Taiwan: An Island in Shadow
While the world’s press see the Chinese military drills around Taiwan as signalling the commencement to WW3, it’s business as usual for Taiwan, where hobbyists go on excursions to snap the missiles being fired. Are the Taiwanese delusional in their relaxation, or is the rest of the world being hysterical?
"Is Kaohsiung okay? It looks HORRIFIC!!!"
The People’s Liberation Army have just started firing missiles, their closest naval vessels are only 20 kilometres from Kaohsiung, my home town in southern Taiwan, and my hitherto apolitical sisters are flooding the family group chat with concern.
“Let us know what is happening!!!”
I was also glued to the thread, waiting for confirmation that my parents were safely hunkered down in some bomb shelter deep in the subterranean bunker complex I assumed Kaohsiung had. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, had just flown out of Taiwan after a short visit and the Chinese government had begun missile drills in reprisal for this perceived act of aggression. Finally, my mother replied…
"It’s passable. Can’t complain with 33 celsius. We are on the way to have seafood."
Feeling a little foolish and with a growing sense of anti-climax I persevered in my concern: “What about the airstrikes? What about the blockade?”
“Hahaha, it's nothing,” my mother replied, with a sticker of a shrugging cat.
Had my parents lost their minds? How could they be so indifferent to live fire drills? To the Chinese encirclement that had blockaded Taiwan’s maritime shipping and air traffic? What happens if a missile flies off course and hits Taipei? What if things escalate? Hadn’t they seen what had happened in Ukraine?
It turns out my parents’ reaction was far from unusual. Day trippers were still jollying over to Xiaoliuqiu, a diving resort southwest of the Taiwanese mainland which had woken up to find itself within 10 kilometres of a Chinese armada. The existential threat and flying ballistics hadn’t stopped holidaymakers from getting on ferries, donning wetsuits and swimming with the sea turtles. Instead of running for the hills, hobbyist photographers got their gear and headed down to the coast, hoping to get the best snaps of missiles exploding on impact. It was just another day in the life of a country living in the shadow of military threats from her neighbouring continental superpower.
“We’ve had this for 70 years, this is nothing new”, my aunt reassured me when I turned to her. Feeling a little disappointed and chagrined after having expected a reaction more commensurate with my own, I started to wonder why my outsider’s perspective was so much more histrionic than anything I could provoke back home.
In the last few years, Taiwan has increasingly found itself appearing in the international news. This may not have been obvious to everyone, but mentions of my unrecognised, phantom nation always catch my eye. Previously, the only news from home to creep into the international press was when Taiwanese politicians threw punches (or pig guts) at one another in the legislative chamber. However, China sees Taiwan as a rogue province which will eventually be brought under Beijing’s direct control. With the growing consolidation of power in the hands of Xi Jingping, China’s leader, and his aggressive domestic and foreign policies, there is an increased awareness of the precariousness of Taiwan's situation.
Many see Taiwan’s relationship with China as having recently entered a more antagonistic phase. Since his selection in 2012, Xi has expressed his intention of achieving the unification of what he believes to be China as part of his national rejuvenation plan. This area includes Taiwan, despite the belief of most Taiwanese people (including the author of this article) who see their island as an independent nation. When in 2019 the Chinese army was deployed in Hong Kong to suppress protests calling for independent governance, this made clear what unification with China would mean: even if Taiwan maintained a nominal government in Taipei, real legislative power would lie in Beijing. Xi has just been confirmed as leader for an unprecedented third term and has taken action to eliminate potential sources of opposition.
For several years now, Beijing has been putting pressure on Taiwan’s allies to cut diplomatic ties with Taipei. More recently, Beijing has also attempted to exert trade pressure on Taiwan, banning the imports of many Taiwanese agricultural products. There are even accusations of Chinese cyber-attacks against government agencies. The summer’s military drills are just another episode in an ongoing escalation of tensions.
The Chinese reaction to the Pelosi visit was expected, as are further reprisals to the coming visits from more foreign delegations. Why, one might ask, are more and more statesmen risking antagonising a nuclear superpower to cheerlead for a small wannabe nation? They of course speak of their passion for protecting Taiwan’s freedom and democracy, and some of them may even believe this. As Henry Kissinger said “It [has] the added advantage of being true”. More tangibly, Taiwan is the source of over 90% of the world’s advanced semiconductor chips. These are the processors for the world’s most high-tech computers, which run in everything from state-of-the-art cruise missiles and satellites to Artificial Intelligence technology. Every successive generation of iPhones is incremented by improvements in the processing power of these chips. Global economic growth is dependent on the constant improvement of these chips, and the interdiction of their supply would cause one of the biggest recessions in history. In short, the world’s reliance upon these chips makes our need for Russian gas seem about as essential as a Netflix subscription.
So, should Taiwan be bracing for war? Despite the relaxed attitude of many Taiwanese, some do take the threat of a Chinese invasion more seriously. The Taiwanese microchip tycoon Robert Tsao recently paid $32 million to fund a private paramilitary to resist a Chinese occupation. In the first address of his third term, Xi repeated his claims not to have ruled out force as a means of reunifying Taiwan with China. However, the immediate prospects of a Chinese attack seem limited. The Taiwanese stock market bounced back after a drop the day of the Pelosi visit. Taiwan also seems to be absorbing the effects of China’s nascent trade war and is making diplomatic progress on multiple fronts.
An amphibious invasion across the rough Taiwan Strait would be an extremely high-risk operation for the most experienced of armies, and the Chinese armed forces haven’t seen serious conflict since 1979. Russia’s apparent failure following its land invasion of Ukraine demonstrates how difficult it is to invade a country determined to defend itself. In addition, Chinese strategists will be aware that resisted occupations challenge even the world’s most powerful armies, as America’s ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 testifies. An invasion would also be a political risk for Xi, who would be personally associated with a military failure if it occurred. Xi also has other problems to contend with, such as the economic consequences of his zero-covid policy, and the threat of a property crash which may make him less inclined to take on additional risk.
So, how worried should I be? Taiwan has fallen off the world's headlines since the Pelosi visit. The Chinese blockade ended without definite results. However, Beijing’s belief that the Pelosi visit was an abandonment of America’s One China policy gives it more leeway to act against Taiwan. As politicians from around the world organise visits to Taiwan, their words of support have yet to be converted into reliable guarantees of assistance. Taiwan is still far from having the representation within international organisations required to enshrine her rights as a sovereign political entity. However, presumably not wishing to return to a time before smartphones and robot vacuum cleaners, more countries are coming to realise the danger Taiwan is in, and the catastrophic consequences any harm to Taiwan would have on the globe.
How long will Taiwan remain important to the global economy? Will China risk an invasion? Can the US do anything? Unfortunately, the answers one hears to these questions are as unhelpful as my mother’s. Life in Taiwan goes on as usual, but the perennial shadow of the Chinese invasion has not gone. Taiwanese eyes are just accustomed to seeing in the half-light.