There is a condition known in psychology as folie à deux, “a madness of two,” in which a closely related couple experiences a conjoined psychosis. Taiwan and China, having for decades fed into each other’s opposing delusions, might fit the diagnosis.
China, on the one hand, seems to believe that through hostility and absolutist dictates it can win the “hearts and minds” of Taiwanese who would surrender a nation they built and love without being offered anything better than what they already have.
Contemporary Taiwanese, on the other hand, continually gaslight China and the world at large by denying its historical attachments to the mainland while carrying its branding throughout society. It is not unusual for devout Taiwanese sovereignists to fly a national carrier called China Airlines or defend holding 700,000 pieces of China’s historical treasures as representative of their own nationhood, and then become upset at foreigners who ask if Taiwan is a part of China — as if those who are confused are to blame for their ignorance in the face of Taiwan’s own mixed messaging.
People from outside the region are often baffled by the names of hundreds of large Taiwanese institutions, from China Steel to Bank of China to the nation’s official name, the Republic of China. However, Taiwan’s anti-China media will not even take the mild step of encouraging its citizens to boycott China-branded establishments. I know this because I have submitted articles to sovereignist outlets in Taiwan advocating for Taiwanese to take stronger stances against China’s imprint on the nation, in which I made a variety of arguments to promote a separate Taiwanese identity and culture, and had these pieces universally rejected, sometimes inhospitably.
The fact that I could cause offense to the sovereignty camp by taking staunchly pro-Taiwan positions made me think more critically about what lies beneath the surface of both Taiwan’s and China’s positions. It now appears to me that both sides are addicted to the drama of a conflict that has become an indelible part of each other’s national identity.
Meanwhile, an already frail path to a peaceful resolution seems to have been blocked from view in order to serve not just the egos of Beijing and Taipei, but the global capitalist exploitation that rides on the back of Western militarism in the Pacific.
Until earlier this year, I was a copy editor at the Taipei Times, a de facto Taiwanese state mouthpiece, compiling and laying out copious amounts of anti-China propaganda and “inevitable war” messaging — much of it fed by shadowy forces in Washington. Being subjected to the paper’s militant pro-US evangelizing for two years, I could not help but conclude that the American footprint being so close to China’s border is precisely what Beijing wants to wipe out by reuniting Taiwan with the mainland.
The quasi-state-backed Taipei Times op-ed pages have shown no more interest in resolving the Taiwan conflict than you might find in China’s state-run People’s Daily. The more of these “calls to arms” I had to edit, the more the subtext became clear: Chinese monsters are hiding around every corner, and only a continual flow of US weapons to Taiwan, including calls for nuclear missiles, can protect the world.
I began to suspect that this editorial stance was in some way directed by the Taiwanese government, led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), now at the end of its second consecutive term. Taipei Times staff shared with me unconfirmed tales of management being called to President Tsai Ing-wen’s office to discuss content. Meanwhile, I was witness to headlines and subheads being changed to reflect more positively on the government or more negatively on China.
This entanglement between media and politics is not unusual in Taiwan, and is more transparent than in Western countries, where there is at least an effort to appear impartial. The Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT) — which was Taiwan’s dominant party before the rise of the sovereignty-pushing DPP — has its loyal media as well, which once operated as state-media organs during the KMT’s long reign.
The DPP now has in its corner the media empire founded by billionaire banker and one-time legislator Lin Rong-san. He was owner of the Chinese-language Liberty Times and its English-language offshoot, the Taipei Times, while serving as senior adviser to sovereignty-leaning presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian from 1993 to 2008. That would be akin to CNN’s Ted Turner or Fox’s Rupert Murdoch serving in American administrations at the peak of their outlets’ influence. According to a translation from Lin’s Chinese-language Wikipedia page, he “used the media he controlled to fully support the faction in power headed by Lee Teng-hui,” a practice that appears to continue for current president Tsai Ing-wen under present ownership.
I was initially comfortable accepting work for the Taipei Times in 2021. I understand that all media has a message to propagate, and if am to serve one messenger, I would rather be with the one that aligns with my own ideals — in this case, a publication that advocates for Taiwan’s right to self-determination.
However, having to thoroughly read and copy-edit high volumes of the paper’s content, as opposed to being a casual skimmer of its website, the Times began to appear designed for an audience of masters in Washington. Evidence of this can be found in details that glide past the reader without notice. For instance, both foreign and Taiwanese currencies in the paper are converted to US dollars — i.e., “The ministry in Taipei had its budget cut by NT$2 million (US$65,185),” or “the vehicle is being marketed in Japan for ¥2.5 million (US$17,860).” This is an exceptionally odd practice that views Taiwan as subordinate to the US, and disregards local readers who would prefer to see yen or euros converted into their own currency.
