Taiwan or, more correctly, the Republic of China on Taiwan, is a sort of Asian Israel. Those who govern the Chinese mainland claim the tiny island as their own and vow they will eventually recapture it peacefully — or by force, if necessary. They dislike the democracy and free economic and political systems that have developed on the island, and still smart over how all this happened.
The Chinese civil war that raged during and after World War II ended in a Communist victory when Chiang kai-shek’s U.S.-backed Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan, or Formosa, as the Japanese called it during the half-century they occupied it. Mao Zedong’s forces followed, hoping to wipe out their non-Communist opponents, but were forced to give up the chase when as many as 50,000 of them perished in the attempt. Since then, a truce of sorts has existed, but Mao’s successors remain as dedicated as ever to taking the island.
Under Chiang’s leadership and that of his successors, Taiwan prospered and became one of this country’s strongest allies. The protection the United States continues to provide is crucial to her survival, though Taiwan stopped taking U.S. economic aid decades ago as the once-poverty-stricken Japanese colony morphed under Nationalist Chinese leadership into a vibrant and successful democracy.
In the decades following the Communist consolidation of power on the mainland, both the Communists and Nationalists claimed to be China’s rightful government. As the two systems matured, Taiwan’s continuing claim to be the legitimate government of China galled the Communists, particularly since the very different political and economic systems on the mainland and Taiwan presented contrasting visions to millions of Chinese around the world.
Until the mainland’s economic takeoff over the course of the last decade, the stark contrast between life in Taiwan and on the mainland couldn’t have been greater. Chinese leaders in Taipei could point not just to the emergence of the China they ruled as a democratic success story, but also to the fact that their people had made the island one of the most prosperous countries, not just in Asia, but in the world.
In the 1970s, when westerners were trying to cope with the different ways the mainland kept changing the capitol’s name from Peiping to Peking and, eventually to Beijing, a Washington reporter dining in one of Washington’s many Chinese restaurants asked a waiter for the proper spelling of the name of China’s capitol. The waiter looked him in the eye and very slowly informed him it was “T-A-I-P-E-I.”
Today all that has changed. Both Taipei and Beijing cling to their “one China” vision, but no one in either capital seriously believes that Taiwan can any longer pose much threat militarily or economically to the emerging economic and military power of mainland China. Very few believe that Beijing’s Communists will risk “destroying Taiwan to save it” or the much broader war that a military strike on the island could spark. Taipei’s game has changed and all her leaders want now is to avoid a military confrontation while preserving their actual independence and the freedom enjoyed by her citizens. They want harmonious relations with their Communist neighbors, welcome visitors from the mainland, and partner with mainland businesses to the tune of billions of dollars.
They know that in the short term at least, Beijing isn’t about to give up its designs on Taiwan or her people, so the Taiwanese are play a long game. They continue to hope the government on the mainland will morph into something more like the system they’ve developed on their island; a system that recognizes the importance of both economic and political freedom. If that happens, they are convinced Beijing and Taipei’s differences will soften and anything might be possible.
That’s why they have pursued a policy of aggressive engagement that resulted earlier this year in the first ministerial-level talks between the two Chinas in some 65 years. It was a sign that representatives of two very practically minded nations are trying to work their way through a thicket of historical and ideological differences without risking disaster. Things have changed a lot in three generations. The straits separating the two countries were long considered the most likely spot at which a war that might rival the two worst wars of the last century might begin. The offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu were said to be the most heavily fortified real estate in the world. Today, the tunnels dug into the rocky hillsides of Quemoy to protect the island’s defense contain T-shirt shops catering to tourists from the Chinese mainland and around the world. Chinese from Taiwan and the mainland visit each other today as tourists or to visit relatives many thought they’d never see again. More than a million mainland tourists a year visit Taiwan’s Palace Museum.
These developments mark the difference between what’s going on in Asia and the Middle East. Israel faces an irrational enemy. Taiwan faces as dangerous a foe, but a foe led by men who are anything but irrational. Deterrence and reason as well as simple self-interest have dampened the open hostility between Taiwan and China, if not between Israel and her Arab neighbors. In today’s dangerous world, that may make all the difference.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.
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