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Taiwan: Caught Between Rival Superpowers

An Interview with Brian Hioe and Wen Liu

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan has set off a diplomatic firestorm between the U.S. and China. It also triggered China to engage in massive military exercises in the Taiwan Straits, while the U.S. carried out its own military exercises amidst its increased power projection in the Asia Pacific. Lost in the tense geopolitical battle between these two superpowers is the viewpoint of the Taiwanese people and their Left. Tempest here interviews two prominent commentators on Taiwanese politics, both editors of the radical publication, New Bloom Magazine. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Wen Liu is a writer and scholar based in Taipei, Taiwan. She is assistant research professor at the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica and an editor of New Bloom Magazine.

Brian Hioe is a freelance journalist and translator located in Taipei, Taiwan. He is an editor of New Bloom Magazine.

Tempest: Nancy Pelosi’s visit has intensified the standoff between the U.S. and China over Taiwan. Why did Pelosi decide to visit now? How has China reacted?

Brian Hioe: It’s a good question as to why Pelosi made the choice. It could be for her political legacy, since some anticipate she will retire soon, and her time as Speaker of the House is limited. Her trip could be a way to cap off a career as a liberal hawk on China issues. But broadly speaking, it is likely Pelosi was looking to bolster the credentials of the Democrats as being tough on China ahead of U.S. midterms. Showing support for Taiwan would be one way of trying to come across as tough on China.

China has reacted by announcing live-fire drills around Taiwan, with naval exercises crossing into Taiwan’s territorial waters, scheduled for shortly after Pelosi left Taiwan. These exercises have taken place closer to Taiwan than those it carried out during the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1996. China has also conducted missile tests, some of which passed over Taiwan, to show its capacity to hit targets in Taiwan remotely.

China frames its actions as a blockade of Taiwan, though this is likely only temporary in nature since a full-scale blockade would lead to immediate military escalation from at least Taiwan and possibly the U.S. We are, however, far from an invasion, which would be detectable in advance from satellite imagery showing troops massing on the coasts of Taiwan. In truth, China does not have the transport capacity to bring enough troops over the Taiwan Straits to conduct a long-term occupation of Taiwan at present.

But we are far from the end of this crisis, too. Despite the fact that China’s exercises were scheduled to end on Sunday August 7, it has been announced that they will continue, with an indefinite timeline. The U.S. has made it known that it will also conduct naval maneuvers in the region in the near future.

Wen Liu: Originally Pelosi wanted to visit right after the Russian-Ukraine war broke out. The timing would have been good from the Taiwanese side because, for good and for bad, an official visit from the U.S. generally dampens down the anti-U.S. conspiracies in Taiwanese civil society. When the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan, the narrative of “Today’s Afghanistan, Tomorrow’s Taiwan” about how the U.S. would simply give up its commitments to ensure Taiwan’s security went rampant. The same happened at the start of the Russian-Ukraine war.

Obviously, it is important to retain critical distance from U.S. involvement and understand how the U.S. always acts in its own interests, rather than simply buying into the rhetoric around democracy and freedom in the region. But the anti-American conspiracies that centered on the lack of international support for Taiwan have only generated unhealthy anxiety and made people more susceptible to the Chinese state’s propaganda.

The Anglophone media does not talk about the fact that no matter what kind of domestic criticisms you might have against Pelosi as a politician or U.S. foreign involvement in Asia, a more normalized diplomatic relation with the U.S. (also with China, if possible) could lead to more stability for Taiwan. We are in a very different situation than countries like Japan or South Korea, which have formal diplomatic ties with the U.S. and others, something that provides these states greater power to negotiate their position in the world.

For Taiwan, the lack of legal representation in international governance is a real hindrance. It creates doubt about international support for our right to self-determination, which in turn produces a lot of popular mistrust and unproductive criticism of our foreign policy.

Tempest: What has been the reaction of Taiwan’s political establishment to Pelosi’s visit? What was the popular reaction? And how has the Left responded?

WL: Taiwan’s government was definitely supportive of Pelosi’s visit. Although due to the original cancellation, the August visit was not publicized in any way prior to the leak from Financial Times. Even the Kuomintang (KMT) officials were welcoming, despite the pan-Blue and pro-China media at large exaggerating the threats Pelosi’s visit might bring to Taiwan.

