Taiwan: Living in China’s shadow

For the world and the ASEAN region struggling to contain an ever more assertive China, a visit to Taiwan, the only democracy in the Chinese-speaking world, offers crucial insights

Taiwan: Living in China’s shadow
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Dhairya Maheshwari

Waving Chinese flags, protestors clamouring for reunification with China greet visitors at Taipei 101, the highest building in Taiwan and the sign of Taiwan’s rapid economic progress. As an Indian visitor, I am taken aback. Would I ever see Indians waving Pakistani flags at Connaught Place, demanding reunification with Pakistan, I reflected with some amusement? But here were a handful of protestors in Taiwan, waving the flag of mainland China.

For the only Indian in a group of 12 visiting journalists from the US, European Union and South-East Asia, even as one wondered about Taiwan’s precarious political situation, our escort quickly informed us that dissent is seen as crucial and a cherished ideal of Taiwan’s democracy, one that differentiates it from its powerful neighbour China.

Yet I wasn’t impressed, failing to understand the generosity of the Taiwanese people in allowing such form of dissent to take place. China has refused to even acknowledge the existence of Taiwan as an independent country, virtually ignoring its 23.6 million people.

More recently, the US-China trade war has had adverse consequences for Taiwan, with many of the Taiwanese companies being forced to move manufacturing bases from China to other Asian countries. The uncertainties in the relationship have heightened with the coming to power of Donald Trump, which is rather said in whispered tones in the political and diplomatic circles in Taiwan

“Taiwan’s democratisation is an unforgettable part of its political history, a constant reminder of the Taiwanese people’s commitment to democratic principles and human rights,” declares Ketty W Chen, vice-president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, a think tank promoting democracy in the region.

Taiwan, unlike China, chose the path of liberal democracy after the Chinese Civil War in 1936, which ultimately ended in a hybrid of Communism and Stalinism gaining a toehold in the world’s most populous nation. The founding fathers of modern Taiwan, led by Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) Party, on the other hand, established a Western-style free representative government in Taipei.

One of the ‘four Asian tigers’ to have achieved rapid economic growth, despite seemingly insurmountable political and diplomatic odds posed by China, Taiwan boasts a per capita GDP of $49,800, the best in East Asia and ahead of even Japan.

A ride on the bullet train from Taipei to the southern port city of Kaohsiung, spanning over 300 kms, is another experience that reminds one of the rapid industrialisation achieved by the Chinese-speaking nation, which shares a common cultural heritage with China. On our way to the Kaohsiung City, Taiwan’s biggest port, the organisers planned a brief stopover at a glass recycling factory in Hsinchu, a city in the centre of the country known for its factories.

“We recycle glass here. The reworked glass that we make is much stronger than normal glass,” said a factory worker in Chinese, a message translated by the foreign ministry officials accompanying us on a trip.

The recycled glass is being recast into bricks at a furnace. “The cost of constructing a home would be reduced by 10 per cent if one starts using these bricks. Besides, the houses are more resilient and durable,” the young factory guide says, as he heats up the glass bricks to demonstrate his claim.

The glass bricks from this factory are being exported, he informs, to many countries across South-East Asia and even to Japan. “Taiwan recycles 90 per cent of its glass,” the factory worker proudly declares. For a visiting Indian journalist, this was yet another proof of how this Asian tiger has been punching way above its weight, even in the realm of sustainable development, despite being diplomatically left out of major international institutions.

Once we reach Kaohsiung, after an almost hour-and-a-half ride on the Shinkasen bullet train, our group is ferried to the hotel.

The city’s state-of-the-art Cultural Centre, whose building is modelled after a ship, bears testament to the city’s rich maritime heritage.

American and Japanese influence is clearly visible across this city, be it in the Japanese sea food restaurants or the karaoke bars resonating with tunes of American songs. From well-cooked fish eggs to exotic varieties of fish, the Japanese sea food restaurants are an experience in themselves for the food connoisseurs.