In its more obvious details, the Taipei Times’ wall-to-wall war and security coverage seems to reveal the paper’s — and by extension the ruling party’s — allegiance to the Washington war machine. The paper’s painfully wrought page 8 editorials and op-eds are often contrived to provoke Beijing and strategize for battle, including requests for the US to start firing missiles off China’s shores (one can imagine how America might react if China did the same in international waters off California), complementing local news pages festooned with stories in which foreign and domestic “experts” call for a ballooning of US arms deals and “Indo-Pacific security cooperation.”
“Build it and they will come,” a famous movie once told us. Saying that there are no better options than to increasingly stockpile American-made munitions seems to be building not a “Field of Dreams,” but rather a field of battle in which no other option but war can be imagined, and thus easily ignited.
RHETORIC VS REALITY
The rhetoric out of Beijing is that the CCP will settle for nothing less than a wholesale, uncompromised reunion with the former province as part of a “great rejuvenation” of the motherland. Taiwan plays a similar type of ideological game, saying that America is in Taiwan’s corner to “protect freedom and democracy.”
Both positions are disingenuous. China’s culture and economy have flourished over the past four decades without control of Taiwan, while the government in Taipei has nothing to say about the US last year arming 57% of the world’s autocracies, and celebrates a “profound friendship” with Saudi Arabia, a country that “restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties.”
So, don’t believe the hype. Taiwan is a strategic military and economic asset that the US and China are striving to control for their own purposes. Nothing more.
This fact is obvious when looking at the roots of Taiwan’s separation from China. After Chiang Kai-shek’s forces were exiled on the island, President Truman in 1949 was prepared to let CCP forces cross the Strait to defeat the KMT, an act that today would have left Taiwan unquestionably a part of communist China. However, Truman indefinitely postponed the withdrawal to “prevent the Korean conflict from spreading south.” The change of heart was meant to “neutralize Taiwan” to prevent a confrontation from triggering another region-wide war.
In short: Taiwan’s separation from China was the result of a strategic decision made by an external force. It was not an intentional effort to found a new country.
Regardless, a sovereign Taiwan has developed in that time and deserves to be preserved. The past 74 years has seen a great nation-building exercise in which the people have brought about self determination and implemented their own governance, while building their own schools, institutions, and infrastructure. Taiwanese have no desire to toss aside what it has built so it can be ruled by what would rightly be seen as a foreign occupier. Even if Taiwan is to be considered a part of China on historical technicalities, that must be weighed against the rights of generations that have known nothing more than being Taiwanese. The Chinese Civil War was not their fight.
But China, as a society and historical entity, is rightfully an aggrieved party. It had its internationally recognized territory amputated not by an organic resistance, but by a competing superpower that was disinterested in the wants or needs of the affected populations on both sides.
It lost a valuable military and trading outpost that would have remained a recognized part of China if Taiwan had been taken in the civil war, regardless of whether the CCP or KMT won outright. Furthermore, if the tables were turned and the CCP had fled to Taiwan and set up a government there, the West never would have aided it throughout the Cold War, guaranteeing Taiwan’s eventual reunification.
There are many Taiwanese who say that Taiwan was “handed to the KMT and Chiang Kai Shek’s Republic of China, not Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China.” But this thinking, surprisingly spouted by many sovereignists, overlooks the fact that Chiang was an authoritarian leader who aimed to keep Taiwan a part of China under a brutal dictatorship not much different from Mao’s. It also implies that Taiwanese would rejoin China if the CCP were to be replaced with benign leadership, a desire that faded generations ago.
What likely rankles China more than losing the territory is Taiwan dislodging itself from its traditional place within the Eastern sphere of influence, violating the terms of the global restoration of Taiwan’s status as a Chinese province upon Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. The arrangement was part of a greater “rules based order” agreed upon by the US, UK, Soviet Union and China — at the Potsdam and Cairo conferences, and through British decolonization — to secure post-war peace.
Taiwanese have a simple rights-based argument in favor of their sovereignty — that about 90% of the population desires self-determination (or about 100% of those under the age of 60) — but they rarely make this case. The page-8 op-eds I frequently edited would uncritically and artlessly parrot a number of convoluted positions buried in the fine print of treaties, declarations, and historical texts to avoid saying that Taiwan was a Chinese province — points often heard in discussions with my friends and acquaintances in Taipei.
However, there are equally credible interpretations of history that support China’s viewpoint. Ultimately, though, the discussion is useless because the international community has established that they will not be dragged into a highly charged and divisive debate over the region’s history.
