There’s been lots of talk about Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, including plenty here on Daily Kos. I have a particular interest in the matter, because I live in Taiwan and have done so since the early 1990s, prior to Taiwan’s first democratic election for president. While I have made a number of comments on other people’s stories, I thought it might be better to write something more extensive, covering a number of different points at the same time. I intended to do this a few days ago, but other things have gotten in the way. But while the news may not be fresh, the issues involved remain as important as ever.
The first point I want to cover is the claim that a few in the Western media and a couple of commenters here made that many Taiwanese people didn’t want Pelosi to come. Now I will acknowledge that I have not seen any actual polls on this question, so I can only base my response to this claim on circumstantial evidence, but what I’ve seen of that contradicts this assertion. Yes, there were a number of protesters who should up outside Pelosi’s hotel to express their opposition to her visit. There were also a number of people who went there to welcome her, and still others who were just there to see a celebrity. My wife, who was watching the live feed of the scene at the time, said that the anti-Pelosi crowd was outnumbered by the well-wishers (someone said a Western media report claimed “hundreds” protested against her; my wife said it was more like a few dozen). What’s more, the protesters were made up mainly of a well-known group of virulently pro-China individuals who always tend to appear at these sorts of events. They are not at all representative of most Taiwanese. A better way to judge the general Taiwanese view of her visit is that all the major Taiwanese political parties expressed support for her visit. This included not only the ruling DPP, but also the conservative KMT, which is well known for being more friendly to China. The only parties that opposed the visit were a few very small, extreme pro-unification parties, none of which enjoys significant support. Furthermore, to the extent that some Taiwanese may now think her visit wasn’t a good thing, they are likely to have been influenced by incessant coverage of China’s military drills. But this is conflating the visit itself (which was a good thing) and China’s unhinged reaction (which is a bad thing, but should be blamed on China, not the visit itself).
Another thing that some people may not be aware of is that Taiwan is frequently visited by congressional delegations (and also legislative groups from other countries, including many European nations), and Pelosi herself had been planning to visit in April, before covid 19 forced her to postpone. So this was not a spur of the moment trip. Perhaps even more importantly, she and the representatives who accompanied her were taking a trip in which they visited a number of the US’s key allies in the region. They went to Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan. So there was no reason for them not visit Taiwan as well — unless they did so because they were afraid of upsetting China.
This of course is the crux of the matter. I’ve been happy to see that the majority of people on this site seem to support Pelosi’s trip, but for those who have raised various objections, and anyone who isn’t clear on the underlying situation, I want to try to address the different issues that have been raised.
A very small number of people expressed support for the Chinese assertion that Taiwan is part of China, or have at least treated it as if it has equal weight to Taiwanese and American views on the subject. Yes, China does claim that Taiwan is part of China. Russia (or at least Putin) has also claimed that Ukraine is part of Russia, and hinted that they have similar views about the Baltic states and other former parts of the Soviet Union (so far they haven’t laid claim to Poland, most of which was also ruled by Russia for a long period). That doesn’t mean these claims have any validity, or that other nations have to pay heed to them. But even the way China talks about Taiwan is inherently contradictory. They say it is an “inseparable” part of China (already an absurd claim on its face, as nations and their borders are fleeting things in the context of all human history), and yet they say Taiwan must unify (they say “reunify”) with China. If it is inseparable, it shouldn’t need to “reunify”. If it needs to “reunify”, than it is currently separate, and so not inseparable.
What’s more, the historical relationship between China and Taiwan is much more tenuous than China would have everyone believe. China has a long history, but for most of it, Taiwan was not only not part of China, but was virtually unknown to Chinese people. As late as the early Ming dynasty, Chinese maps of the area off the southeast coast where Taiwan was located were as fantastic as many European maps of the Pacific in the same time period, showing imaginary places like the “Kingdom of Women”. Taiwan itself was often confused with Okinawa. It wasn’t until the late Ming that Chinese settlers began to arrive in Taiwan in substantial numbers, and the first modern governmental regimes in Taiwan were the Dutch and Spanish, followed by the Ming loyalist Zheng Chenggong (of mixed Chinese and Japanese parentage), who established an independent regime in southwest Taiwan in opposition to the Manchu Qing, who had recently conquered China. Zheng’s grandson was conquered by the Qing, putting part of Taiwan under rule from China for the first time. But only part; the Qing never ruled all of Taiwan, half of it remaining Taiwanese Indigenous territory outside of the area of Chinese settlement. What’s more, the Qing for the most part treated Taiwan like a colonial territory to be exploited, not an integral part of China. Officials sent over from China mostly tried to squeeze as much money out of the local Chinese settlers during their postings, which is why there were frequent rebellions.
