Arriving at Taipei international airport en route to a Taiwanese university conference on Russia, you are hit by the headline of a local magazine on display. In translation it reads: “The New Diplomacy Will Rescue Taiwan.”
The new diplomacy, of course, is recently elected President Ma Ying-jeou’s plans for closer relations with mainland China.
Leaving the airport you begin to realize one reason for wanting to be rescued — the economy. Taiwan’s living standards are still well above those of mainland China. But it has little of China’s dynamism. Urban slums seem to linger on for decades; in most mainland cities they would long ago have been replaced by attractive high-rises.
Taiwan too has its high-rises, but they can be pockmarked by failed projects. The overall mood is one of quiet resignation, waiting for some new progress formula to emerge.
Taiwan is a victim of its own success. From almost complete stagnation in the 1950s it boot-strapped its way to successful industrialization in just two decades, relying like mainland China today on cheap, hardworking and intelligent labor making a variety of consumer goods for export.
But just for that reason it is in trouble. It is still trying to make those consumer goods, but with labor four times more expensive than China’s. Even its quite successful moves into computers and information technology are being finessed by China. Hundreds of companies have moved their factories to mainland China. One estimate says there are now 400,000 Taiwanese and their families living in the Shanghai area alone.
Taiwan’s main hope now seems to be tourists and investment from China. Already some are arriving — mainland Chinese living or working abroad who can bypass Beijing’s present restrictions. The promised direct air flights (currently most traffic has to move via Hong Kong) will see a large increase. Already Taiwanese tourists visit China easily. Closer political links will soon follow.
True, the surprisingly strong sense of Taiwan identity will prevent any sudden move to Beijing. The Chinese who fled the mainland in 1949 and wanted so much to go back are gradually dying out.
Native-born and -bred Taiwanese have taken over. They are proud of their island and its achievements. And as ever they are still looking for new friends and allies, like Russia, which was why I was in Taiwan. Hundreds of young Taiwanese go there each year to study the language and Moscow maintains an active representative office in Taipei.
Taiwan once had a president, Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek, the founder of the Nationalist party (Kuomindang), who was educated in Russia, was fluent in Russian and had a Russian wife. In the 1960s the CIA hawks felt they had to go well out of their way to bud-nip any pro-Beijing ideas he might have had.
Basically Taiwanese remain thoroughly Chinese; a serious move to complete independence from China has always seemed unlikely. Pro-Taiwan outsiders sometimes talk of the native Taiwanese clinging to a native language called Minnan-hua, as if this would somehow encourage moves to independence.
But Minnan-hua is simply the dialect of the Fujian region of southeast China from where the native Taiwanese came several hundred years ago. Since 1949 all Taiwanese have been educated in the Mandarin dialect of north China, which is now the lingua franca for all Chinese worldwide. Indeed, you will hear better Mandarin accents in the streets of Taipei than you will in Beijing.
If and when Beijing launches a full-scale cultural offensive against Taiwan, it should be able to win converts. Certainly it will find the going easier than in Hong Kong, which retains a very strong Cantonese identity.
Politically Taiwan may want to remain separate. But it is not hard to imagine a Puerto Rico/USA style “commonwealth” or “associated free state” (in Spanish) relationship allowing some autonomy.
All this is far from past anticommunist hopes that Taiwan could be kept separate from and hostile to the communist mainland. In 1961 with an Australian delegation I found myself standing alongside Chiang Kei-shek on a cliff overlooking the Taiwan Strait as hundreds of fully equipped soldiers were dropped into the sea below and made to swim to the beach below us.
“That,” Chiang told us proudly, “is how we will recover the mainland.” Few share those illusions now.
Japan will be the main loser. As ever it has allowed emotion and shortsighted tactics to overcome strategy in a foreign policy. Its conservatives and rightwingers seemed to think that sentimental pre-1945 colonial links and the presence of pro-Japan oldtimers, such as former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui, would somehow translate into close ties allowing Taiwan to move closer to independence under Japan’s aegis.
In Tokyo’s various pan-Asian schemes over the years designed to keep communist China at bay, Taiwan often figured large. Originally the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum was one such effort. More recently the hardliners have talked of Japan creating an oceanic bloc of Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and even Australia to counter Beijing. Those ideas must have turned to ashes by now.
A very large Japanese delegation headed by the archconservative former LDP luminary Takeo Hiranuma, and including Tokyo Gov. Ishihara Shintaro, attended Ma’s inauguration ceremony. To their chagrin, Ma managed to avoid any mention of Japan in a speech devoted mainly to hopes of closer ties with China. Some say he was reacting deliberately to Hiranuma’s hard line while trying to dampen Beijing’s fears of a Japan-Taiwan alliance.
Taipei also shares Beijing’s upset over Japan’s virtual annexation of the Senkaku Islands west of Okinawa.
For once, the United States seems to have been closer to the mark. True, its military, together with Japan’s, has always seemed to hope for a Taiwan-mainland China confrontation in which it could flex its muscle. But the U.S. political position has been much more nuanced. It has kept a firm lid on Taiwanese nationalist talk about independence.
Maybe it realized better than Tokyo the power of Chinese ethnic attraction. Once again in policy to China, Japan’s hardliners seem destined to become sideliners.
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and now vice president of Akita International University. A translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net.