by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: “Dai Wan Lang,” YouTube
This is the second of a two-part series concerning the relation of Taiwan, America, and Taiwanese independence in the realm of international relations. The first part can be read here.
Taiwan’s Precarious Independence
THE PARTICULARITIES, perhaps even uniqueness, of the aspiration towards Taiwanese independence have been spoken of before. To the extent that Taiwan exists in a de facto state of independence from China, Taiwan differs from other instances in which a people in an unacknowledged territory pursue the cause self-determination. Taiwanese independence, perhaps, would be phrased better as the attempt to preserve Taiwan’s independence rather than the attempt to achieve independence.
2004 Time Magazine cover
Indeed, there is to almost no extent that Taiwan is not a de facto independent polity from China. Taiwan has a separate government, separate economy, separate currency, a standing army, and other characteristics of fully independent nation-states. Even as in the past year, referendums in Scotland and Catalan, the conflict in Israel-Palestine, the Ukraine crisis, or the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, have drawn the attention of Taiwanese independence activists because they have been situations with parallels to Taiwan, in truth, the situation of Taiwan is very different from other cases because of Taiwan’s a priori status of de facto independence. What Taiwan lacks, like these other cases, is international acknowledgement as a sovereign territory by other nation-states. But apart from that fact, Taiwan otherwise possesses de facto nationhood in the other characteristics of nation-states.
Yet even as “Taiwanese independence” has historically been a divisive issue in Taiwan and continues to be so today, it is generally because Taiwanese are largely unaware of the fragile grounds upon which de facto independence of Taiwan rests and the precarious means by which Taiwan’s de facto independence was arrived at. So it remains that Taiwanese independence is an aspiration struggled for. Namely, what Taiwan struggles to free itself from is the fictitious constitution as a nation-state under the “Republic of China”, by which the KMT government sought to portray Taiwan as China. So many years later, we are seeing the blowback of KMT policies by which Taiwan now struggles to distinguish itself from China in an age of growing Chinese power. This may, in fact, be another unique characteristic of Taiwanese independence, that Taiwan’s de facto independence was achieved through Taiwan’s claim to be another nation-state altogether, and the independence of Taiwan was founded upon the claim that Taiwan was independent China.
But we might point to another unique characteristic of the struggle for Taiwanese independence which has gone unexamined—the intimate relation of Taiwanese independence with American power.
Between America and China?
IT MIGHT NOT be surprising that many Taiwanese independence activists themselves point to the fact that they discovered the history of Taiwan, which is obscured in Taiwan, while studying abroad in the United States. As described by Frantz Fanon and other theorists reflecting upon colonial experience, within movements for national liberation in non-western countries across the span of the late 19th and 20th century, the sociological composition of intellectual leaders often included individuals with foreign education, who took advantage of their foreign education to learn of the histories of their respective home countries which they were unable to learn in their native lands.
Taiwanese independence protestors outside the United Nations. Photo credit: New Taiwan, Ilha Formosa
What is, unique, however, is to what extent Taiwanese independence was predicated upon acknowledgement of Taiwan by the United States. To this day, many phrase Taiwan’s dilemma as being caught between the United States and China. This is true, so far as the United States has been the world’s sole superpower since the end of the Cold War, and with its rise, China represents the sole challenge to America’s global hegemony in the present. America had a large part to play in maintaining the KMT’s rule over Taiwan, in order to offer an alternative to the Chinese Communist Party’s rule over China as a rival claimant to legitimate rule of China. Following the establishment of diplomatic ties between America and China and UN acknowledgement of the People’s Republic of China as China rather than the Republic of China, America still had a role in maintaining Taiwanese power as a possible threat to China. This functioned as a general strategic vision to limit Chinese power in Asia which included American military hegemony over Japan and Korea—seeing as Japan has had no legal military since the end of World War II only until very recently, but the US has a number of military bases in Japan, and since the end of the Korean War, it is legislated that control of the South Korean military legally reverts to the US in wartime.