The world won’t embrace this kind of talk because Taiwan’s colonization by the Chinese over the centuries occurred by means not dissimilar from those used by the US, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and much of Europe and South America to “acquire” territory from indigenous populations.
Taiwanese have obviously been abused by the Chinese and other occupiers throughout its history, but considering Taiwan to be “illegally occupied,” whether by various dynasties or by Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, raises uncomfortable questions about many other internationally agreed borders formed under occupations that could be seen as even more unjust — the US’ illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, the way Israel was willed into existence in 1948, or the partitioning of Punjab between India and Pakistan in 1947. Closer to Taiwan, more relatable would be the Japanese annexation of Hokkaido in 1869, and the 1879 appropriation of a favorite Taiwanese vacation spot, Okinawa (then known as the Ryukyu Kingdom). All of these incidents and hundreds of others involved the displacement, suppression, and rebellion of indigenous populations, not unlike what Taiwan experienced under Chinese and Japanese rule.
If the world is being asked to agree that Taiwan was never a part of China, then that would put hundreds of territories around the world back into dispute. Taiwanese must accept that the rules-based international order they so often hail was formed through innumerable atrocities against humanity, and they cannot claim to be unique victims in this regard.
It would be simpler for all involved to take the position that Taiwan is a breakaway province in pursuit of recognition as a sovereign state. Taiwanese say this falsely concedes that Taiwan is presently a part of China, but playing along with that “make-believe” aligns with the same “fiction” that the rest of the world must abide by. That would, in turn, allow the global community to become more willing to assist Taiwan through an official separation based on the will of its population.
A BOLD PROPOSAL
Whether negotiating the purchase of a new car, the terms of a labor contract, or an international trade deal, it is expected that participants will enter into the process with a list of “non-negotiable” demands. Flexibility in these positions comes later as unexpected concessions are offered, but any potential for compromise cannot be found before serious talks begin. China’s position, likewise, must not be taken at face value until a good-faith proposal is put on the table.
Here is one idea for an offer that China might live with: In exchange for being recognized by Beijing as a sovereign nation with a seat at the UN, Taiwan removes itself from the Western sphere of influence. It allows one Chinese base in the south and one international base in the north that is open to rotating ports of calls from allies. Taiwan is no longer allowed to purchase US-made weapons and must sustain its military with arms sourced from Asia and Europe. Taiwanese troops are forbidden from participating in training exercises with the US, and must cooperate with Chinese forces stationed on the island.
There is enough in that proposal to make both sides uncomfortable, but it would protect each other’s core interests without provoking global conflict. The arrangement could also enable Taiwan to serve as a diplomatic buffer between China and the West.
If China, as universally believed, would balk at such an arrangement, saying it would settle for nothing less than absolute reunification, then why even make the effort?
At the very least, it would change the global conversation from “inevitable war” to “pause for reflection.” It would also, quite importantly, become Taiwan’s boldest assertion of its sovereign agency.
If this proposal sounds daft, consider that Taiwanese elder statesman and former presidential advisor Koo Kuang-ming “believed that Taiwan could not develop as a normal country unless it had peaceful relations with China, and he had proposed the concept of a ‘federation of brothers’ in which both countries would recognize each other’s independence and enjoy mutually beneficial ties.” He quit as President Tsai Ing-wen’s adviser in 2021 after it became apparent she was not willing to “reorient cross-strait relations.” Koo believed that Taiwan’s UN membership was possible, but only if both countries “enjoy mutually beneficial ties.”
Koo was one of Taiwan’s fiercest and most prominent fighters for independence, who had been bending the ears of the political establishment for five decades before his death in early 2023. It’s a shame he could not afford to run a media empire to propagate his views the way Lin and his heirs have.
MANUFACTURING CONSENT FOR WAR
The greatest opposition to the above concepts would not come from China, but the US and its backers in Taiwan. The news cycle makes obvious that Taiwan’s predicament has become a cash cow for what former US President Dwight Eisenhower famously called the military industrial complex: “a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions” that has “unwarranted influence” around the globe.
This was demonstrated in the aftermath of last year’s purposeless visit to Taipei by former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Her brief 19-hour presence reliably provoked Beijing into conducting invasion drills around the nation, in turn leading to Taiwan’s frantic calls for escalated US weapons deals. Arms again became the center of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s equally needless April meeting with Pelosi’s successor, Kevin McCarthy.
One can see how easily the game is played. Manufacture an event that stokes tensions and watch billions of dollars flow into the coffers of American military contractors — Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman, among others. These firms in turn donate generously to US House and Senate representatives, who then become four times more likely to vote for military initiatives. Also consider that US lawmakers invest in these firms, completing a cycle in which they profit politically and personally from a continued threat of war far from their own doorsteps. Next thing you know, US defense contractors are visiting Taipei to develop “mutual trust.”
