China, Taiwan and the battle raging to ‘erase an identity’

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The distinctive landscape of Liberty Square in Taiwan. Photo: iStock

The further China leverages its increasing global clout to “erase Taiwan’s international identity,” the more Taiwan is defining itself as a place of hard-won democratic freedoms and socially inclusive values.

If there is one metric that defines Taiwan in this context, it is the unequivocal opposition to China’s surveillance-state authoritarianism, even as Beijing’s state media claim otherwise.

To be sure, last week, China hijacked one of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies, Burkino Faso – Taiwan’s second diplomatic loss in a month, as the other was the Dominican Republic – reducing the number of countries worldwide that diplomatically recognize Taiwan to just 17, not including Vatican City.

In the same week, China blocked Taiwan’s observer status – even of its journalists – from the World Health Organization’s annual assembly in Geneva.

In a similar move, China recently demanded that 36 international airlines change their online-booking systems to label Taiwan as a province of China. The White House, in what might be described as a refreshing – and unusually apposite – literary sleight of hand, decried the demand as “Orwellian nonsense.” All the same, most airlines have complied.

Similar pressure has been applied to hotel chains, with the Marriott International group not only apologizing to China for listing Taiwan as a “country” but condemning “China separatists,” throwing Tibetans into the mix for “polite” ideological measure.

It is believed that 153 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest against Beijing’s policies since 1997. Meanwhile, it is unknown how many Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are currently detained or being “re-educated” to be good “Marxists” because China has ring-fenced former East Turkestan against independent observers and journalists. The same is true of Tibet.

These numbers, of course, will change over time, and it is logical to expect that travelers from China will gain increasing freedom of movement. But for China to win using its current game plan, it would have to make it impossible for Taiwan passport holders to go anywhere

But, returning to the issue of Taiwan, which is certainly under unprecedented pressure from China, short of a decisive and highly unlikely successful invasion, the threats that it now faces may be inimical to its efforts to promote itself as a model of democracy in Asia, but they are largely theatrical.

The existential threat to Taiwan’s existence might well feel real to some Taiwanese, but until China is ready to seize it by military force, it is a projected illusion aimed at bringing Taiwan to heel by fear.

Reports vary, but as of this year, a Taiwan passport gave its citizens visa-free entry to 134 countries. PRC passport holders can travel visa-free to 70 countries.

These numbers, of course, will change over time, and it is logical to expect that travelers from China will gain increasing freedom of movement. But for China to win using its current game plan,0 it would have to make it impossible for Taiwan passport holders to go anywhere.

That will not happen, because even if Taiwan is under extreme diplomatic pressure, it continues not only to be a powerful economic force, but also an agent of containment of Chinese Pacific expansion, just as Japan is.

In short, Taiwan is not being “erased” from the map but is better defined as the victim of a coercive campaign to force international corporations and countries to only do business with the world’s 22nd biggest economy as a de facto nation.

When considered in terms of blustering Beijing diplomacy, this may seem a successful strategy, but given that Taiwan’s losses are more notional than substantive, China could be considered the greater loser. The People’s Republic of China once played its cards close to its chest. It no longer does so, and its agenda is becoming more hubristically evident.

Unless China can maintain the wobbly deception of its importance as an engine of economic growth and – in an even a greater stretch on the demands of our collective imagination – as a model of governance, global perceptions of China will likely shift from seeing it not as an ally of a new global order, but as its enemy.

In a recent report, the New York Times conjectures that “the pressure on Taiwan might not be a single, coordinated campaign, but rather the result of different branches of the Chinese government scrambling to appear supportive of President Xi Jinping’s increasingly nationalistic oratory.”

This is a valid argument. China’s politics are far more fractured than even the most knowledgeable specialist can pretend to comprehend.

But the argument that China’s policy is the product of “nationalist oratory” still needs to be considered within the context of the fact that the Chairman of Everything, as Xi Jinping is frequently referred to, appears unassailable.

If he cannot be opposed, this would in effect put China on a collision course with itself, not with Taiwan.

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