Though Taiwan was not included in the umbrella of American power in as direct a manner as Japan or Korea, to the extent that Taiwan’s military is heavily dependent upon American arms sales and American aid, Taiwan is still an American client state. Yet, of course, it is as the “Republic of China” as established by the KMT through which Taiwan comes under the protective mantle of American power.
It is thus ironic that Taiwanese independence in necessitating the acknowledgement of Taiwan by other nation-states has been heavily dependent upon acknowledgement of Taiwan by America. American foreign policy was what had led to Taiwan’s expulsion from the international community to begin with, as Taiwan’s loss of UN status came after and was as a result of the US establishing diplomatic relations with China and breaking off diplomatic relations with Taiwan. As such, it because of American policy that Taiwan became unacknowledged as a political polity by the world community. To the extent that Taiwan seeks re-admittance to the world community, it thus seeks to do so by winning acknowledgement from America once again—never mind that it was America that orchestrated Taiwan’s expulsion from the world community to begin with.
Although Taiwanese independence activists were among those who called attention to the bloody grounds on which KMT rule over Taiwan was established, as in the 228 Massacre, America also backed and helped to maintain KMT rule. Yet in the case of Taiwan’s loss of international recognition, this was also a means by which the KMT itself was at America’s mercy, and could also suffer at America’s behest. Taiwanese activists perhaps failed to call enough attention to America’s own culpability in backing KMT power when they campaigned for America to acknowledge Taiwan, although it is such that there arises a rather complicated political tensions behind the question of whether to affirm Taiwan through the trappings of the “Republic of China” when strategic, when necessary or whether to affirm Taiwan as Taiwan, an issue which has raised conflict over whether to pursue moderation or radicalism in asserting demands within the Taiwanese independence movement. It was, of course, a more moderate stance to affirm Taiwan as the “Republic of China,” but it was sometimes viewed as necessary to do so in awareness of the rest of the world’s lack of knowledge about the inner dynamics of Taiwanese history and in relation to Taiwan’s unacknowledged state in the world.
Chiang Kai-Shek and Richard Nixon, then Vice President, in 1956. Diplomatic relations between the Republic of China and America would later be broken under the Nixon presidential administration in 1972. Photo Credit: Allen, “On Safari”
However, so far as the demand of Taiwanese independence activists was to defend Taiwan’s de facto independence against Chinese incursion, this has at times led to undertakings by Taiwanese independence activists in the form lobbying initiatives aimed at negotiating American military defense of Taiwan. This may further entrench Taiwan within American power, never mind that the demand of Taiwanese independence is for self-determination, which means rule of one’s country by one’s own people. What does it mean when the demand for self-determination is made upon calling for the military aid of another country and entrenching one’s self in the power politics of that country in order to defend one’s own country?
A Dated Slogan?
IT MAY BE ironic to note that in the present, “Taiwanese independence” has generally faded from the landscape of pro-Taiwan organizations in the US. The landscape seems dominated by a plethora of largely Taiwanese-American organizations whose knowledge of Taiwanese history may not always understand the historical dimensions of the call for Taiwanese independence in relation to KMT power and, more generally, whose knowledge of the history of the Cold War is insufficient to be aware of the nuances of East Asian geopolitics and the structural dynamics of the American security establishment which continue in the present. Such organizations are aware of Taiwan’s longstanding de facto independence and so can tend towards shelving the call for “Taiwanese independence” as outdated. However, what has also faded is critical awareness of continued KMT power within Taiwan and critical awareness of the means by which the US has used Taiwan as a means to further its foreign policy agenda in East Asia, but also throws it under the bus when needed.
There are two immediate ramifications to this state of affairs. Firstly, not enough attention is called to Taiwan’s internal lack of democracy. This is evident in the response of such organizations to the Sunflower Movement, to focus on the element of Taiwan resisting Chinese domination, rather than the elements of the KMT’s lack of democracy which arguably was what the movement became more focused upon as it progressed. Second, efforts at calling for American aid are geared wholly towards playing up the longstanding relations between Taiwan and America, rather than America’s responsibility and culpability in much of the darkest periods of Taiwanese history.
