Written by Brian Hioe.
An article in the May issue of The Economist caused strong reactions in Taiwan due to referring to Taiwan as “the most dangerous place on Earth.” In particular, the article cited the geopolitical risks to Taiwan–of being caught between great power competition between the US and China and facing the threat of Chinese invasion–as making Taiwan “the most dangerous place on Earth.”
Indeed, the reality that the Taiwanese deal with daily is having thousands of missiles pointed at them from China. However, the article’s playing up the possibility of Chinese invasion was not seen as corresponding with the lived experience of Taiwanese.
Yet, The Economist piece reflects one of the strange paradoxes of Taiwan’s situation.
Taiwan has long been overshadowed by its larger neighbour, China, in international coverage. As such, Taiwan has long been perceived as marginal and peripheral.
But over the past year, Taiwan has found itself unexpectedly pushed toward the global spotlight. This is due to several factors, including Taiwan’s successes fighting off COVID-19–it was only recently that Taiwan saw near-lockdown conditions for the first time, as one of the last nations in the world where this took place. At the same time, global shortages of semiconductors as a result of the pandemic has resulted in an awareness of the critical role that Taiwan plays in global supply chains, particularly affecting the automotive industry. Global reliance on Taiwan’s semiconductor industry reflects Taiwan’s paradoxical geopolitical role; both the US and China rely on Taiwanese semiconductors, with Taiwanese semiconductors even used in the missiles pointed at Taiwan.
Much international coverage of Taiwan has been positive. Particularly with Taiwan’s successes regarding the coronavirus, this saw Taiwan lauded for efforts to stave off COVID-19. Nevertheless, alarmism seems to be the flip side of this positive press. This may reflect how the idealization of Taiwan from international media outlets was often to juxtapose Taiwan to China, showing how a democratic majority ethnically Han polity handled the pandemic versus how a non-democratic one did. Or this may have been touting Taiwan in juxtaposition to the mishandling of COVID-19 by western countries, such as the US and UK. This idealization of Taiwan did not necessarily entail an understanding of the long-term challenges Taiwan has faced.
As seen in The Economist article, the rest of the world seems to be suddenly realizing the constant geopolitical threat to Taiwan from China, despite this having the case for Taiwan for decades. China has stepped up military threats directed at Taiwan in the past year, increasing the frequency of Chinese flybys to nearly daily, and conducting naval exercises in waters near Taiwan. That being said, China’s threats do not register as having escalated in intensity for most of the society, probably due to China’s failure to establish any linear narrative of progressively escalating intensifying threats to Taiwan, threats instead coming across as repetitive and mundane.
In this light, one expects there to be much alarmism about Taiwan, with new attention paid to the threat to Taiwan from China from many quarters. This reflects the learning curve regarding the sudden wave of attention that Taiwan has had in the past year. Nevertheless, Taiwan has had years and years to think through the possibility of a Chinese invasion. What much of the rest of the world may perceive as indifference is simply that Chinese threats are taken as a matter of fact and have long become part of the everyday.
In this, one expects little attention paid to Taiwanese agency. The Economist piece scarcely discussed Taiwan’s own capacities to resist a Chinese invasion. Still, it framed the issue only regarding whether the US would intervene and otherwise rehashed old tropes regarding problems with Taiwan’s draft system. There was little discussion of what it would mean for China to launch a costly naval invasion, in which it proves easier to defend rather than attack, with predictions that China would lose tens of thousands of troops without any outside intervention or the limited annual window of opportunity that sea conditions are right for China to launch an invasion. When Taiwan is lauded for its COVID-19 response, one saw frequent quotations of Taiwanese experts and policymakers, with the view that they had perspectives to offer that could help the rest of the world learn why Taiwan had such successes avoiding the worst of the pandemic. Yet when it comes to threats to Taiwan, even if it is Taiwanese most directly in the line of fire, there is scarce attention to Taiwanese voices.
But perhaps the incident points to the significance of international perceptions of Taiwan. Constant reiteration of China’s threat to Taiwan in international media, while belittling Taiwan’s capacity to resist Chinese threats or discounting this entirely, decreases the odds that potential allies would be willing to come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a Chinese invasion.
In international media depictions of Taiwan, Taiwan has historically struggled with the fact that pan-Blue, KMT voices are overwhelmingly cited. Indeed, one notes that the KMT was only able to maintain power in Taiwan for the decades that it did because of support from the US and western powers. Moreover, one of the reasons it was able to hold power was its ability to shape international perceptions so that the international world did not pay attention to its human rights abuses domestically. This can be seen with some other recent articles, not only defence-related but also regarding the Tsai administration’s responses to Taiwan’s current COVID-19 outbreak. This occurs with the view that because the Tsai administration is now in power, the KMT is an alternative voice that should be heard, without necessarily registering that the KMT historically monopolized representations of Taiwan and was hegemonic in terms of its ability to control the narrative about Taiwan.
One expects continued fear-mongering about Taiwan, particularly with concerns about the fragility of Taiwan’s infrastructure after two recent power outages, and because of an ongoing drought, the worst drought to hit Taiwan in 67 years. The narrative will be that Taiwan’s weaknesses in infrastructure would make a Chinese invasion easy to take place. Moreover, it is possible companies in Taiwan – currently central to global supply chains – will be incentivized to shift manufacturing from Taiwan because of frequent power disruptions and because semiconductor manufacturing demands sizable water consumption, with water supply threatened by drought.
Indeed, there are concerns regarding Taiwan’s frequent infrastructure mismanagement. Likewise, with concerns about the capacity of state actors such as China to target infrastructures such as energy grids or manufacturing lines, the precarious state of the semiconductor manufacturing or the power grid reveals weak points that China could exploit. Nonetheless, it proves key to keep in mind that, even with disruptions to Taiwan’s infrastructure, a Chinese invasion would be telegraphed far in advance. This would be seen through satellite imagery detecting troops massing on the shores of China. The necessary conditions for a beachhead invasion only occur several times per year. And so, an invasion could not occur due to short-term factors. Again, alarmism about the imminent Chinese invasion reveals that the idealization of Taiwan in the past year, in many cases, only reflected a shallow understanding of Taiwan simply as an Other to be juxtaposed to both China and western nations.
The title of political scientist Wu Rwei-ren’s 2016 monograph, Prometheus Unbound: When Formosa Reclaims the World, is suggestive. Formosa has indeed reclaimed the world in the past year, insofar as Taiwan has received more attention than ever before. But as with Taiwan’s long-term dilemma, this new wave of attention that Taiwan has received reflects its long-term marginality, as a geopolitical pawn caught between empires.
Brian Hioe is one of the founding editors of New Bloom. He is a freelance writer on social movements and politics, and occasional translator. This article is part of the special issue on new media. He tweets @brianhioe
This article was published as part of Taiwan’s Security & China-US Rivalry special issue. All articles in the special issue can be found here.