TAIWAN: A Political History, by Denny Roy. Cornell University Press, 2003, 255 pp., $18.95 (paper).

With international attention focused on Iraq and North Korea, the Taiwan problem has vanished from the headlines. It won’t go away, however; geography and politics guarantee that. Put this break to productive use by reading Denny Roy’s new volume, “Taiwan: A Political History.” The concise yet comprehensive book is a commanding study of the island. It skillfully twines the evolution of Taiwan’s domestic politics with its continuing search for security.

Taiwan has always been a troublemaker. During most of Chinese history, it was considered barbarian territory, settled by pirates and rebels whose activities put them — and the island — in the international spotlight. The Chinese, Japanese and Dutch governments tried at various times to pacify the island and end the threat to trade. All enjoyed limited success.

For China in particular, the island was a headache; opponents of the mainland government would use it as a base for attacks against Beijing. Those movements would be overwhelmed, but pacification was difficult. The island terrain was inhospitable and the occupying authorities were usually better at cementing hostility than making friends.

Japan took control of the island after defeating China in the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese war. The Treaty of Shimonoseki permanently ceded Taiwan and Penghu Islands to Japan. The terms enforced the view — still believed by many — that China sold the Taiwanese out. The Taiwanese first appealed to the British, and then declared independence to block the Japanese occupation. Both moves failed, not least because much of the rest of the world looked to Japan to modernize and pacify the island.

Roy devotes a chapter to the Japanese Occupation, but in keeping the focus on politics, he doesn’t delve too deeply into the question of the legacy of that period. He does point out that electoral procedures adopted during that time had long-term consequences for the island.

Direct elections in local — rather than national — constituencies “helped atomize the movement for Taiwanese autonomy by creating incentives for politicians to focus on local issues and cultivate local power bases rather than work to support national organizations and national goals such as the establishment of a Taiwan parliament.”

Allied victory in the Pacific War didn’t end the fighting in China. Nationalists and Communists battled — much as they had throughout the Japanese Occupation — and the Communists prevailed in 1949. The Kuomintang, or KMT, fled to the island, laden with much of the country’s national providence, and set up its own government on Taiwan. Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek ruled, often brutally, claiming all the while that his stay on the island was only temporary, until he could reclaim the mainland. That exile continues.

While many native Taiwanese still rue the mainlander invasion, the government instituted policies that led to remarkable economic development and a vibrant democracy. Taiwan is proof that Confucianism and democracy are not antithetical concepts. Roy credits Chiang Kai-shek for the growth of Taiwan’s democracy: He recognized that poor policies and leadership by the KMT had led to defeat on the mainland.

Another important step was “one of the most ambitious land redistribution programs in history,” a policy that was also motivated by the KMT’s mainland experience. Taipei acknowledged that the old system was built entirely on the miseries of the tenant. Land reform was designed to undercut the appeal of communism.

Those accomplishments continue to be threatened by the mainland, which considers the island a renegade province. That fiction has been perpetuated with the complicity of the former ruling party, the KMT, which refused to renounce its claim to the mainland, in the vain hope that one day it would return to rule all of China.

In the last few decades, Taipei has come to accept the futility of that dream (although some diehards still cling to it). While opinion polls are notoriously suspect, the consensus view is that most Taiwanese prefer the status quo to avoid riling China. They don’t want to give up or jeopardize their hard-won freedoms and accomplishments; reunification might be an option when China evolves and closes the gap between the two sides of the strait. But maintaining a balance between the two positions is sometimes difficult, especially when Taiwanese feel they are denied the credit they are due.

The difficulties have been exacerbated by the rise of Taiwanese nationalism. The democratization process in Taiwan has opened the door to greater native Taiwanese participation in politics. The first breakthrough came with the election of Lee Teng-hui, a Taiwanese, not a mainlander, to the presidency of the KMT and the island government in 1988. The second step came when Chen Shui-bian, head of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, was elected president in March 2000.

The DPP originally called for independence for Taiwan, but Chen discarded that platform plank, fearing it would provoke Beijing. (Beijing has made it plain that a declaration of independence would justify the use of force against the island.)

Nonetheless, questions about Chen — and his party’s — intentions remain. The fear that rising frustrations might push Taiwan to declare independence and claim the credit it is due, coupled with concern over how Beijing might react, ensures that Taiwan remains a flash point in the region. Roy’s masterful study provides excellent insight into half of that complex and dynamic relationship.

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