My home, Taiwan, is a shining example of freedom, democracy and inclusivity. We have one of the world’s most open societies, the highest percentage of female legislators in Asia and a government minister who is transgender. Decades of hard work, smart policies and entrepreneurial mind-sets have led to enviably high standards of living and made us the global heart of the semiconductor industry.
When Taiwan votes in elections on Saturday, I will go to the polls with a real feeling of worry about our future and whether we can preserve and maintain what we’ve achieved.
Taiwan’s accomplishments were made possible in part by decades of stability between China and the United States. But that is rapidly fading away as the two global rivals descend into distrust and competition. Steps being taken by both sides in that deteriorating relationship are threatening Taiwan’s resilience, its ability to innovate and, importantly, the ability of our people to stay united amid this challenge. The real loser in the U.S.-China competition may end up being Taiwan.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for us to navigate between the two countries.
On one side there is China, just 81 miles away from Taiwan at the closest point, and an existential threat to us. China and Taiwan have been politically separated since the Chinese Civil War ended with a Communist victory in 1949 that sent the Kuomintang (K.M.T.) government, which once ruled all of China, fleeing to Taiwan. Like millions of Taiwanese, I grew up under the threat of a Chinese military invasion. In weekly drills during my school years, we practiced seeking shelter under our little wooden desks in case of an attack. That danger has only intensified as China’s military power has grown and President Xi Jinping, intent on unifying Taiwan with the mainland, has steered Beijing away from trying to win Taiwanese hearts and minds toward economic coercion and military threats.
And yet we prospered, due in large part, ironically, to our close economic ties with China. After China began opening up its economy in the late 1970s, Taiwanese manufacturers rushed in to take advantage of the lower labor costs. China is both a threat to Taiwan and its most important trading partner.
On the other side is America. Despite having switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, the United States remains an important economic partner and supplier of military arms to Taiwan. President Biden has repeatedly pledged that the United States would help defend Taiwan if China were to attack. But there are doubts in Taiwan about the U.S. commitment.
The U.S.-China competition for critical supplies of strategic technologies, particularly semiconductors, also has left Taiwan in the crossfire. The United States has banned the sale of certain high-tech products to China, which also affects some that are made in Taiwan, and has pressured Taiwanese chip manufacturers to invest in costly plant construction on U.S. soil to keep their products out of China’s reach. These policies may help America, but they reduce the competitiveness of one of Taiwan’s most important industries and its economy as a whole.
Taiwan, in essence, is stuck between two unreliable partners.
President Tsai Ing-wen won two terms in part for standing up for Taiwanese autonomy in the face of growing threats from China. But many voters now feel that she has aligned Taiwan too closely with the United States, at the risk of provoking China and putting Taiwan in the firing line. Competing to replace Ms. Tsai are her incumbent vice president, Lai Ching-te, also of her Democratic Progressive Party, or D.P.P., and Hou Yu-ih of the opposition K.M.T. Mr. Lai had a slight lead in the most recent surveys.
The two parties have been arguing over how to deal with China for decades. The D.P.P. views Taiwan as effectively an independent country and brands itself as the party most committed to protecting the island’s sovereignty against Chinese coercion. The K.M.T. argues that positive relations with Beijing are the way to ensure our peace and prosperity. But growing fatigue with the two parties, especially among younger voters, and worsening division over Taiwan’s future, has allowed the Taiwan People’s Party candidate Ko Wen-je to pose a serious third-party challenge with calls for change.
Despite the concerns of potential conflict between the United States and China, this election, which also includes Taiwan’s legislature, may hinge on how to address the kinds of serious domestic problems that afflict many high-income countries, and which the D.P.P. is blamed for failing to effectively address in the past eight years. Voters are worried about soaring housing prices, lagging wage growth, our energy future and the need for policies to help deal with challenges like a rapidly aging population and slowing population growth. Solving problems like these will require consensus, but that may prove difficult to achieve as the latest trends indicate that no party will command a decisive mandate.
All of these problems mean that Taiwan can ill afford becoming further weakened by the contest between China and the United States.
Taiwan’s next president will need to be able to work with both Beijing and Washington, diversify our economy and build stronger international trade links, all while maintaining stability in our vital economic relations with China. But it’s far from certain whether the individuals we will choose will be able to successfully navigate our complex position. Taiwan’s long diplomatic isolation has left it without a deep bench of political leaders experienced in international issues. The presidential hopefuls are all current or former city mayors, with little foreign policy expertise.
External threats can unite a country or weaken it. In Taiwan, there already are deep divisions, not only over how to deal with China and the United States, but on domestic problems. These are being exacerbated by rampant social media disinformation believed to originate from China and intended to undermine public confidence in our democratic institutions. Taiwan is fracturing at a time when unity is most needed.
This Saturday, and going forward, whether or not Taiwan’s people can come together and face these issues effectively may decide whether its admirable achievements persist, or fade away.
Syaru Shirley Lin (@syaru) is the founder and chair of the Taipei-based Center for Asia-Pacific Resilience and Innovation and the author of “Taiwan’s China Dilemma.”
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