The observation deck of the world’s second tallest building, Taipei 101, offers uninterrupted views of Taiwan’s capital city. Built in the basin of the Keelung, Xindian and Tamsui rivers, and surrounded by mountains, Taipei is a modern city of tree lined streets and boulevards, extensive freeways and fast trains, reflecting both Japanese development more than a century ago and the modern era. In three decades, Taipei has been transformed into a vibrant international city; a reflection of the Taiwanese nation itself. Beneath the confident facade however lies a deeper reality: this country faces an existential threat like few others.
If a reminder of this threat were necessary, it came on the first day of my recent visit when air raid sirens penetrated the noise of the bustling city. A message flashed up on my mobile phone: ‘Presidential alert. [WanAn Exercise Missile Alert]’ Traffic was halted, people moved indoors, shops and businesses closed, lights were turned off, police patrolled the streets and emergency services conducted a missile raid drill. There was no panic, just a calm, almost matter-of-fact observance of the security requirements. The air raid training coincided with a major military exercise by the country’s navy and air force in the South China Sea. The air raid exercise reflects the fact that Taiwan is under daily threat from China, its aggressive authoritarian neighbour. Its Aircraft Defence Identification Zone is breached daily by the Peoples Liberation Army airforce conducting military exercises aimed at Taiwan. Bullying rhetoric is regurgitated regularly by the CCP.
As a visitor to Taiwan for the past 30 years, I have witnessed the country transition from a semi-authoritarian state into a vibrant democracy. Elections are regularly contested; governments change peacefully and the rule of law is enforced. The Taiwanese enjoy the freedoms of association, speech and religion upheld in democratic nations. This freedom has assisted them in becoming an economically prosperous country.
In meetings with senior government officials, including President Tsai Ing-wen, the tone was sober and the subject unambiguous: the freedom and security of Taiwan’s 23 million people. While the Taiwanese have lived under the shadow of the Chinese Communist party cloud for decades, the threats from across the channel have intensified since Xi Jinping became the leader of the PRC.
This past week, the CCP has been apoplectic about the thought of US Speaker Nancy Pelosi visiting Taiwan as part of her Asian outreach. Xi Jinping warned President Biden and various CCP voices condemned her possible visit, demanding that she cancel any plans she had to meet with the Taiwanese government. ‘If US fighter jets escort Pelosi’s plane into Taiwan, it is invasion. The PLA has the right to forcibly dispel Pelosi’s plane and the US fighter jets, including firing warning shots and making tactical movement of obstruction. If ineffective, then shoot them down,’ wrote Hu Xijin in the Global Times. Not even the CCP is likely to accept such bellicose advice. Imagine the reaction from the US if Pelosi’s plane was attacked.
Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is not the first by a Speaker. In 1997, Speaker Newt Gingrich met with President Lee Teng-hui during an earlier period of cross-straits stress. In addition to her senior role, Pelosi is disliked particularly by the CCP for having the temerity to be part of a group of US representatives who unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square two years after the massacre which read, ‘To those who died for democracy in China’.
Speaking to President Biden, Xi warned ‘public opinion cannot be defied’, an interesting concept coming from the authoritarian leader of a country which has never allowed its people the basic right to freely determine their own legislators. Contrary to Xi’s autocratic rule, where the people are told what their will is, the Taiwanese have freely and regularly voted for their government. They have also indicated their views through periodic polls. A 2021 survey by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy found 62.7 per cent of those polled said they would defend Taiwan if war breaks out due to Taiwan’s declaring its formal independence. To the question, ‘Would you fight for Taiwan if China uses force against Taiwan for unification?’ 72.5 per cent said they would.
The CCP crackdown in Hong Kong had a very telling impact in Taiwan, especially among young people. Their parents and grandparents may have warned them about the evils of communism, but those who fought the communists feared that their experiences and attitudes were viewed by the younger generation as old fashioned and dated. Hong Kong changed that. When young Taiwanese watched young Hong Kongers protesting the removal of their freedoms, they formed a sympathetic alliance: if this could occur in Hong Kong, how much worse would it be in Taiwan? Their reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the valiant fight back – shown on a 24-hour news loop – strengthened their beliefs: democracy is fragile and worth fighting for. As a consequence, policymakers are seriously considering extending national service military training from four months to a year for all young people. The main reason delaying the probable announcement is ensuring that proper training can be provided.
Beijing’s sabre-rattling about Pelosi is the latest attempt to bully the world into submission as Australians well know. A visit by foreign officials to Taiwan, even after they have left office, attracts the ire of the CCP. The presence in Taiwan last week of former Japanese defence ministers Shigeru Ishiba and Yasukazu Hamada, who led a parliamentary delegation from Japan’s National Diet, ‘bodes ill for the island’ claimed the CCP. To the contrary, these visits remind the Taiwanese that they are not alone in their defence of democracy against authoritarianism.
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