David A. Welch is University Research Chair and Professor of Political Science at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, University of Waterloo.
Because I teach international politics, I meet a lot of Chinese students. Whenever I get the chance to speak to them privately, I ask them what they think about Taiwan. “Taiwan is an inherent part of China,” they invariably reply. But today’s students are no longer strident and emotional about it, in contrast to 30 years ago when I first asked the question. Now they tell me they don’t have strong feelings about Taiwan personally. When I ask them what they do have strong feelings about, they talk about finding a good job, getting a nice apartment, buying a car and so on.
One person who evidently does have strong feelings about Taiwan is Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has abandoned the cautious rhetoric of his predecessors and now speaks openly of waging war to prevent Taiwanese independence. China has recently been flexing its muscles, modernizing its military, making plans to invade and laying the groundwork for cyberattack and fifth column operations. Most worryingly, Mr. Xi has begun to signal that his patience is limited. It looks increasingly like he wants “reunification” to be part of his legacy.
But Taiwan is not an “inherent part of China.” For all but two centuries – during the Qing Dynasty – it has not been subject to mainland authority at all. It certainly isn’t today. Taiwan is a modern, wealthy, self-governing democracy whose citizens reject Beijing’s claims and merely wish to be left to live in peace.
What Taiwan does not have is a lot of international support. Only 15 countries – mostly small island states – have full diplomatic relations with Taipei. Many others have the functional equivalent, however, dressed up in euphemistic garb. Taiwan’s embassy in Ottawa, for instance, is called the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Office.” The ambassador is called a “Representative.” Ottawa’s embassy in Taipei is the “Canadian Trade Office” headed by an “Executive Director.” This kind of thing made sense when the regime in Beijing and the regime in Taipei both insisted that they were China’s sole rightful rulers. You can’t formally recognize two governments of one state. But Taiwan lost interest in governing the mainland long ago, so the only question left on the table is, “Who rightfully rules Taiwan?”
On this point there is no room for debate. The people of Taiwan have spoken, and the answer is not Mr. Xi. Most countries realize this, but are either too frightened of Beijing’s wrath or too tempted by Beijing’s largesse to say so.
There are, unfortunately, real costs to euphemisms. First, they enable China to block Taiwan’s international participation when it is sorely needed. Few countries have handled the COVID-19 pandemic as effectively as Taiwan, for example, and yet China has prevented it from attending the World Health Assembly. Taiwan lies on one of the world’s most heavily travelled air corridors, and yet China blocks it from participating in the International Civil Aviation Organization. And so forth and so on. By systematically excluding Taiwan from the world stage, China silences a vibrant democratic voice respectful of human rights and the rule of law, weakening both.
Second, euphemisms confuse. When violence flared in 2014 in response to China exploring for oil in waters claimed by Vietnam, rioters destroyed Taiwanese factories by mistake.
Third, euphemisms encourage China to interfere in other countries’ affairs. Confucius Institutes, for example – ostensibly intended to promote international educational partnerships – have censored academic material relating to Taiwan. Last year, in Fiji, Chinese diplomats violently crashed Taiwan National Day celebrations.
Fourth, and most importantly, euphemisms fan the flames of Chinese delusions. Waffling on Taiwan’s status connotes irresolution and, in turn, risks encouraging reckless Chinese behaviour.
The international commitment to Taiwanese self-rule is almost certainly stronger than Beijing thinks, for both moral and prudential reasons. No self-respecting liberal democracy could stand idly by and watch another be devoured by an illiberal authoritarian state. Taiwan also has enormous strategic value and plays a vital role in global supply chains, including in the critical semiconductor sector. Taiwan is too important to abandon.
But more is needed. Democratic countries such as Canada should, in concert, act to bring Taiwan in from the diplomatic cold so that Beijing could have no illusions about the cost of adventurism. Nothing signals this more clearly than full diplomatic recognition – accompanied, of course, with appropriate security commitments.
Naysayers will react with horror. A furious Beijing, they will say, would surely punish countries that recognize Taiwan with every economic lever at its disposal, and possibly also lash out militarily at Taiwan.
This is surely a risk. But inaction has its risks as well, particularly if Mr. Xi is playing the long game. The military balance is starting to tip in Beijing’s favour. The longer the world has to get used to Taiwan as a full member of the international community, the higher the cost to leaders in Beijing – whose younger subjects now, at least, are more likely to blame them for disruption than applaud them for action.
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