As tensions between the United States and China have escalated in recent years, Taiwan has once again become a place of growing international concern. The historical roots of the conflict over Taiwan are fairly well known. The island fell to the rule of the Kuomintang (KMT) when Nationalist forces fled there following their defeat at the hands of the Communist Party during the Chinese Civil War. From 1949 to 1987, the KMT ruled by martial law—a right-wing dictatorship propped up by the United States to counter China. The KMT claimed Taiwan was quintessentially Chinese and sought to paper over the fifty-year Japanese colonial period. Today, because of the victories of popular movements in the 1980s and 1990s, Taiwan is a flourishing democracy ruled by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
China has long claimed that Taiwan is part of its integral territory, though the last time the same polity controlled both Taiwan and China was in 1895, before Japanese colonial rule. Although roughly 2 percent of the population is Indigenous, and the majority is Han, descended from waves of migration over the past 400 years, the current population increasingly identifies as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. A December 2021 poll by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University shows that only 2.8 percent of the island’s residents consider themselves to be Chinese, and only 1.4 percent are in favor of immediate unification with China.
There is perhaps no other country so wedged between the United States and China today. Although Taiwan’s economy is deeply integrated with China’s—China receives close to 44 percent of Taiwanese exports—it depends on the military backing of the United States to deter Chinese territorial ambitions.
The long-standing possibility of military conflict, however unlikely in the short term, has contributed to a glut of recent commentary claiming we are hurtling toward a confrontation between two superpowers—a new Cold War. But the economic links between China and the United States are markedly different from the relations between the Soviet Union and the West during the twentieth century. The Soviet Union was not completely cut off from the capitalist world—it depended, for example, on grain imports from the West—but China and the United States are far more interdependent. Each economy fuels the other’s growth.
Taiwan is one of the most important nodes in this economic relationship—a reality that was underscored as the pandemic set in. Amid global supply shortages, people around the world abruptly realized Taiwan’s significance to semiconductor manufacturing. Taiwan produces more than half of the world’s semiconductors, which are used in everything from cars and iPhones to the Chinese missiles pointed at the island. Both U.S. and Chinese supply chains (and the supply chains that connect those countries) depend on Taiwanese production.
As the Cold War rhetoric has heated up, historical metaphors have crept into the public discourse about Taiwan: perhaps its status resembles Berlin, or threatens to escalate to that of the international crisis around Cuba in 1962. These analogies mislead more than they illuminate. Taiwan is not split down the middle between rival geopolitical blocs the way Berlin was. Current trends show ever lower identification with China among the Taiwanese, and the pro-China KMT has experienced successive electoral disasters since 2014. These trends will only increase when the current generation of young people takes political power; the KMT had fewer than 9,000 party members under forty in November 2020, and the DPP won 72 percent of the under-forty vote in January 2020 elections.
In many ways, Chinese threats against Taiwan remain empty. Notwithstanding its militaristic bluster, China cannot carry out an invasion of Taiwan at present, partly because it lacks the lift capacity needed to transport enough troops to carry out a long-term occupation—though it is working on improving this and could potentially do so through the use of civilian vessels. Furthermore, China would have difficulties shrugging off the human cost of invasion: it has not fought a war in forty years, and the casualties would likely number in the tens or even hundreds of thousands, even without the involvement of the United States. The effects on China’s economy would, of course, be disastrous. Despite frequent air incursions aimed at intimidating Taiwan and China’s efforts to improve its military capacities—and despite U.S. military officials who inflate the threat to justify their budgets—we are far from a hot war, much less a nuclear war.
The unlikelihood of actual conflict has not prevented the left from returning to old Cold War tropes. Some antiwar and anti-imperialist organizations have reverted to a “campist” approach to the Chinese state. Some groups flat-out deny that China has imprisoned Uyghurs in “reeducation” camps. This attitude extends to Taiwan, which is often portrayed as having belonged to China since time immemorial—never mind the Taiwanese people’s own views on whether they are part of China or not. A recent webinar on Taiwan hosted by Code Pink, for example, featured no Taiwanese speakers and spent more time discussing premodern history than it did the past thirty years of Taiwanese politics. Some even go so far as to argue that Taiwan should simply be ceded to China in order to forestall war—and that this is a desirable outcome for all, including the Taiwanese themselves.
Chinese invasion is a long-term threat, and one that Taiwan has faced for decades, and it should be viewed as such before leaping to hyperbolic claims about an imminent nuclear war, which ultimately serve to justify throwing Taiwan under the bus. Historically, the United States touted Taiwan as a democratic foil to China, even when it was under the dictatorial rule of Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo. But today Taiwan is, in fact, a democracy. Democratic leftists worldwide should respect the self-determination of the Taiwanese and should hope to avoid war and annexation by China, rather than continuing the long-standing use of Taiwan and its people as a geopolitical pawn, subject to the machinations of great powers.
Brian Hioe is a freelance translator, a writer on social movements and youth culture in Asia, and founding editor at New Bloom Magazine.