Observations of an expat: Taiwan

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Forget about Hong Kong. The ex-British colony is a consolation prize for Beijing compared to the 23.6 million souls on Taiwan, or, to give it its claimed name, the Republic of China.

The Taiwanese have kept an eagle eye on political events in Hong Kong since before the 1997 handover. From the start they were sceptical about the Beijing’s talk of “two systems in one country” and pledges of peaceful reunification. Recent events in Hong Kong have confirmed their scepticism and is threatening to ignite a 71-year-old Asian powder keg which could all too easily lead to a Sino-American showdown.

The dispute dates back to 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek, leader of China’s Kuomintang government, fled across the Taiwan Straits a few months before Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party declared victory in the long-running Chinese Civil War. He took with him China’s gold reserves, American-backing, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and a totally unrealistic claim to rule the 3.7 billion square miles of Mainland China from an offshore island of 13,980 square miles.

It couldn’t last. And it didn’t. In 1971 Taiwan lost its seat on the Security Council and the UN. In 1979 the US caved into the pressures of realpolitik and extended diplomatic recognition to Beijing. It maintained a de-facto embassy in the Taiwanese capital Taipei and pledged itself to the continued defense of the island, but in the eyes of Beijing and the rest of the world it was the de jure recognition that counted. Today there are only 15 countries (including the Vatican) that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Given China’s long history, it is worth noting that Taiwan has played minor role until relatively recent times. For a long time it was left to the indigenous aborigines and Dutch and Spanish colonials. In 1683 the Chinese Emperor dismissed it as “a ball of mud.” It wasn’t until the British took a keen interest in the island during the First Opium War that the Chinese realised the strategic value of Taiwan. They annexed it and then lost it to the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. It wasn’t regained until after World War Two.

Beijing’s biggest problem with Taiwan is similar to that presented by Hong Kong—a Western-style capitalist alternative to communist party rule. Its population enjoys a higher standard of living than Mainland China and all the trappings of democratic government (although it was far from democratic for the first 40 years of Kuomintang rule).  It is also protected by defense agreements with the US who have used the Seventh Fleet on three occasions to demonstrate their determination to keep alive the Chinese capitalist alternative.

Beijing has officially declared Taiwan a “renegade province” which needs to be reabsorbed into Mainland China. For many years the question was how? It was answered with a joint diplomatic  policy of “deliberate ambiguity” which allowed both sides to interpret the legal status of the island as it sees fit. “Deliberate ambiguity” has allowed a gradual expansion of commercial, humanitarian and even nascent diplomatic relations. But the problem with ambiguity is that it opens the dangerous possibility of misinterpretation and miscalculation.

Those dangers have been heightened by the crackdown in Hong Kong, the re-election of pro-independence president Tsai Ing-wen, and increasingly bellicose rhetoric from Xi Jinping which is matched and exceeded by Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo.


* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Paul Barker 24th Jul '20 - 2:22pm

    This is one of those odd cases where Trump is more or less Right. Taiwan should be defended, even at the risk of War. There are 3 points here I think :
    1st we should always oppose Countries Occupying other Countries
    2nd, alarge part of the Taiwanese population are not ethnically Chinese & we know from Xinjiang, Tibet & other outlying “Regions” how the Chines State treats non- Chinese groups
    3rd, there would probably be stiff resistance to any attempt at Occupation & it could easily become a bloodbath.

    Britain only has a very small part to play in these matters but we should be on the Right Side.

  • John Marriott 24th Jul '20 - 3:21pm

    Just another far away country and a quarrel between people of whom we know nothing. Sounds familiar?

  • “According to government figures, over 95% of Taiwan’s population of 23.4 million consists of Taiwanese people of Han Chinese descent, while 2.3% are Austronesian Taiwanese aborigines. The category of Han Taiwanese consists of the three main groups: Hoklo, Hakka, and mainland Chinese.” from wikipedia.

    They do seem to be a particularly attractive strain of Chinese but still nearly all Chinese, if it all goes to pot then the UK will probably be backing up the USA in a way that will cause the usual wailing here, one of those situations where you can’t win whatever you do.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 24th Jul '20 - 4:14pm

    Excellent info. We must do as Paul said, mindful of the response of John. We should care and act, but not with war, but peaceful methodology.

    Reagan was staunch but it never led to war on this, or Russia.

    We need to not see countries as far away and not of concern, but, as with this, the Uyghurs, be concerned enough to act sensibly and staunchly.

  • No doubt Paul, Frank and Lorenzo will be first in the queue to volunteer.

    “Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye”.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 24th Jul '20 - 4:59pm


    Why be like a fool, I said, peace, not war, can you do us a service and read it before you put me in a category uncalled for, i joined this party because of their position on Iraq!

  • Robin Bennett 24th Jul '20 - 5:57pm

    Covid-19 deaths per million to date: Taiwan 0.3, UK 673. Public health authorities in Taiwan learned about the virus from the monitoring of electronic communications on the mainland as early as 31 December, and had the experience of SARS and MERS behind them. Our public health people knew, or ought to have known, what urgent steps Taiwan took, and learned from them.

  • Response to John Marriott: You imply that what happens in Taiwan has little or no effect on our lives. Rest assured that if the Sino-American butterfly starts flapping its wings over Taiwan it will result in a tsunami hitting our shores.

    On the general subject of war: Of course it is to be avoided at all costs, but as I pointed out in my blog last week (The Thucydides Trap), avoidance is becoming more difficult. The last Taiwan Straits Crisis was in 1996 when President Clinton sent two aircraft carriers to the straits after the PRC lobbed a series of test missiles into the separating channel. The Chinese backed down, as they did on the two previous occasions. Since then they have beefed up both their submarine force and anti-ship missile batteries. There are now an estimated 60 submarines and a thousand anti-ship missile batteries ranged along the Chinese coast, most of them within striking distance of the Taiwan Straits.
    Does this mean that the US, backed by its Western Allies, should back down if faced with a new crisis in the Straits? Depends on a number of yet to be determined factors. But generally speaking, I think it would be wisest to conduct a diplomatic dialogue that kept the US as far away from making those difficult decisions as is humanly possible.

  • “Deliberate ambiguity” sounds like a practical compromise rather than heightening tensions further. The last thing Taiwan needs is getting caught in the middle of a trade and or diplomatic dispute between China and the West.

  • Paul Barker 24th Jul '20 - 6:57pm

    The Chines Empire needs to be contained in the same way The Russian Empire was in the last Century. Democracies need to “Hang together” or they will end up Hanging seperately.
    There is an excellent Article on things The UK could now now over on The Political Betting Site.

  • John Marriott 25th Jul '20 - 8:25am

    @Tom Arms
    Regarding my comment, whose genesis is actually Neville Chamberlain’s famous remark about Czechoslovakia back in 1938, you obviously don’t do irony. Being an educated guy, I’m sure you don’t need reminding why he said what he did. If not, I am sure that someone like Mr Bourke will enlighten us.

    The point I was trying to make was that we shouldn’t be making the same mistake that Chamberlain and the other european advocates of appeasement made when dealing with an authoritarian regime. The problem is that quite a lot of people, I am sue, would rather adopt that attitude again today. Perhaps I should have been more expansive. Let’s just hope we stand firm and don’t make the same mistake again. However, with the current White House occupant needing a ‘foreign event’ to boost his poll and so many NATO members still failing to make good their commitment to defence, we are really not in a strong position if things do kick off. Sending an aircraft carrier to the South China sea without aircraft is a bit like pointing your gun but failing to load the bullets!

  • Taiwan ROC is a great place to visit. What other country has the queen’s head?

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