The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Taiwanese nationalism faces a trial by empire

Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, at a January 2020 Democratic Progressive Party campaign rally in Hsinchu province, as she successfully sought reelection. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan — “The state made war,” the historian Charles Tilly observed, “and war made the state.” The timelessness of Tilly’s dictum is confirmed daily in Eastern Europe, where Russia’s war is strengthening Ukrainian statehood. It might also be put to the test in East Asia, where China’s military threats against Taiwan are accelerating. The island’s willingness to mobilize for war could determine whether it is a sovereign state or, as it has been for centuries, a mere buffer zone between empires.

That’s my interpretation of the work of Rwei-Ren Wu, a political scientist I met at a recent conference at Sun Yat-sen University, near the southern tip of Taiwan. Wu’s work traces three major periods of imperial influence in Taiwan. The first came during the Qing dynasty from 1684 to 1895. Taiwan was a frontier of that empire, absorbing immigrants from various regions of China while “constantly negotiating with the state for its autonomy,” Wu has written.

Japan took control of Taiwan in 1895. I learned on my trip that Japan’s colonial rule is today regarded, on balance, benevolently by many Taiwanese (a stark contrast with Korea). Still, “a nationalist movement during the 1920s and 30s” helped to create “a territorially defined category of Taiwanese people” while the island was under Japanese control, according to Wu.

Next came imperial Japan’s 1945 defeat in World War II and the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) by the communists in the Chinese civil war. The KMT regime retreated to Taiwan. Its rule initially had the character of a brutal foreign occupation. The (often Japanese-speaking) Taiwanese resistance was slaughtered by the thousands.

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Yet a new identity was formed through give-and-take between the Taiwanese and their Chinese occupiers. “While native-born Taiwanese were internalizing loyalty to the Republic of China state,” Wu wrote, “mainlander immigrants were developing a territorial identification with Taiwan.” This process culminated, in his view, with Taiwan’s democratization in the late 20th century. The KMT had sufficiently bought in to a common “Taiwanese” identity that it backed away from its quasi-colonial rule and accepted political competition for power.

Not unlike the early United States, which created an American identity out of waves of immigrants from Europe, Taiwan’s territorial nationalism has assimilated successive generations of immigrants from the Chinese mainland, forging an identity separate from its ethnic character. Beijing has undertaken a different kind of identity-formation, coercively “Sinicizing” ethnic minorities such as the Tibetans and Uyghurs.

Today, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the more hawkish and nationalistic of Taiwan’s two parties, governs in Taipei. Beijing’s increasing assertiveness since the mid-2010s, including its subjugation of Hong Kong, has empowered the DPP and strengthened Taiwanese identity — the latest turn in the history of a nationalism shaped by the ambitions of neighboring Pacific powers.

But the U.S. relationship with Taiwanese nationalism is fraught. Washington has enabled the formation of a distinctive Taiwanese identity for more than seven decades by arming Taiwan and credibly deterring China from absorbing the island. On the other hand, the United States puts a ceiling on Taiwanese nationalism by admonishing it not to declare independence, which could prompt a Chinese invasion.

Despite consistent prodding from Washington, however, Taipei is also not nationalistic enough in the sense that it hasn’t engaged in the kind of military preparation necessary to deter an attack. Its political leaders are reluctant to reduce their dependence on U.S. protection. Taiwan’s recent budget proposes to spend 2.4 percent of GDP on defense — an increase, but far less than what would be needed to hold off a rapidly modernizing People’s Liberation Army.

The tension in the Taiwan Strait is sometimes said to reflect a clash between democracy and autocracy, and it’s true that Taiwan is an example of a free society in the shadow of an increasingly harsh Communist regime in Beijing. But Taiwan was also an American client while it was a military dictatorship in the mid-20th century, and even a nonauthoritarian government in Beijing would likely want to control the island to enhance China’s strategic position.

Wu, a Taiwanese nationalist, yearns for the day when Taiwan can “break loose” of the tightening great-power vise with China on one side and the United States on the other. Yet this is impossible in the foreseeable future without a violent rupture in relations between the world’s most powerful countries.

Taiwan’s position as a geopolitical chokepoint of the “first island chain” in the Pacific Ocean and its status as a leading manufacturer of semiconductors mean that China, Japan and the United States each see it as a critical strategic interest. As the military balance shifts in China’s favor, the island might face the ultimate test of its identity as a nation-state: To mobilize for its own defense, or submit to a fourth round of imperial subjection, this time by China’s Communist Party.