For the vegetarians, Taiwan frankly doesn’t have much to offer though there are some local delicacies. For instance, “stinky tofu,” a fermented variety of the vegetable is sold off at local night markets and is rather popular among locals.

Though true to its name, the stench that it releases while being cooked could scare people away. But once it goes into the mouth, stinky tofu is pure bliss.

But one of the foreign ministry officials wasn’t rather impressed when I told him about India’s growing obsession with vegetarian food.

“What a pity. You don’t eat much of sea food in India,” he tells me.

Countries in the region and around the world, many of them wary of China’s rise, see Taiwan as a crucial cog in the wheel of containing China. The US, the main benefactor of Taiwan, is shoring up relations with the east Asian democracy, evidenced by several key legislations that the US Congress has passed in the last few months. Defence collaboration between Taiwan and the US in the South China Sea, where Beijing’s island-building activity has alarmed all its maritime neighbours as well as their western allies, is another aspect of the bilateral relationship.

The Taiwan-US relationship, however, has been besotted by an aspect of uncertainty as well, with an influential lobby in the US seeing the Chinese island democracy as a “troublemaker” in the US-China bilateral relations. A push to develop nuclear weapons in the 1960s by Taiwan was vetoed by the US, which from time-to-time has acted more like a “businessman” to Taiwan than a reliable ally, in the words of local officials.

“People in the US and China used to call us a trouble-maker. But as the only democracy in the Chinese-speaking world, we want China to follow the rules,” notes Dr Chen Ming-chi, the deputy minister for Mainland (China) Affairs in the government.

More recently, the US-China trade war has had adverse consequences for Taiwan, with many of the Taiwanese companies being forced to move manufacturing bases from China to other Asian countries. The uncertainties in the relationship have heightened with the coming to power of Donald Trump, which is rather said in whispered tones in the political and diplomatic circles in Taiwan.

“We don’t want to overexploit our allies. We understand the sensitive nature of our relationship,” says Dr Chen, when asked about the rhetoric of US President who has blamed US allies all over the world of exploiting American generosity.

Having said that, an influential lobby in US Congress has also been a firm backer of Taiwan and its longstanding independence movement against China.

India and Taiwan: From friends to allies

Taiwan may be a notable exception where Indians don’t have as big a Diaspora community as seen in other countries. There are just two to three Indian restaurants in the capital city of Taipei, with a handful of Indians seen at the airport.

“I am here on a business trip. Our company is in the IT sector. My main office is Faridabad,” says a middle-aged Indian traveller, who I went up to for a chat.

But Indian presence hasn’t been as big here, as one would expect in a country that shares India’s insecurities vis-à-vis China.Yet, all that is fast changing. In what’s seen as Taiwan’s response to diversify its economic and military engagement, President Tsai Ing-Wen launched the New Southbound Policy (NSP) in 2016. The NSP envisages better economic, strategic and cultural ties with 18 countries of Asia and Australia, including India and the ASEAN bloc.

The sentiment of having better ties with India is, in fact, fast gaining currency in Taiwanese government, thanks to the push by President Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

“We are looking south and west to allies like India. India and Taiwan are part of the same strategic framework,” says Dr Chen.

The Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation, a think tank managed by Dr Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, a senior adviser to President Tsai, notes that Taiwan would soon start supplying Mandarin language teachers to India. “There is a huge demand for Mandarin teachers in India. We think we could fill the gap,” he says.

The National Development Council (NDC), the policy-planning agency of the Taiwanese government, believes that Taiwan has a lot to offer to India in terms of technological expertise, having a strong foundation in sectors such as heavy-duty machinery, electrical appliances and Information Technology.

Dr Connie Chang, the Director General of Department of Overall Planning, says that, as part of its New Southbound Policy, Taiwan is also trying to attract skilled immigrants from other countries to fill up vacancies.

