The Korea Herald


Taiwan’s soft power faces a rising China


Published : Oct. 17, 2011 - 20:31

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A strong sense of deja vu prevailed listening to Philip Yang, a Taiwanese spokesman, recently, as Taipei embarks on a “soft-power” offensive by promoting its local culture, indigenous people, food and other goodies. It’s no longer “politics-as-usual” in Taiwan, he quipped.

The occasion was appropriate, as Taiwan recently commemorated Double Ten ― the national day of the Republic of China ― on Oct.10 to much fanfare, as it coincided with the centennial of the ROC, which brought down the imperial Chinese regime in 1911. It is an open secret that the ruling party, President Ma Ying Jeou’s Kuomintang (KMT), hopes Taiwan’s distinctive culture and identity can help to maintain the island’s status quo without declaring independence. Private and government polls conducted over the past three years show that around 75-80 percent of the population wants to keep the existing state of affairs for as long as possible. The question is whether it can be done.

Under Ma’s leadership, China-Taiwan relations have improved by leaps and bounds. Cross-strait cooperation since 2008 has expanded and permeated into all non-political spheres of ordinary people’s lives. For instance, last year a total of 1.4 million Chinese visitors traveled to the island, and next year it could reach 2 million. A total of 70 flights daily leave the island for various destinations on the mainland. The number of visitors and flights increased rapidly after Taiwanese authorities recently allowed individual Chinese from Beijing and Shanghai to visit as independent travelers, rather than as part of package tours.

This academic year, nearly 2,000 students from China will study at universities in Taiwan. At last count, there were more than 200,000 people from the mainland newly resident on the island, including many women married to local Taiwanese. One million Taiwanese, meanwhile, are living in China’s coastal areas. Now the Chinese can purchase real estate in Taiwan if they meet the island’s strict criteria, such as non-membership in the Chinese Communist Party and not holding senior government positions in Beijing.

While the growth of Chinese investment around the world has been meteoric, investment in Taiwan last year totaled only $147 million, mostly in shipping, airlines and logistics businesses. But the potential for high growth is there as both sides are negotiating for more cooperation beyond the 15 bilateral agreements struck in the past three years. Taiwan’s investment in the coastal areas of China last year amounted to $177 billion but unofficial figures were as high as $300 billion, according to some foreign banks.

As the presidential election is less than three months away, relations with China are again dominating the political discourse. With the latest opinion polls showing Ma and his chief rival, Tsai Ing Wen, chairwoman of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, neck-and-neck, both candidates are doing their best to attract the attention of potential voters. Tsai, after a long denial, said that the Republic of China is Taiwan and vice-versa. It was the first time she has departed from her party’s line of treating the ROC as a non-native regime, or government-in-exile.

But doubts linger on whether the KMT and DPP will be able to bridge their differences over the island’s future. For Ma, the 1992 consensus with a separate interpretation of the One China principle is still the guide. The so-called three-No’s apply: no unification, no independence and no use of force. But the DPP leaders have been more assertive on the issue of independence. Despite this basic difference, however, the two sides both see a need for a stronger defense for the island.

James Shi Chu, director-general for Hong Kong and Macao Affairs at Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, was very sanguine, emphasizing that the 23 million Taiwanese people will decide whether closer ties would bring about reunification. He believed that more contacts at the people-to-people level will increase mutual understanding, without necessarily leading to reunification, as many might have thought.

As China-Taiwan ties improve, so does Chinese acquiescence to an expansion of the island’s international space. Taiwanese officials here continue to apply the so-called WHA model ― which enables Taiwan to attend the World Health Assembly, a U.N.-related forum, as an observer ― to other international conferences. This is an incremental process. For Taiwan, expansive economic relations are easier to forge as they are less controversial, especially with countries in the region. Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and India are negotiating a regional free-trade agreement with Taiwan. Both Singapore and Malaysia have recently waived entry visas for the island’s passport-holders, joining 121 other countries.

Despite the all-round rise in China-Taiwan cooperation, Taiwan still feels insecure and wants a stronger defense to protect the island’s sovereignty and cross-strait security. During the National Day parade, the armed forces showed off their military might, including F-16 and Mirage 2000-05 fighters, and missile launchers. Defense experts contend that given the current military arsenal, they are still weak in comparison to the growing might of China, which now has the capacity to produce its own advanced fighter jets and other sophisticated military hardware, both defensive and offensive.

With the word’s fourth-largest foreign reserves, Taiwan knows it has lots of resources for soft power by making the island a center of creativity, whether it is in performing arts and music or technological innovations. Two years ago, Huashan Creative Park was established as a showcase of the island’s artistic talent with the aim of exporting it to international markets. The government has invested millions of dollars to turn a former distillery in downtown Taipei into an artistic community for all people of all ages and talents. Taiwan is hoping that its cultural and artistic inspiration will give its international image a facelift, following the example set by South Korea. After all, some 80 percent of the world’s Chinese-language pop music comes from this island. Jay Chou, Wang Lee Hung and F4 are just a few of its internationally popular stars.

“Seediq Bale,” a film about the heroic Seediq aboriginal communities in Nantou County who fought the Japanese during the colonial period, epitomizes the island’s new-found appreciation of its 14 recognized indigenous peoples. The movie, the highest-grossing Taiwanese film ever, helps raise awareness and understanding of the contributions of these peoples. Through this popular film, Taiwan is eager to share this with the Chinese audience. However, of the large number of Chinese-language films made on the island each year, few penetrate the vast mainland market. Local film companies and producers say strict censorship measures in China are a major hindrance to imports of Taiwanese films.

Lastly, as part of the island’s soft power initiative, Taiwan is busy promoting local cuisine as distinct from the so-called Chinese food that is famous around the world. Beef-stewed noodles, oyster omelets, fish-and-meat ball soup, steamed fish with pickles and the classic pineapple cake have been highlighted as menu items visitors must not miss.

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

(The Nation)