Unlike how the foreign media, which immediately framed the visit as a “face-off” between the U.S. and China or the “Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis,” Taiwanese civil society was relatively less concerned about its geopolitical significance and focused more on what Pelosi was going to do, who she would meet, and what she would eat when she came to Taiwan (yes a very important detail that Taiwanese care about). In other words, since whether Pelosi would come or not was not up to Taiwanese people, the general attitude was curiosity and cautiously positive.

When she arrived around 10:30pm on August 2, many Taiwanese gathered around the Songshan Airport, holding banners to welcome her. There were also tense moments when the pro-unification groups raised signs to tell Pelosi to get lost. But overall, for the majority of Taiwanese the visit was historic in ways that Taiwan has endured decades of international isolation ever since the end of the diplomatic relations between the U.S. and our government. [On January 1, 1979 – Eds.]

Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping and U.S. President Jimmy Carter shaking hands after signing diplomatic agreements between the United States and China at the White House in January 1979.
Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping and U.S. President Jimmy Carter sign diplomatic agreements between the United States and China, at the White House in January 1979. Photo from the National Archives.

It wasn’t until the past couple of years, in the wake of COVID-19 and the Russia-Ukraine war, that Taiwan started to be centered on the international stage. Since then, we have had politicians from different parts of the world, especially European countries like Lithuania and the Czech Republic visit us, and not as a “Chinese democracy” like in the Cold War era, but as a sovereign democratic country called Taiwan.

It is in this context that Pelosi’s visit was meaningful because Taiwan is not the same place it was 25 years ago when the last Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, visited the country. Now, despite the absence of any constitutional or official name change, Taiwan is a sovereign democracy, utterly different from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and does not seek to replace it as an “authentic China” like Republic of China (ROC) used to under KMT’s rule.

This is why when the Chinese netizens responded to Pelosi’s visit by posting pictures with slogans like “there is only one China in the world” as an attempt at intimidation, it seemed like a joke to most Taiwanese. For our generation, there is only one China and there is only one Taiwan.

We are separate countries whatever our official status. That Chinese authorities do not understand this popular perception shows how anachronistic and out of touch they are with Taiwanese civil society.

BH: Liberals have mostly been publicly supportive of the Pelosi visit, due to the fact that this is seen as a sign of U.S. support for Taiwan, even if there is probably some skepticism—behind closed doors or from more critical voices—about the potential dangers of the visit due to it heightening tensions with China. Many, however, probably do not know enough about U.S. politics to know Pelosi’s domestic record—apart from the longstanding idealization of the U.S. in Taiwan, as Taiwan’s security guarantor. U.S. politics is generally evaluated through the single lens of support for Taiwan.

There has not been very much in the way of an explicitly left-wing response so far. Pro-China groups protested the Pelosi visit, terming her a warmonger, while pro-unification Left groups have been strangely silent so far. A more nuanced response would be to criticize Pelosi’s politics, cite the risks that a Pelosi visit might pose to Taiwan or regional stability more broadly, but not see China’s actions as justified, or as being in any way a reciprocal and appropriate response to the U.S.’s actions.

Tempest: Taiwan is caught between two superpowers, the U.S. and China. What is the backstory of the current conflict over Taiwan? How did China shape the country’s history? How has U.S. policy changed from the Cold War to today?

BH: The KMT originally lost to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the Chinese Civil War and so retreated to Taiwan, ruling over Taiwan in an autocratic fashion under Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo for what was once the world’s longest period of martial law. The KMT brought with it the group now referred to as “waishengren,” who constitute around 10 percent of the population, while the majority “benshengren” of around 88 percent are from prior waves of Han migration in past centuries, and there is a 2 percent Indigenous population.

Taiwan under KMT rule fits the pattern seen the world over of right-wing dictatorships backed by the U.S. in the interests of opposing “Communist” countries. This has changed, with Taiwan having democratized and now ruled by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which emerged from the democracy movement and is a center-left party.

Despite democratization, the KMT still exists and continues to run in elections, but the party has now reinvented itself as a pro-unification party. As the KMT constituted a ruling political and economic elite in Taiwan after the retreat, the second-generation leadership of the KMT may view itself as able to win back its past privileges as something of a colonial ruling class, backed by a foreign power, if it is able to facilitate unification with China. Arguably, one can pose the KMT as trying to switch its backers from afar from the U.S. to the CCP at present.

