FOR a small island-nation, bobbing about on the opposite side of the globe, Taiwan has been paying close attention to the recent referendums that have taken place, amid much controversy, in Catalonia and Kurdistan. Interest in the Catalonian stand-off is perhaps to be expected. After all, the disputed vote on independence on October 1st, which the Spanish authorities did their damnedest to stop, has shaken Europe. More striking is that, in a media landscape more given to trivia and sensationalism, Formosa Television, whose viewers favour formal independence for Taiwan, sent a film crew to provide in-depth coverage of Kurdistan’s vote last month on seceding from Iraq.
Small, plucky peoples seeking independence: Taiwan falls into the category. It is a model of self-determination, peace and the promotion of human rights—the core principles of the UN. Formerly a thuggish one-party dictatorship under martial law, over three decades Taiwan has transformed itself into a vibrant democracy that is notable for being decent, prosperous and civil, albeit with wildly rumbustious politics. What is more, by almost any measure, Taiwan is already, in effect, a sovereign country. It elects its own president, raises its own army and pursues its own foreign policy—dream on Catalonia. Yet, like Catalonia and Kurdistan, it feels short-changed, denied international recognition and a sense of its rightful status in the world.
The reason, of course, is China. Communist dogma views Taiwan as the home of a regime that was toppled in 1949 and that it still sees as illegitimate. Taiwan’s return to the fold, by force if necessary, is an integral part of the party’s cherished goal of making China whole again, as it sees it. But the dogma is misleading. For one thing, Taiwan did not break away from China. Arguably, it is the reverse: the Communists rebelled against Kuomintang (KMT) led by Chiang Kai-shek, leaving him in charge only of the island, the one part of China they have never ruled.
Yet since 1971, when the People’s Republic of China (ie, the Communists in Beijing) took over China’s seat at the UN from the Republic of China (ie, the KMT in Taipei), China has done its utmost to shrink the international space in which Taiwan may operate. It does this on the basis of the “one China principle”—that since there is only one China, countries seeking relations with China must break off relations with Taiwan. This is an anachronism, harking back to the days when Chiang still sought unification on the KMT’s terms. That fantasy now exists only among a few diehards. These days governments in Taiwan, including KMT ones, claim to rule only for Taiwan, not for all of China.
Regardless, China’s hounding of Taiwan is relentless. The island is down to 20 diplomatic allies, the most significant of which is probably the Vatican. The most recent country to be peeled away by Chinese promises of juicy infrastructure projects and soft loans is Panama, which switched allegiance in June. An unspoken diplomatic “truce” had prevailed while the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou was president in 2008-16. He was viewed in Beijing as sympathetic to eventual reunification. But since the landslide presidential victory last year of Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has strong pro-independence elements, Taiwan is back in the doghouse—despite Ms Tsai’s moderation and declining popularity—and the truce appears to be off.
Chinese pressure ensures that Taiwan is increasingly excluded even from international forums where it has something to offer. The WHO, for instance, did not invite Taiwan to attend this year’s World Health Assembly, where it had been an observer since 2009. At a multilateral conference hosted by Australia on conflict diamonds in May, Chinese diplomats boorishly interrupted an Aboriginal welcome ceremony to protest against the presence of a Taiwanese delegation, which had to leave.
Earlier attempts to join the UN not as the Republic of China but simply as “Taiwan”, made by a previous DPP president, Chen Shui-bian, an independence firebrand, have been quietly dropped by Ms Tsai. She has also fended off calls to make it easier to hold a referendum on independence—despite a recent hunger strike by some pro-independence types. After all, just as any attempt at a referendum in Tibet or Xinjiang would be met with wholesale repression, so China hints it may counter any referendum in Taiwan with force.
Suffer what you must
And so, as Brian Christopher Jones of the University of Dundee puts it, despite 30 years of democracy, Taiwan remains as vulnerable as ever, protected militarily by America but left undefended diplomatically by most of the world. Regrettably, that will not change soon. It is not just because of China’s growing clout in shaping its environment to its liking. America, too, under Donald Trump has turned away from promoting the human rights and democratic values of which Taiwan is a beacon. Just this week, Mr Trump welcomed to the White House Thailand’s prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general who leads a junta that seized power from a democratically elected government in 2014. It has suppressed political activity and free speech, and arrested hundreds for the most muted expressions of dissent.
Superpower politics would be exerting pressure on the relationship between America and Taiwan whoever was in the White House. But before his inauguration Mr Trump took a congratulatory telephone call from Ms Tsai, the first time in nearly four decades that a president or president-elect had been in direct contact with a Taiwanese leader. It was a great symbolic show of support. Nearly a year on, Mr Trump appears to dwell little on Taiwan. Instead, he will soon travel to Beijing to carry on a love-in with China’s strongman, Xi Jinping, that began at Mar-a-Lago in April. As the conquering Athenians said to the cornered Melians in Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian war, “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.”