Taiwan, no longer a place of international obscurity, now looms large in the public consciousness as a potential flashpoint for conflict between great powers. This is a sharp contrast to a decade ago, when Taiwan was largely overshadowed by the economic and political rise of China.
Back then, I was a student participant in the 2014 Sunflower Movement – which involved the month-long occupation of the Taiwanese legislature to protest against closer political relations with China. The shift has been striking. There was hardly any attention to our actions but, by contrast, Hong Kong’s “umbrella” movement later that year attracted significant international coverage.
Taiwanese voices continue to be left out of discussions of their own future. Taiwan is often spoken of in terms of the US and China, but not in terms of what its own people hope to see regarding their fate. This is what the rapid shift in the international discourse occludes – that Taiwan is still discussed as a geopolitical chess piece.
Taiwan has its own government, military, economy, and free democratic elections. It possesses most of the hallmarks of being a nation-state, though Chinese territorial claims prevent its recognition by the majority of the international community. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has never controlled Taiwan. Though the PRC claims to have inherited the territory during the Qing empire, Taiwan was only spuriously part of China in dynastic history, having been a province of the Qing for a mere seven years and a hinterland of the Ming. No Chinese dynasty controlled the whole of Taiwan. Its original inhabitants, who have faced Han settler colonialism for the past 400 years, are indigenous.
After its transition to a democracy, following the decades-long authoritarian rule of the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang, Taiwanese have voted in presidential elections based on the choice that they thought would keep them safe from the threat of a Chinese military invasion while still maintaining hard-won democratic freedoms. All indications are that this will again be the case in the January elections, with Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) the current frontrunner. The DPP emerged from Taiwan’s democracy movement and has historically favoured independence, even if it now maintains a pro-status quo position to avoid giving China any pretext for military threats.
Part of the renewed global focus on Taiwan is because of its central role in global semiconductor manufacturing. Taiwan produces the semiconductors needed for everything from iPhones to electronic vehicles. It is thought that this reliance on Taiwanese semiconductors incentivises Western powers to defend Taiwan and can dissuade China from an attack (Chinese electronics manufacturing is also reliant on Taiwanese semiconductors).
But the deterioration of political freedoms in Hong Kong, as well as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have served to demonstrate to Taiwanese what the potential outcomes from a Chinese invasion could be. Hong Kong serves to illustrate the political control and domestic repression that would ensue. Likewise, Ukraine offers a direct example of what urban warfare – wreaking havoc on civilian populations – would look like.
There is increasing discussion in Taiwan of the need for military readiness. Apart from historic increases to military budgets, the draft for men has been extended to one year. Though criticisms of the draft have been long-standing, efforts have been made to improve the training regimen. There is also greater social discussion of Taiwan’s defence needs in public discourse. What was previously confined to expert circles is now increasingly discussed by society at large.