Qwertyman for Monday, April 10, 2023
MY WIFE Beng and I visited Taiwan with friends on a five-day holiday just before Holy Week, and returned home dog-tired but deeply impressed by what we had seen: a country not just surviving but staunchly moving forward, progressive and optimistic, despite living under the constant threat of invasion by its hulking neighbor and self-declared owner, China.
It was my fourth visit to Taiwan and my wife’s second, so we had witnessed the island’s wonders before. But we went back—this time with friends who had never been there—precisely because it had much to offer as a vacation spot. For me, Taiwan has largely been about food (especially the beef-brisket noodles and fruits like the giant atis and cherimoya), technology (like the exhilarating 3D I-Ride it has exported to Hollywood), and culture (exemplified by the legendary jadeite cabbage at the National Palace Museum). Economists and political scientists will surely have much more to look for and investigate in Taiwan, but my unsophisticated cravings were fully satisfied.
The tourist in me observed that Taiwan had achieved First-World status, with elevated expressways, high-rise housing, clean waterways, and extensive transport networks. Taipei’s shops were open past 10 pm, catering to a busy nightlife. We took a day trip out to visit the Chimei Museum in Tainan, and boarded the High Speed Rail that zoomed down the island’s west coast at 236 km/h. Despite Taiwan’s high level of industrialization, the countryside remained lush with forests and greenery, and Taipei’s streets were litter-free. True, there were homeless people gathered around Taipei’s Main Station, living out of shopping carts and camping tents, but we had seen far worse in New York and San Diego. Some old-school courtesies persisted: on the subways and buses, younger riders still stood up to yield their seats to seniors.
That said, it was hard for me to shake off the feeling that we were experiencing an ephemeral pleasure. As we took a bridge over a river in Taipei, and reveled in the vista of a thoroughly modern city rising from its ancient roots as a Spanish trading outpost, I remarked to Beng, half-facetiously, that a few Chinese bombs could pulverize all that. China, I said, could “Ukrainize” Taipei, and blow the 101-storey Taipei 101 building, the National Palace Museum, the Shilin Night Market, and all the other attractions we associate with this city into smithereens. Beng said that I shouldn’t be making such horrible jokes, but I had to wonder how much of what I said was indeed a joke and how much of it was dire possibility.
The threat is certainly there—and has been there since 1949, when Chiang Kai-Shek’s losing Nationalist forces retreated to the island, took it over, and turned it into a thorn in Communist China’s side. China has repeatedly used shows of force around Taiwan to demonstrate its readiness and capability to employ “resolute and forceful measures to defend (its) national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and while no explosively significant confrontations have taken place, China’s saber-rattling has only grown louder, provoked by presumptive American guarantees to help defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, and possibly emboldened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (The US, of course, has been rattling its own sabers, particularly with the acquisition of more basing rights in the Philippines.)
You’d think that the specter of invasion would switch Taiwan into full military mode, with air-raid drills and sirens and tanks and soldiers in the streets, but no. When we were there, it was business as usual, with no sense of urgency, even as Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen met with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California, raising the cross-straits temperature further.
Taiwan-watchers such as David Sacks, whose post was republished by the influential Council on Foreign Relations last November, have warned against complacency, especially in the wake of Russia’s Ukrainian misadventure. According to Sacks, “Despite these growing worries and initial steps, actions remain far below where they need to be to deter China and respond to potential Chinese aggression. The increases to Taiwan’s defense budget over the past six years are commendable, but at 2.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), it is still well below where it needs to be…. While there is a recognition that the civilian population will need to play a large role in defending the island, the conversation about how to reform Taiwan’s reserve force is still in its infancy, with little consensus on what its role should be. Taiwan’s military lacks the munitions it would need to withstand an initial Chinese assault and its military services continue to pursue legacy platforms such as fighter jets and large naval vessels that will have little utility during a conflict. It is far from certain that there is buy-in across the military for adopting an asymmetric defense strategy.
“Beyond the military realm, Taiwan needs to do much more to increase the resilience of its society and decrease its reliance on trade with China…. Over 40 percent of Taiwan’s exports go to China or Hong Kong. While there is wide agreement that this is a major vulnerability, there is a certain amount of defeatism, with few ideas of how to reduce this dependence without massive government intervention.
“While the government is taking steps (albeit insufficient) to address the growing threat China poses, there is a worrying gap between officials and the public. Opinion polls reveal that Taiwanese people are not concerned about an invasion and believe war is unlikely in the next decade…. Understandably, most want to focus on improving their lives. There is a fine line, however, between stoicism and complacency.”
Is this a fatalism that we Filipinos seem to share? If China attacks Taiwan, can the Philippines be next, and what will we or can we do about it? (In my admittedly pedestrian view, China has no need for a military invasion of the Philippines—which will be costly and troublesome, given our geography—so long as it achieves full control of the South China Sea. It will be cheaper and easier to subvert and suborn the government, if it wants pro-China policies to prevail.)
I was glad to be just a tourist in Taiwan, enjoying my cherimoya, instead of being a defense analyst pondering the medium term—or, for that matter, being a local fruit seller who might one day find a gaping hole where the orchard used to be.
(Photo from thetimes.co.uk)