Can Taiwan resist the economic pull of its mighty neighbour?by Jessica Abrahams / June 19, 2013 / Leave a comment
In May, a Taiwanese fisherman was shot dead by the Philippine coast guard, having entered disputed waters. In response, Taiwan promptly embarked on naval exercises off the coast of the Philippines. It was China’s reaction, however, that raised eyebrows elsewhere: it quickly sent a flotilla to join them. “China will not tolerate the shooting of our fishermen,” declared an article in the Chinese newspaper, the Global Times.
There is an increasingly vocal debate about whether Taiwan, for all its fierce sense of democratic freedoms and claims to nationhood, is being reabsorbed by China—and whether the government in Taipei since 2008 is too easily letting this happen. The argument gets its force from the depth of the new commercial ties springing up between Taiwan, with its own proud record of manufacturing success, and the economic superpower which has suddenly arisen to its west. But barriers of all kinds are vanishing between the one-time adversaries. China does not recognise Taiwanese passports but residents can now travel between the two using “compatriot permits”: a Taiwanese friend of mine who recently visited mainland China on business told me of her identity crisis when she arrived at the airport with her permit, unsure of whether to join the immigration queue for “Chinese” or “foreigners.” She was given a withering look when she asked for clarification and directed towards the Chinese queue.
When the Communist party seized control of the Chinese mainland in 1949, the previous government, led by the Kuomintang, retreated to Taiwan off the eastern coast. Beyond military threats, relations were more or less non-existent. The People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan’s formal name) agreed that they were part of the same country—but both claimed to be the legitimate government. Taiwan’s claim to leadership became less convincing when, in 1979, it lost its status as a member state within the United Nations, and US recognition of its independence, too. As the Carter administration established diplomatic relations with China, it terminated the Sino-American Mutual Defence Treaty, which had guaranteed Taiwan US military protection.
Under pressure from Beijing, few countries still recognise Taiwan as an independent state, although it has its own democratically-elected government, currency, economy, armed forces and tax and education systems. Its citizens have a strong sense of national pride; they make much of the cultural differences between themselves and the new tourists arriving from the mainland, whom they often…