“We have to maintain international competitiveness. Currently, we are also experiencing an Industrial Revolution 4.0. So, we are on lookout for international talent which would help our economy in the long run,” says Dr Chang.

Military-to-military contacts between Taiwan and India are emerging as another crucial part of the bilateral relationship, though both New Delhi and Taipei are keeping this under wraps, apparently not to antagonise Beijing.

The Institute for National Defence and Security Research, a think-tank with close connections to the government, recently signed an MoU, its first in Asia, with the United Service Institution (USI), a top national security think tank in India.

Sources in Taipei also tell National Herald that Indian military officials have been paying visits to Taipei to explore defence collaboration between Taiwan and India. The claim, however, couldn't be independently verified.

Concerns over China’s behaviour, say sources, is what is guiding this military relationship.

“There is an increasing interest in India, which is envisaged to be a major partner country of our new Southbound Policy (NSP). It is politically advantageous to have close ties with India,” says Chen from the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.

Challenges

China, a major trading partner of both India and Taiwan, is what’s keeping the bilateral relationship from achieving its full potential, a fact that is well acknowledged.

Despite being rival powers and both countries denying each other’s existence, China is Taiwan’s biggest trading partner, market to 40 per cent of its exports, a reality that the NSP seeks to address.

Official figures indicate that the trade relationship with China has intensified over the years.

“We want to reduce our reliance on China. We want to bring the 40 per cent figure down to 30 per cent over the next five years,” says Dr Wang Jiann-Chyuan, the President of Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research, a think tank run from National Taiwan University (NTU).

A push to sign a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with India got stalled due to unspecified reasons after the coming to power of Narendra Modi in 2014. “The feasibility study was carried out between 2010 and 2013. We haven’t pursued it as vigorously as we should have after the feasibility report was published in 2013,” says Dr Wang Jiann-chyuan.

Earlier this year, Air India’s decision to rename Taiwan as Chinese Taipei in its official records, apparently under pressure from Beijing, didn’t go down well with Taiwan, who took the matter up with India’s Ministry of External Affairs.

Reunification with China

The loss of Taiwan to China would perhaps be the biggest blow for the US, Japan and, to an extent, India. Unfortunately, that scenario is becoming ever more realistic, largely due to the politics of the KMT Party, which made massive gains in the local body elections in November.

The newly-elected mayor of Kaohsiung City, Han Kuo-yu, raised the political stakes as he invoked a controversial “1992 Consensus” with China during his campaign. The 1992 Consensus was an agreement between China and Taiwan, as part of which both the countries pledged to adhere to the One China Policy. Over the years, Taiwan and China have interpreted this consensus as per their political conveniences.

KMT’s stance hasn’t gone down well with the ruling DPP, which rejects the 1992 Consensus. “We will warn the mayor-elect that the 1992 Consensus doesn’t fall in his jurisdiction,” Dr Chen Ming-chi says, predicting that international issues will take a centre stage as the country approaches the presidential election. While the KMT is said to have won the election because of promises of delivering economic growth and jobs, undertones of Chinese sympathy in the KMT camp aren’t lost on anyone.

“China and Taiwan should reunite. We are one country, one civilisation. We will be more powerful if we are united,” says a protestor waving a Chinese flag outside the iconic Taipei 101.

Already, the Chinese are said to have interfered in the local body elections.

“China has a presence in Taiwan’s politics, mainly through two political parties and a network of local temples through which they route funds. We have even detected fake news coming from Chinese servers that influenced public opinion during the local polls,” says Chen.

At a local bar, the conversation with a few locals got heated up after a KMT supporter professed his love for China.

“We are Taiwan. We are not China,” quipped another young woman.

(The correspondent was member of a multi-nation group of journalists who visited Taiwan at the invitation of the government. The only Indian scribe in the group, the other journalists came from the US, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Denmark, Austria, Spain, Czech Republic and Thailand)

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