As such, it is the DPP that has now taken on a role opposed to China. The DPP is historically the party of Taiwanese independence, as a result of which the U.S. sabotaged past presidential runs by current President Tsai Ing-wen in 2012, through a phone call placed to the Financial Times from the White House expressing lack of faith in her.

The U.S. viewed moves toward Taiwanese independence as disruptive to regional stability. But with the KMT having switched allegiances, the DPP now enjoys strong relations with U.S. presidential administrations, whether that be the preceding Trump administration or the current Biden administration.

WL: Yes, in that sense I see Pelosi’s visit as significant in ways that it shows not only the Republican China hawks are interested in building relations with Taiwan but also those from the Democratic Party. During the 2020 presidential elections between Trump and Biden, the Taiwanese support for Trump was overwhelming, which unfortunately gave rise to local ethnonationalist narratives against U.S. progressive movements such as Black Lives Matter and other social justice demands, and even framing BLM as funded by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at some point.

While Pelosi in the U.S. domestic political scene is far from what’s been understood as “progressive,” it nonetheless shows the possibility of a different kind of affinity with the U.S. society, which is in fact more aligned with the pro-independence camp’s multicultural and social justice values.

Tempest: The Trump administration dramatically intensified the conflict between the U.S. and China in general and over Taiwan in particular. Albeit in a more multilateral manner, the Biden administration has continued to assert U.S. hegemony in the region. It has also continued a shift away from strategic ambiguity toward strategic clarity with Biden seeming to promise direct intervention in defense of Taiwan in the case of a Chinese invasion. What has the administration done and what is its impact in the region and in Taiwan? And, specifically, what is the significance of Biden’s new CHIPS Act to make the U.S. more self-sufficient in producing semiconductors, which is such a crucial part of the Taiwanese economy?

BH: The U.S. still officially maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan, meaning that it does not have an explicit commitment but makes it ambiguous if it would come to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. Primarily Republican hawks have called for a shift towards “strategic clarity” on China, referring to an explicit commitment to defend Taiwan. Officially, there has still been no shift away from this, but the Pelosi visit takes place in the context of this debate and is seen by some as pushing the needle towards strategic clarity.

The world is heavily reliant on Taiwanese manufactured semiconductors at present. This incentivizes countries including the U.S. to defend Taiwan because they are reliant on Taiwanese semiconductors. This disincentivizes China from attacking Taiwan because it is also reliant on Taiwanese semiconductors, and it cannot risk destroying the infrastructure required for this. Pelosi touted the CHIPS Act as a way of strengthening economic cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan through semiconductors, but this proves ironic.

The CHIPS Act has sometimes been understood as a way to reduce the U.S. dependence on Taiwan to avoid geopolitical risks. It may be that the U.S. would try to decouple from Taiwan to avoid overreliance, making the U.S. less economically bound to Taiwan in a way that justifies defending Taiwan for its own economic interests, while framing this as something that would benefit Taiwan.

Tempest: How has China under Xi Jinping responded to Trump and now Biden? What are the actual risks of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan? Or will this just be another round in the Cross-Straits conflict?

BH: China has ramped up military threats directed at Taiwan in past years. Apart from the current blockade, Taiwan also saw a historic number of intrusions into its Air Defense Identification Zone—the airspace in which aircraft normally identify themselves for security purposes—in October of last year, after Chinese National Day. Chinese threats were sometimes in response to U.S. actions in support of Taiwan, but also were at other times aimed at threatening Taiwan as a proxy for the U.S., with the intended target audience of such threats actually being the U.S.

It is unlikely that the present exercises would lead to an invasion since, again, China currently lacks the ability to transport sufficient troops across the Taiwan Straits to conduct a long-term occupation of Taiwan. However, military exercises or air incursions could lead to uncontrolled escalation if, say, there is an accident, lives are lost, and that ramps up nationalistic calls for retaliation that the CCP must cater to.

A full-scale blockade is also unlikely at this juncture, but China could perhaps normalize military exercises of this nature, leading it to regularly conducting military drills around Taiwan, which would serve the purposes of not only trying to intimidate Taiwan militarily but to train for an invasion of the island. And, again, China has made it clear that it will continue military activity in the region, raising the possibility of the regularization of this sort of activity, or that the exercises simply never end.

