Lucas Blasco is a third year International Relations student from Spain, who is currently in an exchange year at the University of Hong Kong. During the past months, he has developed a very strong interest in the East Asia region, namely its economic development and the role of China in the XXIst century international order.
Liberal democracy is facing existential challenges across the world: the democratic regression within Europe and the United States of America, the invasion of sovereign countries by an autocracy, or the rise of undemocratic China, all threaten the values under which our liberal democracies are founded on. We have been reminded of this reality in February this year, but we must not turn a blind eye to the continuation of this threat to liberal democracy in the following years. The future of democratic Taiwan is the future of liberal democracy everywhere.
Before diving into the importance of Taiwan’s future, we must look at the past and present of the territory. Taiwan has experienced a tumultuous recent history: Taiwan’s democratic transition dates back only to the 1980s / 1990s, meaning it is a relatively new democracy. Before this, the island lived through a period of authoritarian rule at the hands of the Kuomintang, commonly known as the KMT. After the political and military group fled mainland China at the end of the Chinese civil war, it confirmed the Chinese Communist Party as the ruling group of China. During the Chinese civil war and after the CCP gaining power in the mainland and the KMT fleeing to Taiwan, both camps have, until this date, considered themselves as the single legitimate rulers of “one China”. This question of legitimacy is considered to be the main driver in cross-strait relations, and the pretext that the CCP is expected to use to invade or, as the Chinese Communist Party says, reunify Taiwan with the mainland.
When analysing cross-strait relations, we tend to only look at what happened after the Chinese civil war, but this only tells one part of the story, where one of the sides fighting in the Chinese civil war fled to Taiwan and administered the territory. Nevertheless, the years before are often under-discussed, but they paint a very important picture in terms of Taiwanese governance. To do so, we must go back to the XVII century. In 1624, the Dutch East India Company started its colonisation of Taiwan, which at the time was mostly inhabited by Taiwanese locals and some Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the island. At this point, the little contact between mainland China and Taiwan was the moderate immigration from the mainland to the island, encouraged by the Dutch rule to solve the shortage of labour in the colony. Interestingly, these Chinese labourers were only able to stay in Taiwan for 3 years, as Chinese law only allowed them to reside abroad for this amount of time, essentially demonstrating that Taiwan was very much not considered part of the Ming dynasty’s territory. In this sense, as Jack Willis (1999) points out, during this period of time and before, Taiwan “was on the outer edge of Chinese consciousness and activity”.
The first time in history when Taiwan fell under Chinese rule was during the tumultuous years of transition between Ming and Qing dynastic rule in China, where Zheng Cheng-gong took over his father and unsuccessfully tried to fight against the new Qing dynasty by recovering former Ming territory, and finally fleeing to Taiwan and driving the Dutch away (Lee, 2014). Again, Taiwan was not ruled by the same administration that ruled China, until Qing rule was established in Taiwan at the expense of Zheng rulers, which would remain until 1895. This period, despite its continuity, was not necessarily peaceful, as domestic rebellions and uprisings occurred throughout the year against Qing rule and against Chinese Han immigrants in Taiwan (Lee, 2014). Qing rule ended in 1895 as a result of China’s loss in the Sino-Japanese War, where the defeated Qing dynasty ceded Taiwan to Japan as a colony until Japan’s WWII surrender, where it ceded Taiwan to the now Republic of China, led by the Kuomintang.
What we can see throughout history is that Taiwan has always been an autonomous body colonised by different agents, be it the Dutch, the Qings, the Zhengs, or the KMT. What we often forget is that Taiwan has always had its native people who have barely been able to exercise political autonomy, until now. As I mentioned before, Taiwanese democratisation only occurred in the late XX century, when it was finally able to rid itself from autocratic and external domination, but this is now at risk. For years, but especially with the rise to power of Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has had “reunification” of Taiwan and mainland China as one of its main objectives and goals. The recent CCP Congress not only reaffirmed this, but also furthered the CCP’s determination. A constitutional change was proposed that affirmed the CCP’s commitment to “resolutely oppose and contain Taiwan independence” and to strengthening the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to promote “unification of the motherland”. This may not only convey that China may take action soon on Taiwan, but also shows the commitment of the CCP to have “reunification” and anti-independence action as a long-term objective of the party.
The West cannot stand still whilst fundamental rights and democratic values and freedoms are being overtly threatened. At this point, it is not a question of if, but rather a question of when China is going to invade Taiwan. Taiwan has been, for centuries, a territory colonised by Western powers and neighbours alike, so it is past time that they enjoy the sovereignty they deserve. Taiwanese people increasingly embrace their singular identity: the sunflower movement, the election (and re-election) of President Tsai Ing-wen, and their progressive, liberal, and democratic values are a testament to it. The West must stand besides Taiwan in its fight for freedom, not only because it is the morally right thing to do, but also because their fight is our fight. China’s political system is an intrinsically authoritarian model at odds with democracy, so we cannot allow it to grow in influence. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan will not only put out the light of democracy and freedom in Taiwan, but will also cast a shadow of authoritarianism over our democratic societies.
Western countries were quick to respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine, so we must not shy away from having the same response with a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. If Russia is a power in decline, China is a superpower in the making, and one that fundamentally opposes our democratic and free societies. We must not be fooled by fake Chinese pretexts involving a supposed historical union between China and Taiwan: we have seen it is simply untrue. What we must do, on the other hand, is do everything in our hands to ensure that freedom and democracy triumphs over authoritarianism and repression. Taiwan’s fight will be our fight, and one that must be won for the sake of our free and democratic future.
Image credit: https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/democracy-the-china-challenge-and-the-2020-elections-in-taiwan/