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2 July 2024

The threats faced by Taiwan make Britain’s politics feel provincial

In Taipei, at the new president’s inauguration, the huge forces remaking the world were impossible to ignore.

By Jason Cowley

I was in my hotel room in Taiwan on the evening of 22 May and thinking about extending my stay when my mobile started to ring: Andrew Marr, the Sunday Times, George Eaton… Rishi Sunak had called a surprise general election for 4 July and I was heading home.

I arrived in Taipei City ahead of the inauguration of Lai Ching-te – or William Lai – as the eighth president of Taiwan, another smooth transition of power in the self-governing democracy that is uniquely threatened by Xi Jinping’s superpower of 1.4 billion people. Only 11 minor states (plus the Holy See) have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan and their heads of states and other dignitaries were introduced at the inauguration on 20 May as if they were great, returning world leaders. The king of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) brought an entourage of nearly 100 with him, and not all of them were his wives.

President Lai of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has called for de facto “independence” for Taiwan but says now he is committed to the “status quo” – by which he means the strategic and diplomatic ambiguity that’s prevailed ever since Chiang Kai-shek (“the Generalissimo”) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang, or KMT) lost the civil war on the mainland in 1949. When they relocated to Taiwan, the KMT took many of the greatest treasures from the Forbidden City with them (they are now part of the permanent collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei).

The Generalissimo was leader of the Republic of China (ROC) from 1928 to 1949, and the KMT dreamed of reclaiming the mainland and uniting the country but never returned. Taiwan – Chiang still called it the ROC – evolved from an authoritarian regime under martial law to today’s thriving open society of 23 million people. But the journey to democracy was painful. “We felt so small, so short, under martial law,” Lin Hwai-min, the celebrated choreographer and founder of the renowned Cloud Gate dance company, told me over lunch one day. “There was the threat of arbitrary arrest, censorship, the persecution of artists and writers. But then after martial law was lifted [in 1987, by a presidential order] everything changed. You could say the protests of the 1980s created the Taiwan of today.”

The Economist, in a provocative cover story last year, called Taiwan “the most dangerous place on Earth”. But it doesn’t feel like that when you are there, although two days after Lai’s inauguration, for the first time, China simulated a full-scale attack on the island as “strong punishment” for “secessionist acts”. The drills continue alongside ongoing “grey zone” activities: cognitive warfare, cyberattacks, disinformation. “My mother says: ‘One day it [war] might happen, but we can’t give up our lives in the meantime,’” said Catherine Hu, a diplomat, capturing the spirit of cheerful resilience among the people of the mountainous island that also endures earthquakes and typhoons.

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Would the US fight for Taiwan if the People’s Liberation Army invaded? Can the status quo hold in the region? And is Xi, who demands peaceful unification, prepared for a war with the West over Taiwan?

The self-governing island democracy dominates global semiconductor production and its companies, notably the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), make over 60 per cent of the world’s semiconductors and over 90 per cent of the most advanced chips (Apple is TSMC’s biggest customer). TSMC’s chief international rival is Samsung. China, the world’s largest consumer of semiconductors, makes its own chips but its technologies are reportedly at least ten years behind those of TSMC, which now manufactures the three-nanometre chip, the most advanced.

The semiconductor industry constitutes around 14 per cent of Taiwan’s GDP and 40 per cent of its exports, according to a recent report by the British-Taiwanese All-Party Parliamentary Group, and it serves as a kind of defensive shield, or “sacred mountain”, protecting the island from hostile takeover. The economic effects of a war in Taiwan and the resulting disruption to global supply chains would be devastating. “We don’t want war, but we have the willingness to fight and the determination to fight,” said Tien Chung-kwang, the deputy foreign minister.

I asked him about the lessons of Hong Kong. “They screwed up,” he said of Beijing. “How can you ever trust China’s promise after what has happened? One country two systems – that’s not going to work for Taiwan.”

During my trip I reread JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, from 1984. It is a fictional recasting of the author’s experience as a teenage detainee in the Lunghua internment camp in Shanghai, where he had lived with his parents in the International Settlement. In the novel the young Jim sees a distant glow in the sky after the atom bomb is dropped on Nagasaki and, later, after escaping the camp, he is filled with strange foreboding. The Second World War has ended but here, he senses, “at the mouths of the great rivers of Asia, would be fought the last war to decide the planet’s future”. It’s a profoundly unsettling vision but, as ever, Ballard was ahead of the game. He had seen the world to come. 

During the election campaign I have been thinking about Taiwan. Our national political debate seems so provincial, so removed from the huge forces remaking the world around geopolitical risk and threats of war. Meanwhile, as our party leaders squabble like contestants on a game show, Putin flies to Pyongyang to sign a mutually assured defence pact with North Korea and Chinese warships continue their menacing daily manoeuvres in the Taiwan Strait.  

[See also: The Lammy Doctrine]

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This article appears in the 02 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Britain