WL: We must understand that Chinese military exercises are as much a show of power to its own citizens at home as an intimidation tactic against the Taiwanese people and the world. Xi, who is preparing for his third governing term, faces enormous domestic problems, especially the fact that the Chinese economy and the country’s social life have not recovered from COVID-19.

In response, Xi has tightened state control even more through his “dynamic zero” COVID policy and in response to protests like the one recently in Henan where people marched against financial corruption. On top of that, the Chinese state faces pressure from ultranationalist opposition. For example, after the first day of military exercises on August 4th, some ultra-nationalists were shown to be breaking down all over the internet because they felt that they were cheated by the Chinese state since they believed that the PLA was going to shoot down Pelosi’s plane.

Thus, Xi is reacting both to Taiwan’s situation and Chinese domestic politics. He had to take a hard stance and make a show of power to shore up his bid for a third term. The mainstream international framing that Chinese military exercises could have been prevented by Taiwan being more obedient to Xi’s wishes is rather naive and fails to understand how power works especially in an authoritarian regime.

Tempest: How has the Chinese-backed repression of the democratic uprising in Hong Kong impacted the Taiwanese government and people?

BH: The Hong Kong protests served to illustrate to many Taiwanese what the potential outcome of unification with China under the CCP would be. The DPP frequently brought up the Hong Kong protests to attack the pro-China KMT, and this was a major factor—though not the only factor—in its resounding 2020 election victory.

There has also been an influx of Hong Kong immigrants to Taiwan in the years since the 2019 protests. Students have to come to study, other people have started businesses, and others have come to work. This is increasingly visible in the urban landscape.

At the same time, the DPP has not put forward adequate plans to help Hong Kong asylum seekers, including people that have sought to travel to Taiwan secretly by boat. There is also increasing public hostility towards efforts to assist Hongkongers through means such as making it easier for them to obtain permanent residency. Many in Taiwan consider Hong Kong as simply a part of China now and the possibility that Chinese spies are mixed in with Hongkongers is used to try and shoot down such plans.

WL: From my research work with Hongkongers who immigrated from Taiwan, most of them in fact support the Taiwanese government implementing measures that can vet the visa-application process. However, the practical issues now are the lack of transparency—even if you are granted a temporary visa to stay in Taiwan and work, it’s hard to predict whether and when one’s permanent residency will be accepted. This results in more affluent and resourceful Hongkongers eventually migrating elsewhere, to the UK or North America.

Lone protester holding up an umbrella, in the midst of chaos, tear gas, and massive protests, and protestors in gas masks, during the 2014 Umbrella Movement uprising in Hong Kong.
Despite the years of mass popular uprisings in Hong Kong in defense of democratic rights, including the 2014 Umbrella Movement uprising pictured above, the Chinese government has succeeded in asserting full authority over the island, leading to major movements of thousands and emigrants and exiles, including into Taiwan. Photo by Pasu Au Yeung.

Another issue is the “Chineseness” of Hongkongers becoming the target of the more ultra-nationalist Taiwanese who are worried that they will eventually be recruited by pro-China parties such as the KMT. This is largely due to the fact that the KMT, historically, was the one who advocated an eventual unification with China under some sort of broader democratic framework. Obviously this is not only unrealistic but it is not what the majority Taiwanese want at this point.

Therefore, the overall lack of trust in the PRC government and the unclear status of the “ROC Taiwan” national framework (that is still constitutionally very “Chinese”), makes it quite awkward for Hongkongers to fit in legally, because they seem to remind Taiwanese people that we do have a “special connection” to China rather than simply treating Hongkongers as regular foreign immigrants. This is the reason why the solidarity between Taiwanese and Hongkongers became quite contested in the wake of the recent movement.

Tempest: This situation must be challenging for the Left in Taiwan. What should the Left in the country do when caught between these two powers?

WL: To leftists in Taiwan the situation is certainly quite uncomfortable. On one hand, to stand in solidarity with other leftists in the Asia Pacific region, it seems logical to resist increased U.S. military presence in the region and hence to oppose Pelosi’s visit. On the other hand, to ensure the continued existence of Taiwan’s democratic sovereignty and the livelihood of the 23 million people living on this island, having more international alliances is not only crucial but necessary.