In regards to the first point, it may be true that Taiwan’s internal lack of democracy is a problem that can only be achieved by the Taiwanese people standing up and demanding democracy. In regards to the second point, it is lack of awareness about not only Taiwanese, but world history, which leads to lobbying organizations in the US calling for US-Taiwanese alliance and American arms sales to Taiwan, which has actually led to blindness of the blowback that Taiwan may potentially face from China as a result of a military alliance with the US. From a Left political perspective, one can also criticize the willingness of such groups to abet political conservatism where historically the Republican Party has been more supportive of Taiwan than the Democrats, given the anti-Communist animus of the Republicans. But irrespective of political orientation, one can point to a blind spot and lack of sufficiently critical perspectives regarding the realities of geopolitical power in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific.
However, while the demand for Taiwanese independence once called for the realization of a specific political mandate, the current call to defend the current state of Taiwan’s de facto independence rather its realization marks further retreat. And even as new awareness of Taiwanese identity has been foregrounded by the Sunflower Movement and subsequent developments, it remains that Taiwanese independence was not taken up as a mantle by post-Sunflower activists because Taiwanese independence remains too controversial, the majority of Taiwanese remaining perfectly happy with Taiwan’s current state of de facto but lack of pro forma independence, willing to mobilize in defense of this state, but still too unwilling to rock the boat.
What Would Self-Determination Mean?
IN REFERENCE TO the question of Taiwan’s position in the world relative to seemingly similar situations as present-day Scotland, Catalan, Israel-Palestine, the Ukraine crisis, or Hong Kong, perhaps Taiwan would be best served by looking not to other instances of the “self-determination question”, in which a people seeks to be acknowledged as a nation-state by the world community, but to instances in which an acknowledged political polity is divided up by western powers in order to forestall peace, with little consideration whatsoever to the people living on that land would think. Examples would be the ceding of Palestine to Israeli settlement following World War II, but also the 1939 partition of Poland following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that sought to counteract the rising tide of Nazi Germany.
Taiwanese Independence Referendum Alliance protestors on April 10th, the day of the student withdrawal from the Legislative Yuan during the Sunflower Movement. Photo credit: Brian Hioe
Of course, it may not be surprising that Taiwanese independence activists look less to the past history of close to one hundred years ago than to present-day independence and national liberation movements, although at times various observers of international affairs have pointed to how present-day East Asia is reminiscent of conditions prior to World War I. However, what such past history illustrates is the means by which a nation-state, even an established one as Poland, can be thrown to the wolves if the dominant Great Powers that maintain world order decide that it is necessary for maintaining peace to do so. We shall see if this happens in relation to the rise of China. But so far as, for example, Poland was a firmly established nation-state with international recognition in 1939, Taiwan’s lack of international recognition in the present would suggest that it is quite possible for Taiwan to be consigned to Chinese conquest by present day powers should it be deemed necessary to maintain peace.
Why is it, then, that Taiwan’s current status should be defended by appealing to the US, the very power which might cede Taiwan to Chinese conquest, given its hegemonic relation of power towards Taiwan, and the looming specter of increasing tensions between the US and China? In part, this not only signifies a failure of imagination, but a lack of awareness of history. So, then, what would it mean for Taiwan to take up its fate in its own hands? For one, that would mean for Taiwan to rely on itself in order to ward off the threat of China, rather than depending on the United States and, where military that seems impossible, it has to be done through Taiwanese people taking up the question of cross-strait relations in their own hands rather than forever appealing to the United States to come to its defense. Demands must be made of the United States rather than forever prostrating one’s self before the US in the hopes that the US will be the agent of Taiwan’s salvation.
There seems no easy way out, by which American military power would somehow be convinced by moral suasion to withdraw from East Asia and letting Taiwanese decide their own fate. Moreover, the withdrawal of American military power from East Asia would likely just allow Chinese military power to fill the vacuum left behind; thus both American and Chinese militarism must be resisted in the Asia-Pacific. But from the history of the Taiwanese independence movement to the present, too much has depended upon relying on the US. While means for Taiwan to decide its own fate remain unclear, how to do so is the pressing question of which we must venture explorations.