Foreign Policy Blogs

Taiwan Turns Further Away from the Mainland

Image result for dragon boat festival taiwan images 2017

One of the country’s biggest Chinese celebrations/ (BBC/Lottie Davies)

This past week many Taiwanese flocked to their hometowns to celebrate the Chinese tradition of Duānwǔjié, or the Dragon Boat Festival.

The festival is held every year to commemorate the death of the Chinese poet and minister Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC), who chose to drown himself in a river rather than see his country invaded and conquered by the State of Qin.

During the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty, Minister Qu Yuan had warned against a Chu alliance with the Qin, the most powerful of the Warring States, and was subsequently banished for his beliefs. Legend has it villagers raced their boats to search for him and then threw rice into the water to distract the fish away from his body.

To honor his death, many Taiwanese eat zongzi, a glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo, which represents the rice thrown into the river.

Other Taiwanese were celebrating a less traditional occasion—a landmark ruling by a constitutional court, coming just days before the start of the festival, granting Taiwan’s same-sex couples the right to marry. The ruling is the first such in traditionally conservative Asia.

On the more socially conservative mainland, the ruling drew criticism. Xinhua, China’s state-run media agency, said the decision had “caused controversy”—despite China having a similar “equality before the law” provision in its own constitution.

The China Digital Times, which monitors mainland censorship, found state directives instructing: “News regarding ‘Taiwan becoming a legal area for same-sex marriage, raises sensitive political and social issues. Do not hype this story. Regarding terms such as constitution, Judicial Yuan, Legislative Yuan, President, etc., take note to use quotation marks. Make sure not to present Taiwan as a different political entity than the Chinese mainland.”

The ruling also prompted one Chinese academic to urge Taiwanese parents to move to China to protect their children from AIDS, according to Reuters.

The court decision is the latest example of a progressive Taiwan growing apart from a more restrictive mainland. Following eight years of relative calm, President Tsai Ing-Wen‘s entry into office in May 2016 strained cross-Strait relations—her election prompted Beijing to formally cut communication with Taiwan and to actively discourage mainland Chinese from visiting the island.

Tensions heightened noticeably following her phone call last December with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, marking the first time an American president or president-elect spoke publicly to a Taiwanese leader since the U.S. ended their formal diplomatic relationship in 1979. Yet with U.S. President Trump now seeking Beijing’s help in dealing with a recalcitrant North Korea, some China-watchers now believe Taiwan’s interest may be bargained away in a grand U.S. deal with Beijing.

Before Trump was elected, some 88% of Taiwanese believed their military was incapable of defending Taiwan from an attack by China, and more than 47% thought the U.S. would come to their rescue, according to the 2016 Taiwan National Security Survey (TNSS) conducted by the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University.

The TNSS survey also revealed almost 70% of Taiwanese agreed that Taiwan is already an independent nation and its name is the Republic of China (ROC), with no need to seek further independence. Nearly 83% supported a peace agreement with the mainland whereby Taipei will pledge not to seek independence and Beijing promises not to attack Taiwan.

True, Taiwan can take some solace from the current Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the three U.S.-PRC Communiqués (the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué, the 1979 Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations and the August 17, 1982 Joint Communiqué on Arms Sales to Taiwan) and President Ronald Reagan’s “Six Assurances”. Yet the TRA is not an tight, indisputable security pact and President Trump seemingly opposes military alliances with those who don’t spend heavily on their military.

According to a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Enoch Y. Wu, a former noncommissioned officer in the Taiwanese Army special forces, claims Taiwan’s active force is less than 200,000, having fallen from 400,000 in 1996, and that the nearly two million reservists are under equipped and need retraining.

Even if President Trump decides to come to Taiwan’s rescue in the event of an attack, he’ll need to convince his electorate. After lengthy U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, polls show consistent low levels of support for military intervention—only 28% of Americans would support the use of U.S. troops to defend Taiwan in a conflict with China.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666