My personal stance is that if it’s partially the U.S. involvement around WWII that has got us to this semi-sovereign state, it is in fact unfair and irresponsible for the U.S. to withdraw from any affairs regarding Taiwan-China issues, especially when China is conducting more measures to isolate Taiwan internationally. However, we also must remain strategic and critical of Taiwan’s alliance with the U.S. We must use it to improve social equality and the democratic process in our country.

We also must push the U.S. people, not just the state, to fulfill their commitments to supporting marginalized nations like Taiwan that are threatened by China’s authoritarian regime. This is where I think I would differentiate my position from the Western Left who often retreat into U.S. isolationism because it seems less morally complicated from a U.S. standpoint.

As left-leaning Taiwanese, we understand that democracy can often become empty rhetoric if it’s not backed up by long-term commitments and actions. In this sense, I personally appreciate Pelosi’s gestures of showing her respect in Taiwan’s efforts of transitional justice, for instance, by visiting the White Terror Memorial Park along with pro-democracy activists from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and those who are in exile from China including Taiwanese NGO worker Lee Ming-che, dissident Hongkonger Lam Wing-kee, Uyghur Tiananmen Square protest leader Wu’er Kaixi, and Tibetan political leader Kelsang Gyaltsen Bawa.

Obviously, Pelosi’s symbolic act does not redress the U.S. government’s inconsistent stance on self-determination in Taiwan and other marginalized states such as Afghanistan. We know that the U.S. is entirely capable of abandoning such principles as democracy when convenient to its political economic interests.

However, I do think it’s significant to note how Taiwan can now be seen as a site that holds and fosters a regional anti-authoritarian activist alliance when pro-democracy movements in other parts of Asia are facing intense crackdowns such as in Hong Kong, Myanmar, and Thailand. This is not to Pelosi’s credit but a result of decades of grassroots movements.

Her visit only highlights such existing facts to a more mainstream and wider international audience. I think it’s strategically wise from the Taiwanese activists to show that Taiwan is capable of being more than a sovereign democratic country for itself but also a gathering point of an anti-authoritarian international alliance from below.

Tempest: The international Left is now put to yet another challenge of how to oppose imperial powers and stand in solidarity with a country and a people’s right to self-determination. So much of the Left have failed previous tests in the case of Palestine, Syria, and most recently Ukraine. What should the international Left in Asia and throughout the world do in this situation? What arguments and concrete solidarity can we provide to the Taiwanese Left as well as the country’s social and working class movements?

BH: I think it is important for the international Left in Asia or elsewhere to understand the complexities of the situation, rather than rely on well-trodden tropes from the Cold War, or to embrace the facile binaries of the campist Left, which supports the camp of supposedly anti-imperialist states like China opposed to the U.S. Instead, the international Left should seek to pressure their respective governments to avoid conflict without abandoning solidarity with Taiwan’s freedom and right to self-determination.

The last thing the international Left should do is adopt the imperial logic of treating Taiwan as a geopolitical pawn that should be sacrificed in order to maintain regional stability. In reality, that approach probably would not work anyway, considering the historical failures of appeasement to secure “peace in our times.”

Nor should anyone on the Left be naïve enough to think that regional peace can be secured if imperial powers adhere to the half-century-old agreements that they drew up among themselves. If, instead, the international Left pressures their governments to avoid conflict and stands in solidarity with Taiwan’s right to self-determination at the same time, it can widen the terrain for the Taiwanese Left, which up until now has been very limited.

WL: Yes, I just want to add that no one wants war. But to prevent war, we must build long-term commitments in fostering international alliance with the Taiwanese progressives, rather than simply issuing “anti-war” statements that ask the U.S. to retreat every time China makes unfair and unjust demands like much of the Anglophone Left has done in reaction to this current crisis. The more bilateral or multilateral relations that the Taiwanese civil society can build with other international allies, the less likely that China would think they have a chance of invading Taiwan without any consequences.

This is why the Taiwanese activists take the Ukrainian crisis seriously. Beyond organizing humanitarian efforts for the refugees, we also try to learn from how Ukrainians built robust networks of defense and won international assistance when the war broke out. This may be the first time that the broader Taiwanese civil society has realized that we have much to learn from other states under contested sovereignty, rather than just the superpower nations.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by 總統府; modified by Tempest.

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