Finally, in 1895, the Qing were forced to surrender their claims to Taiwan to the Japanese. The Japanese extended their control over the whole island (brutally “pacifying” the indigenous population in the process) and ruled it for a total of 50 years, which to this day is reflected in close cultural ties between Taiwan and Japan. At the end of WWII, Japan had to give up Taiwan, and the Nationalist (KMT) regime of the Republic of China, which had supplanted the Qing in 1911 (though they never actually controlled all of China), took over. Their misrule drove the Taiwanese to a major rebellion in 1947, which was bloodily put down by the KMT. In the meantime, though, the KMT were losing the Chinese civil war to the Communists, who drove out the KMT and established the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The KMT fled to Taiwan, where they maintained the ROC as an authoritarian state for decades. But over the last few decades, the country has democratized and native Taiwanese (as opposed to those who came over with the KMT) have gained political power. To all intents and purposes, Taiwan is now a self-ruled, democratic, fully independent de facto sovereign state, though it retains the ROC name, ironically because China would go absolutely nuts if Taiwan changed its name to reflect reality.
So the People’s Republic of China has never ruled Taiwan, and over the last century and a quarter, there have been only four years when China and Taiwan were under the same political regime. In fact, there has never been any political regime that has ruled all of China and all of Taiwan at the same time (as noted above, the Qing never ruled all of Taiwan, and the ROC only controlled part of China during the 1945-1949 period). So even if we are talking about historical claims, China’s claim to Taiwan is not particularly strong, no more so than Russia’s dubious claims to Ukraine. But even more importantly, today’s Taiwanese people don’t consider themselves Chinese and have no desire to be ruled by China. Polls consistently show that only a very tiny minority of people in Taiwan consider themselves “Chinese”. A larger minority consider themselves both “Chinese” and “Taiwanese”. But the majority considers themselves “Taiwanese” only.
A few people try to make an analogy with Hawaii, saying that the US supporting an independent Taiwan is like China or Russia supporting a “separatist” Hawaii against the US. To which I say, yes, if the US was taken over by an authoritarian regime (unfortunately not beyond the realm of possibility, if the MAGA crowd have their way) and Hawaii remained as a independent democratic state that didn’t accept the rule of the fascists in the former US, I would certainly hope that the world’s remaining democracies would support Hawaii.
Both the Chinese attitude toward Taiwan on the one hand and its people and some of the positions taken by those in the West who say Taiwan and its supporters are to blame for “provoking” China on the other bring to mind the analogy of domestic violence. China insists that Taiwanese are “fellow Chinese” who are part of one big “Chinese family”. And if Taiwanese don’t acknowledge this family relationship, China will come over and beat us up until we do so. This seems to me very similar to men (I know not all abusers are men, but most are) who won’t accept a partner leaving them, and will express that by stalking, harassing, and assaulting them. And how are those who blame Taiwan or its friends for China’s outbursts when Taiwan engages in behavior that is perfectly normal for a sovereign state any different who blame a domestic violence victim for “provoking” their attacker?
There have also been quite a few commentators who have said they aren’t against Pelosi showing support for Taiwan, but argue that the “timing” is wrong. Then when would be the “right” time? China would absurdly overreact no matter when Pelosi visited. By those standards, there would never be a right time. This is much like the Republicans who always say that we shouldn’t talk about addressing the gun problem in the US right after a mass shooting — which means we should never talk about it.
Some worry about aggravating China while Russia is still attacking Ukraine. In fact, the Ukraine situation just shows why it’s important for democratic nations to stand up to aggression by authoritarian states (and the way some blamed Ukraine’s talk of joining NATO for “provoking” Russia was the same sort of victim blaming we see with Taiwan as discussed above). Some talk about a two-front war, but the US is not actually at war with Russia, and despite their bluster, China is very unlikely to actually attack Taiwan now, as their chances of success are not that great and the potential harm to them would be greater than the rewards (that calculation may change in the future). Some just worry that China and Russia will be driven together. But Xi and Putin were already proclaiming their close ties before Russia invaded Ukraine. It’s doubtful that China will more openly side with Russia than they’ve already done (it’s worth noting that since the war started, China has heavily promoted the Russian view of the conflict on their domestic media and online). And again, by those standards, there would never be a “good” time for the US to express even the minimal kind of support that it gives all its allies.
