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8 July 2024

Taiwan at the edge of chaos

The island is a playground for the imperial ambitions of China and the US – and its future is far from certain.

By David Muir

It was hard to discern at first, but as my Taipei hotel rattled and wobbled as a result of an earthquake – six on the Richter scale – I was reminded that Taiwan doesn’t just rest on a geopolitical fault line but a geological one too. There was no panic. Nobody talked about it the following morning. The Taiwanese took it in their stride. They are – as Sulmaan Wasif Khan writes in his fascinating, concise history of Taiwan and its relation to the great powers of China and the US – used to living, and prospering, on the “edge of chaos”.

Khan begins his story of contingency and near-run disaster by noting China’s relatively recent claim over Taiwan. The Manchu Qing dynasty seized Taiwan in 1683, as part of a broader Chinese empire. As it declined, Japan took the island in 1895 and governed it until the end of the Second World War. As brutal as Japan’s rule was, it left a country in which over 80 per cent of adults could read or write, in contrast with mainland China.

During the long Chinese Civil War of the 1930s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Mao Zedong showed little interest in Taiwan and took a liberal line on China’s periphery of Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. These border lands, the CCP claimed, could opt for self-determination. Mao told his Western muse, the journalist Edgar Snow, in 1936 that he would support Taiwanese independence. Then came America’s first stumble in the region, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt quickly agreed to the demand from Mao’s great rival Chiang Kai-shek that Taiwan be part of China at the Cairo Conference in 1943. FDR made much of his dislike of imperial power but, as Khan acidly observes, the US was behaving imperially, “draw[ing] lines and assigned territory in parts of the world it barely understood”.

The next stumbles were made in 1950 in the Korean War by President Harry Truman who sent the Seventh Fleet through the Taiwan Straits, and by that American Caesar, General Douglas MacArthur, who ordered the push to the Yalu River on the border between China and North Korea. Mao, advised that China could not survive as an independent nation with foreign control of Korea and Taiwan, ordered the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) over the Korean border, and from that point on, as Khan puts it, “transformed Taiwan into a cause, a means of galvanising the people he governed”.

Truman’s successor, Dwight Eisenhower, would endure two Taiwan Straits crises in the 1950s, when US policy there was one of “indecision and militarism”. As the PLA shelled the Kinmen and Matsu islands off Taiwan, Eisenhower said he was willing to use “atomic weapons as interchangeable with conventional weapons” to defend the islands – islands that his secretary of state in a memo wished would “[sink] to the bottom of the sea”. Such was the confusion over US policy that nuclear war was contemplated over a geographic dispute it cared so little about.

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Mao’s adventurism resulted in Congress, gripped with anti-communist fever, passing in 1954 the Mutual Defence Treaty with Taiwan, which committed the US to defend the island. America then spent decades trying to wriggle out of the pact as it tried to normalise relations with China, after the Sino-Soviet split. Jimmy Carter managed to repeal the treaty, only for Congress to pass the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which “left China incensed and the US hopelessly confused about how committed to Taiwan’s defence it really was”.

During the Reagan-Bush-Deng years of the 1980s and early 1990s, the Taiwan issue went through a peaceable period. China’s economy thrived, and the “one country, two systems” policy was agreed for Hong Kong. It seemed China would win over Taiwan by the power of its example – until the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989. As democracy took root in Taiwan, it drifted further from China. And fear of it grew with Xi Jinping’s “one country, one system” approach to Hong Kong.

As I left Taiwan earlier this year, another earthquake struck, this time a political rather than a geological one, as the governing party, the DPP, announced that it would tear down 760 statues of Chiang Kai-shek – a symbolic act of destruction of his “one China” policy. We will see over the coming years how much longer President Xi will tolerate the island’s de facto independence. In the meantime, the Taiwanese appear condemned to live on the brink of catastrophe.

David Muir was director of political strategy for the former UK prime minister Gordon Brown from 2008 to 2010

The Struggle for Taiwan: A History
Sulmaan Wasif Khan
Allen Lane, 336pp, £25

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[See also: The threats faced by Taiwan make Britain’s politics feel provincial]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change