Taiwanese independence revisited

President Joe Biden no doubt had good intentions with his Summit for Democracy, held last week. Although it was basically a talk-fest with little in the way of concrete results, it was at least a step in the right direction. As I and others have been saying for some time, the international community needs to take the defence and promotion of democracy as seriously as it takes other causes.

Nonetheless, it was not a good look when the presentation of one of the participants was censored by the White House apparently in the interests of appeasing a neighboring dictatorship.

The issue, as you might have guessed, was Taiwan. Its presentation included a slide in which countries were colored according to their level of civil rights – which meant, of course, that Taiwan and China were in different colors. But that goes against the state department’s guidelines, which forbid any explicit acknowledgement of the fact that the two are not the same country. So the video feed was cut, leaving a Taiwanese minister presenting on audio only.

The White House disputes the Reuters story and denies that the move was intentional. And it’s true that you can now watch the full presentation, complete with map, in uncensored form. But the incident raises once again the thorny question of how to understand and talk about the status of Taiwan.

We’ve had this discussion before, about four years ago in the apparently less freighted context of the travel industry. On that occasion, when Qantas was subject to protests from Beijing over its separate listings for Taiwan and Hong Kong, I pointed out that “such a business needs to somehow differentiate among these destinations if it’s not to send travellers to the wrong place or with the wrong documents.”

Whether it’s travel or civil rights or a hundred other applications, in practice it’s often necessary to recognise that Taiwan is an independent country. But the Taiwanese government itself does not make that claim. It still asserts, rather feebly, that it is the legitimate government of the whole of China – since that assertion, paradoxically enough, is less provocative to Beijing than a claim of legal independence.

A recent ABC story looks at the views of the Taiwanese people on the subject, under the slightly misleading headline of “An increasing number of Taiwanese people want independence, but they’re in no rush.” The misleading aspect comes from the fact that “independence” here is something of a term of art. In the ordinary everyday meaning of the word, Taiwan is already independent, and the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese want it to stay that way.

In fact, underlying public sentiment (as tracked by the election study centre) seems very consistent. The large majority choose one of three similar options – maintain status quo indefinitely, maintain status quo and decide later, or maintain status quo and move towards independence – and have done so for the best part of twenty years.

A few years ago there was a rise in support for “maintain status quo and move towards unification,” when president Tsai Ing-wen was unpopular and voters pined for the more conciliatory approach of her Kuomintang opponents. But even then it peaked at only 12.8% (plus another 5.0% for “unification as soon as possible”), and it dropped like a stone as China began its crackdown on Hong Kong.

The recent change, which the ABC highlights, is that among the three mainstream options, “move towards independence” has gained at the expense of the other two, to the point where all three are about equal in the high 20s. But while no doubt that reflects the increased popularity of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party, which is nominally pro-independence, its practical significance is unclear.

Taiwan’s parties use slightly different rhetoric, but both face the same policy constraints and therefore follow much the same strategy: strive for good relations with Beijing where possible, avoid unnecessary provocations, and build up both international links and domestic capacity for defence in case the worst should one day happen.

Everyone concerned knows that “one China” is a fiction, but if it keeps the peace – as it has for fifty years – then it’s a useful fiction. Most Taiwanese seem to agree.

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* You can see the list of invitees here. Despite criticism from some of the usual suspects, I think it’s a pretty good list; the only really surprising inclusion is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and even it can be said to have made real progress in recent years (albeit off a very low base). There was no attempt to pretend that such countries as Egypt, the Gulf states, Turkey or even Singapore are democracies, as one might have feared from previous administrations.

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