by Brian Hioe

English /// 中文
Photo Credit: Dutch colonial map

Taiwan Thought of as Small Relative to China: Scale Making in the Perception of Taiwan as a Small Country

IT IS INTERESTING to note that however counterintuitive it is to say, by the numbers, Taiwan is by no means a small country. For example, out of the world’s 200 or so countries, Taiwan has the 54th largest population and the 21st largest GDP in 2015. That, of course, means that the majority of countries in the world are less populated and have smaller economies than Taiwan. But why is Taiwan thought of as a small country? A useful conceptual tool here may be anthropologist Anna Tsing’s concept of “scale making”. What is thought to be large or small quite often reflects globalization, rather than their actual relative relation of size.

Taiwan, for example, has a larger population than Australia. But if Taiwan is thought of as a small country and Australia has a smaller population, who would ever say that Australia is a small country? Australia is a geographically large country, so it is thought of as a large country. This is regardless of that its population is smaller or that it has a similarly-sized economy to Taiwan, with the 19th largest GDP in the world in 2015. What overshadows is that Australia is the 6th largest country in the world by geographic area, whereas Taiwan is the 139th largest.

Australia is also aided in this by that it is a western country, and one thought of as having a unique cultural identity distinguished from other Anglophone countries with majority Caucasian populations such as the United States or the UK. But Taiwan—thought of at all times only in relation to its larger neighbor of China in the international world if distinguishable from it at all— becomes thought of as small when it is not, because it is at all times dwarfed by China and only ever thought of in the same frame as China.

PhotoCreditWikiCommons1855 map of Taiwan, China, Korea, and Japan. Photo credit: WikiCommons

China, of course, is the world’s most populated country and the country with the largest GDP in 2015. With a population of 1.3 billion to Taiwan’s 23 million, China has a population approximately fifty-six times larger than that of Taiwan. With a GDP in 2015 of $19.51 trillion USD to Taiwan’s $1.114 trillion, China had a GDP in 2015 which is 17.5 times larger than that of Taiwan. But does that mean Taiwan’s existence is hardly substantial in relation to China, that it would simply melt away in the face of China? Hardly.

If we consider the global implications of the European debt crisis, caused by anxieties of a possible Greek exit from the EU, we may note that Greece has a population of 10.7 million people, making it the 83rd most populated country in the world, and had a GDP in 2015 of $281.6 billion USD, making it the country with the 56th largest GDP in the world. If a Greek economic crisis could affect the global economy writ large, we may note that Taiwan has a larger population and a larger GDP.

Actually, in this light, when one entertains fantasies of China annexing Taiwan by military force, one imagines that this would cause significant global economic disruption—not even factoring in the disruption that the military invasion would cause in China’s own economy. The geopolitical role of Taiwan as a crucial chain in the interlinked East Asian economy, as part of the East Asian “Flying geese formation,” would lead to a ripple effect that would affect other regional economies in the event of the Taiwanese economy suffering disruption through Chinese invasion, and this would be of such scale as to cause significant disruption to the global economy. Nevertheless, it becomes a lacunae in economic or geopolitical thinking about Taiwan that Taiwan is thought of as insignificant simply because it is dwarfed by China, in which it is strangely assumed that a potential Taiwanese annexation would have no real impact on the rest of the world because Taiwan would just dissolve into the vastness of China.

Thinking Outside of False Perceptions of Scale

IT IS TRUE that a single state, province, or even city in the United States or China may be larger than Taiwan by population or geographic size.  But in truth, countries such as China or the United States are massive exceptions to the rule relative to the world’s two hundred or so countries, rather than the standard. If Taiwan is dwarfed by China or the United States, that does not actually mean it is a small country, so much as it means that China and the United States are massive countries. We may observe this in considering the vast gap between in population, geographic area, and size of economy between large countries which are superpowers as China, the United States, and what are thought of as “medium-sized” countries such as, say, Germany and France, which are in themselves still gigantic relative to much of the world.

While it is of course true China is a massive nation, in relation to Taiwan, we may note how the Chinese government deploys the claim of its largeness in order to justify foreign policy or domestic policy. It is suggested, for example, that because Taiwan is small, it belongs to China and that whatever the views of Taiwanese are, because the population of Taiwan is so much smaller than China’s, their minority views can be disregarded.

Along such lines, China also justifies repression of ethnic minorities in outer Chinese regions with the claim that such measures are necessary to maintain order in a country as large as China, in restricting the ability of ethnic minorities to travel. Never mind, for example, that the United States actually has a larger geographic territory than China—but whatever racial problems in the US are, we have not yet reached the point in the United States at which ethnic minorities are not allowed to move out of confined bantustans without restrictions.

PhotoCreditJapaneseMapJapanese map of Taiwan from the Meiji period

And in asserting large spatial size as justifying its public security measures, China also adds the temporal dimension of scale to justify territorial claims by maintaining that because Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, or wherever were part of China from some five thousand years time immemorial, they unambiguously belong to China in the present. Here, posing a large temporal scale of five thousand years of history is used to make claims about the present.

But this is the effect of “scale-making” in globalization, by which we see the construction of “scale” reflects geopolitical and economic realities—as well as potentially serves as a tool for the construction of false perceptions of reality in the services of empire. Yet in thinking through the ideologically-weighted perceptions that globalized scale-making leaves us with and posing comparisons which let us think outside of the perceptions that we have been vested with by ideology, we can perhaps restore a true sense of scale to our considerations.