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Listen to local voices, not the US or China, on Taiwan

Brian Hioe looks at the tensions and misunderstandings surrounding Nancy Pelosi’s visit and how Western leftists routinely ignore local demands from Taiwan

5 to 7 minute read

A cityscape photograph of a sunrise over Taipei, Taiwan

Following a visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Chinese government announced four days of live-fire drills around Taiwan. The drills were framed by the Chinese government as a blockade and, though they were scheduled to end on 7 August, the People’s Liberation Army subsequently announced that military activity would continue.

During these exercises, China fired missiles over Taiwan, some of which landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Chinese ships also sailed near the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands, which both Japan and China claim, and announced military activities to take place in the Bohai Sea and Yellow Sea, near South Korea.

Undoubtedly the potential for regional escalation in the near future is high, particularly if military actions by China have unintended consequences. Meanwhile the US has announced that it will conduct operations in the Taiwan Straits in the near future, alongside joint exercises with the Indian military near the disputed border between India and China.

Tit-for-tat escalation?

What, then, have responses from the global Left been? Disappointingly, many responses from western leftists have only pinned the blame on the US–as though China had no agency here and it was only the US which was responsible– while failing to see how it is the pattern of tit-for-tat escalation between both the US and China that threatens to embroil the region in conflict. This is an escalation in which both perceive themselves as only responding in kind to the other’s actions, which proves particularly dangerous.

Pelosi’s decision to visit Taiwan proves questionable, in that the visit accomplishes little for Taiwan and is primarily symbolic, yet puts Taiwan in the line of fire from China. (Though de facto independent, with a separate government, economy, currency, and military, China claims Taiwan as part of its integral territory.) Pelosi may have been hoping to bolster her credentials as a liberal hawk on China as a legacy moveor to shore up the Democrats’ record as strong on China by backing Taiwan before US midterms.

At the same time, Chinese military threats directed at Taiwan, which according to some news reports tried to disinvite Pelosi given the dangers, are hardly a reciprocal response. The understanding of China’s recent military threats–hitting out at Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan all at once–as somehow a reciprocal response to the US illustrates a tendency from western leftists to view the US as though it were only ‘Big Bad’ in the world, despite the fact that we live in an increasingly multipolar world. This tendency is also seen in views of NATO, rather than Russia, as the responsible party for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. When western leftists attempt to return responsibility for the world’s wars to the US and other western countries that they hail from, this is an attempt to re-center all responsibility back onto the US and West as a peculiar form of narcissistic self-flagellation, treating other parts of the world that are not great powers as having no agency.

Taiwan’s history

Many western leftists have struggled to understand Taiwan’s complicated history, involving multiple waves of colonialism, through the lens of US history. Some highlight that the dictatorial KMT’s reign over Taiwan fits the pattern of US-backed, right-wing, authoritarian states in the interest of anti-communism to suggest this is still the case about Taiwan. Nevertheless, and quite to the contrary, today Taiwan is ruled by the center-left Democratic Progressive Party, which emerged from the Taiwanese democracy movement and underground resistance against the KMT of the 1980s and 1990s.

To this extent, it proves bizarre when leftists trot out pre-modern Chinese history or fifty-year-old agreements between the US and China in order to justify contemporary irredentism by the PRC. For one, Taiwan was incorporated into China only under the last imperial dynasty, the Qing. The Qing only ever controlled part of Taiwan and did not seem terribly interested in it as a possession, ceding Taiwan to Japan in 1895 after the defeat of the Sino-Japanese War. Despite this, self-proclaimed leftists will often cite Taiwan’s rule by Ming dynasty pirate warlord Koxinga to claim Taiwan has always been Chinese.

This is a strange claim, as Koxinga was half-Japanese, which Taiwan’s Japanese rulers platformed to show Taiwan’s longstanding historical ties to Japan. Koxinga is also remembered as a genocidal Columbus figure by Taiwan’s 2% non-Han indigenous population. But more significantly, why is it a left position to suggest the history of 17th century pirate warlords trumps the contemporary views of a people about their identity?

Elsewhere the US One China Policy is used to justify claims that the US takes the position that Taiwan is part of China. Many seem unaware that the US One China Policy and China’s One China Principle are not, in fact, the same, with the US and China not actually having any agreement on Taiwan’s status, even as China tries to conflate the two.


Whether it is ignorance of Chinese history or the pedestalling of agreements between imperial powers, the self-determination of the Taiwanese people seems to be routinely ignored. The fact remains that there is majority support for the status quo amongst the Taiwanese population. This means maintaining Taiwan’s existing de facto independence and current democratic freedoms rather than any declaration of independence that could provoke reprisals from China.

The advocacy of status quo should not be conflated with appeasement, which would entail trading off Taiwan to China to maintain peace in the region. Advocacy of the status quo means maintaining Taiwan’s existing de facto independence, in seeking to avoid conflict with China without compromising on Taiwan and forking its freedoms over to China with the mistaken view that this would maintain peace. Of course, history has told us that appeasement is rarely a ‘peace for our time.’

Western leftists attempt to return responsibility for the world’s wars to the US and other western countries is an attempt to re-center all responsibility back onto the West as a peculiar form of narcissistic self-flagellation

Ultimately, the US and China are not on the verge of nuclear war over Taiwan. Even the recent military live-fire exercises barely saw reactions in Taiwan, with life going on much as usual. A full-on invasion scenario could not occur at the drop of a hat, seeing as massing troops on the shores of China for an invasion would be detectable by satellite imagery, and China currently lacks the lift capacity of sufficient vessels to bring a sufficient number of troops to Taiwan needed to mount a long-term invasion.

While US military officials talk up the threat of an imminent invasion to justify expansive budgets and Chinese military officials do the same as a means of psychological warfare directed at Taiwan, an invasion is far from near. More generally, though there has been much discussion of what some have termed a fourth Taiwan Straits crisis, this discussion has primarily focused on the US and China, with very little attention paid to the Taiwanese themselves. If anyone had bothered to speak to Taiwanese citizens themselves, they would know that though military conflict in the region is a possibility of the future, not the immediate present.

The left should be more attentive to local voices, if it aims to formulate a response that calls warmongers on all sides to account and not inflame hyperbolic rhetoric that, in fact, further escalates the likelihood of actual conflict breaking out.

Brian Hioe is an editor, writer, activist and one of the founders of New Bloom

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