict.”

She likened the arrangement to a pact between estranged spouses: “We don’t want to move in together, but we don’t want to finalize the divorce either.”

Taiwan and China have grown closer than ever over the past few years, tightening trade links and loosening travel restrictions by allowing nonstop flights, a development that would’ve been hard to see coming five years ago.

Despite appearances of amity, Dr. Rigger said the U.S. should continue helping preserve the status quo, since forced unification would harm global security as well as both Taiwan and China. The latter has said it would use force to reunite the two if necessary.

Taiwan has an important economy that initially attracted low-cost manufacturing but has steadily moved up the value chain, growing with surprising equanimity, she said.

“All the stuff that comes from China now came from Taiwan in the 1960s and ’70s…” she said.

Taiwanese companies like Foxconn and Asus make high-tech products like iPhones and laptops, often using cheap labor in mainland Chinese factories to assemble them.

Taiwan is also a model for democratic transition for developing countries and provides an important bellwether for how mainland China is carrying itself in the international community, Dr. Rigger said.

“It’s a kind of canary in the coal mine, a kind of litmus test of how a rising China will be with the world,” she said.

Contrary to assertions that Taiwan has always been Chinese, Dr. Rigger called Taiwan a “sedimentary rock” with layers of cultures.

Civilization started with aboriginal people preceding Chinese settlers who came in the 1500s, followed by Japanese colonists in the 1900s and another influx of Chinese who came when the KMT lost its battle against the communists and retreated to the island as its last stronghold.

Dr. Rigger spoke to a gathering of professors and students, some of whom are studying in the Morehouse Chinese language program, which started about four years ago.

Anna Kao, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Atlanta, attended the event.

Click here to learn more about Dr. Rigger.

Visit for more information about the Taiwan government office in Atlanta. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...