Taiwan: The jewel of Asia?

By Nicholas Cheung

Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), is an island nation with a population of 23.57 million and a GDP per capita of USD$32787, being considered a wealthy country by global standards. It is also one of the only countries in the Asia-Pacific to legalise same-sex marriage, and ranks as one of Asia’s freest societies with its strong democracy. Despite its rich economy and liberal society, Taiwan struggles with one fundamental obstacle: Legitimacy. This obstacle has been plaguing the political, business, and entertainment world alike as a result of its powerful neighbour across the Taiwan Strait: China. As China’s global influence grows exponentially with its massive economic clout, coupled with a weakening West, Taiwan’s future becomes increasingly uncertain.

In political terms, Taiwan is seen as a renegade province by China which must be forcibly reunited with it. Despite Taiwan ticking all the checkboxes for being a sovereign state, China’s growing influence in international organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and World Trade Organisation (WTO) meant that for states and businesses to have access to the Chinese market and receive Chinese funds, they would need to agree with the notion of Taiwan being a part of China. As a result, multinational cooperations and states avoid establishing deeper ties with Taiwan in fear of losing access to the lucrative Chinese market. As of the writing of this article, Taiwan only has diplomatic ties with fourteen countries and is not an official member state of the UN, showing how China is using its influence as a form of coercion to make life miserable for the Taiwanese government and its citizens alike. Despite Taiwan’s grim political status, its overall situation is not as grim at it seems.

The election of Tsai Ing Wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2016, and her successful re-election in 2020, has demonstrated a trend shift in Taiwan. This shift is a generational one, with the younger generation aligning themselves with the localist DPP,  unlike the previous generations who still see themselves as ‘Chinese’, something which the opposing Kuomintang (KMT) stresses their importance on. Despite China racketing up their pressure on Taiwan after Tsai took power, with means of pressuring its diplomatic allies with economic coercion and countless invasion threats, with Chinese vessels and aircraft infiltrating Taiwanese territory, these actions seem counterproductive for China.

Although Taiwan has lost eight diplomatic allies since 2016, Taiwan’s importance to global affairs have strengthened. Taiwan’s traditional allies, the United States and Japan, have been vocal about their support for Taiwan, agreeing to an increase in cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region to counter an ever-aggressive China amid rising tensions in the region. China’s heavy-handed approach in suppressing Hong Kong’s protests gave Taiwanese citizens the impression that China is not a trustworthy but rather a revisionist power that aims to challenge global norms through coercive means. This gave the DPP a huge advantage as its popularity skyrocketed, a rebound from its declining performance up to mid-2019, while the KMT, especially politicians like Han Guo-yu, were seen as traitors that only cared about building better ties with China. Furthermore, with Taiwan being the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage under Tsai, as well as having a democratically elected female president, it is no doubt that Taiwan can be a progressive role model for the rest of the continent.

As for COVID-19, Taiwan’s response and handling proved to be a beacon of hope to the world. As countries around the world grappled with soaring infections, deaths, and the overburdening of hospitals, Taiwan’s quick response coupled with citizen cooperation, short lockdowns and border closure kept infections at check.  Whilst most of the world’s population suffered through sporadic lockdowns, Taiwanese citizens enjoyed a life of near pre-COVID normality. Although the tourism and aviation sectors took a big hit from Taiwan’s strict COVID restrictions, domestic consumption and government approval ratings remained stable. Taiwan’s determination to contain the pandemic has gained respect and gratitude from countries around the world as it kept its death rate and cases extremely low despite it lacking support from international bodies like the World Health Organisation (WHO) and China using its influence to prevent Taiwan from accessing vaccines from global organisations. This is a huge morale boost for Taiwan as it weathered the tide of a global crisis whilst its rich friends are still suffering from it.

Overall, Taiwan’s diplomatic status is on shaky grounds as it is likely that China will continue to make use of its bellicose economy to pressure the global community to cut ties with Taiwan. However, Taiwan has still managed to stand firm and even have an influence on international relations. It will be interesting to see the direction Taiwan will take in the upcoming years with China and its own relation with the international community being the issue that pains it the most.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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