JJohn Oliver examined Taiwan’s confused diplomatic status last Sunday, amid mounting threats from China, which insists the independent, democratically-led island 100 miles from the mainland is not a separate country.
“Here’s an understatement: the Chinese government feels very strongly about this,” Oliver explained. In fact, with such force that after actor John Cena said, “Taiwan is the first country that can see F9” during the press of the Fast and the Furious franchise earlier this year, he released a full apology video. China, in Mandarin. “Every part of it is so weird,” Oliver said. “It’s weird that John Cena apologizes to China, it’s weird that he did it for calling Taiwan a country, and it’s weird to see him do it in pretty decent Mandarin.”
Cena isn’t alone: Paramount recently edited a Taiwanese flag from Tom Cruise’s character’s jacket in the new Top Gun movie, and Gap removed a t-shirt that featured a map of China without the island.
Mental gymnastics and restlessness led Oliver to wonder: how did we get here and what does Taiwan want for itself?
“Historically, Taiwan has been like the Stanley Cup of Asian history in the sense that different people pass it and engrave their names on it, he explained, summarizing the last 400 years of the island very briefly: indigenous peoples lived in Taiwan, formerly known as Formosa; it was colonized by the Dutch, then the Spanish, then controlled by China, which ceded it to Japan in 1895. After the Second World War, the Allies brought Taiwan back under Chinese control. It was ruled by the Nationalist Party, which fled there under Chiang Kai-shek after the victory of the Communist Party in the Chinese civil war.
From the 1970s onward, “Against all odds, Taiwan went from dictatorship to a vibrant, functional democracy, and I mean vibrant,” Oliver said, cutting snippets of fights in the Taiwanese parliament, throwing water balloons at each other, throwing pork guts during a debate on pork imports and an all-out fight for an infrastructure development plan.
Taiwan is also a major player in the global supply chain – the fastest growing economy in Asia last year and a leading manufacturer of semiconductors, which are used in everything from cars to sex toys. “So next time you turn on a butt plug that has 100,000 times more computing power than the Apollo mission to the moon? Make sure to say ‘thank you Taiwan!’ Oliver joked.
Still, due to pressure from China, “even large international organizations like the WHO are forced to play this ridiculous game of freezing Taiwan from fully participating.” The vast majority of the world’s governments do not have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan; today, only 14 countries and the Vatican officially recognize it as an independent country.
The United States has maintained a tense strategy of “strategic ambiguity,” allowing for a functional relationship with Taiwan while maintaining formal diplomatic channels with China.
We “recognized” China’s claim [to Taiwan] but he did not ‘agree’ with that, leaving Taiwan’s status as ‘undetermined’ ”, translated Oliver. “You know, like Schrödinger’s cat, or the Scientology version: Miscavige’s wife. They can be one thing or another, and no one knows for sure.
“I know this policy can seem ridiculous at times, but the uncertainty is the point,” he continued. Case in point: The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, in which the United States promised to help Taiwan maintain its self-defense capabilities, but failed to promise to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. Instead, “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by means other than peaceful” would be of “grave concern” to the United States.
“And what does that mean?” Oliver wondered. “Does it mean that the United States would deploy military assets? Or just that an American general would raise an eyebrow slightly? Nobody really knows. It’s a deliberately confusing dance, do you want to or not? That for 40 years has been the backbone of US and Taiwan policy. “
What does Taiwan want for itself? “Even that is not easy to answer,” Oliver said, in part due to a mix of cultures and traditions on the island. But the vast majority of Taiwanese are in favor of maintaining some version of the status quo for now.
Explicitly formalizing independence, however just, would be incendiary and impractical. “It’s like meeting your partner’s parents for the first time and saying ‘hi, I fuck your offspring regularly,’” Oliver said. “Yes, everyone was aware of that, but now that you’ve officially declared it, things are going to get a lot more difficult for everyone involved here.
“I know that ambiguity is inherently frustrating, especially for Americans who can see a place like Taiwan, which looks and acts like a country, and feels that it is strange and ridiculous not to recognize it as such. But from a practical point of view: would it be better? “he added.
“Could it be that maintaining the current deeply strange and ambiguous status quo is actually the best option here? I don’t know, I’m not Taiwanese, and frankly, non-Taiwanese people make decisions for Taiwan, they are a bit screwed up historically. “
Oliver called on Western audiences not to see Taiwan as a “poker chip in an endless game of us versus them” and instead as “23 million people who, in the face of considerable obstacles, have built a free and free society. democratic and they highly deserve the right to decide their own future in the way they see fit. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism