The Korea Herald


[Frank Shyong] Taiwanese Americans' lingering dread

By Korea Herald

Published : April 18, 2023 - 05:10

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As a Taiwanese American, I'm filled with anxiety and dread every time I see Taiwan in the headlines.

It's not just that the news is never good for the small island nation that China claims as its own territory, where most of my family still lives. It's also because the issue is so politically tortuous that even smart, well-intentioned people have trouble following the conflict's twists and turns, ongoing for more than half a century.

Most recently, when Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy met in Simi Valley, China responded with three days of large-scale military exercises that simulated a naval blockade of Taiwan.

Last year, after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan and met with Tsai, China launched missiles over Taiwan and into the surrounding seas. They deployed warships and warplanes over the median line of the Taiwan Strait.

These increasingly militaristic responses have had a chilling effect on discourse about Taiwan. Taiwanese Americans, and anyone who hopes to do business with companies affiliated with the Chinese government, are rarely willing to discuss it publicly.

Even I struggle to form a coherent opinion on the issue, not least because all my relatives always seem to be fighting about it. In our family, the divide is generational -- my older relatives favor closer ties with China, and the younger ones voted for Tsai.

But I'm wading in now because Taiwan won't be leaving the headlines for the foreseeable future. California often becomes the venue for these political dramas, with nearly half of all Taiwanese Americans in the US residing in the state. And a military conflict between the US and China will affect all of us.

For decades, a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan seemed an increasingly remote possibility given the importance of the growing economic ties between the US, China and Taiwan.

But now it is a peaceful resolution that seems more unlikely, said Raymond Kuo, an Asia researcher for the Rand Institute. Chinese leader Xi Jinping is more determined than ever to add reunification with Taiwan to his political legacy, hoping to unseat Mao Zedong as China's greatest leader. Chinese officials are pressuring nations and international bodies to cut ties with Taiwan.

One political party in Taiwan, the Kuomintang, or KMT, supports closer ties and eventual reunification for Taiwan. But popular sentiment in Taiwan rejects reunification with China, and the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party is gaining strength.

As the KMT's political futures decline, so do Chinese hopes for a peaceful reunification.

This creates a counterintuitive political situation in which loud, visible support for Taiwanese independence, and thus the Democratic Progressive Party, might actually place Taiwan at greater risk for military invasion, given China's increasingly aggressive stance toward Taiwan.

But ignoring Taiwan might mean abandoning the island to the same fate as Hong Kong, where hopes for peaceful reunification and sovereignty were shattered by violent police crackdowns against protesters and free speech.

Countries rarely go to war if they have strong and growing economic ties. But trade between the US and China is declining, Kuo said. In Los Angeles, that means less investment in local development projects and a gutted tourism industry.

It's important to understand that Taiwan (along with the rest of the South China Sea) has become a proxy battleground for competing national ambitions in the US and China, a kind of release valve for growing tensions. Chinese and US political leaders face pressure at home to present strong stances on Taiwan.

But when leaders pay too much attention to public opinion, they rarely create good policy.

"Taiwanese people are thinking, 'Yeah, it's nice to get support. But do they view us as a pawn against China, or do they care about Taiwan?'" Kuo said.

There's a difference between policies that actually help Taiwan and policies intended to make the United States or China look strong, Kuo said.

Congress debated a bill last year called the Taiwan Policy Act, which laid out US military and economic commitments to Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. The bill, Kuo said, didn't provide direct military aid to Taiwan, as the US has done for Ukraine, but instead offered loans to purchase military equipment. And Taiwan is still waiting on weapons deliveries from the United States from orders placed in 2017.

The bill included a proposal that would rename the Taiwanese offices handling diplomatic relations in the US -- currently called Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office -- to something that would give Taiwan diplomatic treatment more similar to a foreign nation, such as Taiwan Representative Office.

The change has not only a lot of symbolic value but also the potential to spark Chinese aggression and condemnation, Kuo said.

Our representatives in Congress should know that the safety of the Taiwanese people is far more important than looking tough on China.

Frank Shyong

Frank Shyong is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)