Another provocation was more transparently manufactured when the Liberty Times invited former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to join Taiwan’s vice president at an event staged by the news organization a month after Pelosi’s visit. The Global Taiwan Business Forum, as it was called, was an event that allowed both the Liberty Times and the Taipei Times, along with other outlets, to extensively report the litany of anti-China rhetoric spouted by both men. It was literally fabricated news, contrived to poke Beijing in the eye while currying favor with American interests.
Taiwan’s fealty to the American political and military establishment — since 1949, let’s not forget — has become just as fossilized as China’s resolve to retake the nation. Both sides appear immensely stubborn, believing that each other’s stance is justification for their own inflexibility.
“We’re an empire now,” a senior adviser to US President George W. Bush (widely believed to be Karl Rove) told Esquire in 2004. “When we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality … we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”
Washington has created a reality in Taiwan that serves its own interests and can only be sustained by weapons imported from the US and nowhere else. Taiwanese might feel sheltered within this arrangement, but all empires come to an end, and the beginning of this one’s decline is now being widely noticed. There are those who say the American empire’s death throes will be violent, as the “world’s policeman” goes down in a rage. If this involves provoking a war with China, Taiwan would not emerge without an enormous body count amid massive destruction. If a multi-polar world emerges peacefully, by which time economic winds and microchip supply chains will have shifted, Taiwan would simply be subsumed by China without much effort as the West loses interest in its cause.
If Taiwan hopes to sustain its independence, it should begin crafting a new reality outside of the one imposed on it by a temporary empire.
SOVEREIGNTY REQUIRES DÉTENTE
Taiwanese friends and acquaintances have responded to my ideas with several legitimate concerns — about how trustworthy Beijing would be in such an arrangement, and its treatment of Hong Kong as a template of what it would do to Taiwan if allowed military access.
I have my own responses to these concerns, which would be another essay altogether. What I will say for now is that Beijing likely has little interest in dealing with the political and economic fallout that would accompany trying to govern Taiwan. Consider that it took more than a year of brutal violence (and then a convenient pandemic) for Beijing to stifle the 2019-2020 democracy protests in a city-sized territory of 7 million people, all within China’s recognized borders. The CCP must be aware of the catastrophic global consequences of trying to contain 24 million unwelcoming Taiwanese who would be insubordinate to Chinese rule, even under a “one country, two systems” arrangement. The world shrugged at the Hong Kong melee, but it would not give the same courtesy toward a Taiwan takeover. A compromise that makes Taiwan an east-facing ally would possibly provide China substantial relief.
My intention, however, is not to address every concern, but to more broadly demonstrate that the case for Taiwanese sovereignty becomes much clearer when not grounded in historical grudges and opposition to the CCP. One must question how helpful the barrage of anti-CCP propaganda is to the sovereignty cause, and whether each side’s obsession with the other proves a psychological unification rooted in a shared history.
As Taiwan strategizes for official international recognition of its nationhood, its government and media must rise above anti-China ideology. Either Taiwan must show the world that it has first presented China with a good-faith option before it seeks an official change to how it is internationally recognized, or the global community should step in and help it achieve détente.
Instead, Taiwanese are being increasingly propagandized by local and US media to fight and die for their nation. There is a certain kind of immorality in priming the public for war before diplomatic avenues have been considered, let alone exhausted.
I equate Taiwan’s situation to a patient who has been overmedicated to deal with a series of accumulating maladies. The pills cause side effects that require further medications, and at some point they become a toxic brew that becomes worse than the original disease.
Taiwan has been doped up on ever-increasing prescriptions from its American physicians since 1949, causing adverse reactions from the Chinese. The original malady has faded into obscurity — the KMT and CCP are no longer trying to defeat one another. Taiwanese should consider that kicking the Americans out of their backyard might actually be the cure that encourages Beijing to drop its “unified China” rhetoric and become amenable to a peaceful relationship if it helps lead to a multi-polar world order.
If China refuses détente, so be it. Their acceptance is not entirely the point of outreach. It is the mere presentation of a new framework for peace that would change the way the conflict is viewed and approached.
In the long term, a deal spurned now could set a new tone for future generations to find some kind of neighborly agreement with China. In the short term, a change in conversation would stop the talk of war, and perhaps break the folie à deux.
(Featured Image: “Now America will disturb China from Taiwan’s land! Biden made this special military plan, the dragon will do trahimam-trahimam!” by quickspice is licensed under CC BY 2.0.)