An interesting parallel to the Taiwan-China situation can be seen in the recent news about the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago. No matter when the FBI conducted the raid, it was predictable that Republicans politicians and MAGA cultists would freak out, and that some would even openly threaten violence. The same will happen when Tr*mp is finally indicted for one of his many crimes. It’s even possible that some people will act on their violent threats. But both the raid and any future indictments are normal steps under the rule of law. Should the DOJ avoid taking them just because of a fear that some people might react unreasonably to them? I don’t think so, and I would imagine few others on this site think so. This is exactly like the situation with Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. A US political leader visiting an allied nation as just one stop on a trip to several countries is perfectly normal, and if China reacts unreasonably to it, that’s no reason not to do it.
A few complain about American hypocrisy, saying that the US interferes with the neighbors of rival powers but won’t brook interference by those powers in countries near the US. But it should be remembered that all Pelosi did was visit Taiwan, talk to the Taiwanese President and other key individuals, and make some speeches. She didn’t sign any major agreements or make any practical changes to US policy in the region. This is rather different from China, for instance, inking an agreement with the Solomon Islands that could result in a Chinese military presence in that country. Furthermore, the US relationship with Taiwan is long standing, going back before the US even recognized the PRC. Also, while there’s no question that there is a fair amount of hypocrisy involved in US foreign policy, most of that is on the Republican side. Their talk of Taiwanese democracy and Chinese human rights violations is undercut by their clear disregard for democracy and human rights elsewhere, including in the US. But most Democratic politicians, including Pelosi, manage to be fairly consistent on such issues. And even in the case of the Republicans, it’s a matter of them being on the right side for the wrong reasons, not that their support for Taiwan itself is wrong. In any event, I disagree with the idea that the failures and inconsistencies of US foreign policy mean that US leaders shouldn’t stand up for human rights and democracy when they have the opportunity to do so.
As many other people have observed, the situation with Putin has shown that it’s better to defy bullying by nations like Russia and China. Backing down over basic matters like who can have relations with or visit Taiwan (or others that China hates, like the Dalai Lama) just encourages China to go even further in trying to force everyone around the world to not only acknowledge but support their aggressive position. We can already see this in recent Chinese efforts to force anyone who does business in China to label Taiwan as a “province of China”. It’s apparent in Chinese domestic politics as well. It’s no longer enough for Chinese celebrities, or even non-Chinese celebrities who are active in China, to avoid doing or saying anything against China’s extreme nationalistic claims. In the past few days, many celebrities who simply failed to issue statements or add taglines supporting the Chinese position that Taiwan belongs to China have been attacked online by nationalistic Chinese (this also resembles the MAGA crowd’s reaction to any Republican leaders who don’t condemn the FBI for doing their job). This is the sort of fascistic conformity to China’s position that they are attempting to impose on everyone.
The truth is, if enough of the world’s nations and major corporations got together and agreed to stop backing down to Chinese pressure over issues like Taiwan, Tibet, the Uyghurs, the South China Sea and human rights in China itself, there’s little China could do. If, for example, the US, Japan, the nations of the EU, Canada, and so forth all agreed to recognize Taiwan as a separate state and support its membership in the UN (after all, both North and South Korea are members, even though both claim to be the rightful government of all Korea), what could China do about it? Cut off trade with everyone? That would hurt them at least as much as it would hurt everyone else. The war in Ukraine has amply demonstrated the value of a united response to aggression even by a large, relatively dangerous nation. While I know that actual recognition of Taiwan is unlikely in the near term, I am encouraged to note that more and more nations and leaders around the world seem to be responding to China’s increasingly aggressive behavior not by knuckling under, as China now doubt hoped, but with defiance and resolve. Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is just one more instance of this, and I hope more world leaders — and progressively minded American politicians — will follow in her footsteps. If enough people around the world stand up to Chinese aggression, China will be unable to carry out its threats and we in Taiwan can continue to live in peace and freedom.
Note: Since I’m in a completely different time zone, I’m usually not online at the same times most people here are. That plus the fact that my laptop is experiencing age related issues and I am traveling to another part of Taiwan tomorrow means that my responses to any comments may be significantly delayed. I will respond when I can, but it may take some time.