Taiwan is becoming a potential major flashpoint in the imperialist conflict developing between the US and a rising China.
In Australia, the government and military establishment have markedly stepped up their anti-Chinese rhetoric, with talk of preparations for war in the coming decade. Military spending is being sharply boosted, and some in the Murdoch press are calling for Australia to obtain its own nuclear weapons.
The Chinese regime has long considered Taiwan to be an integral part of China, but it has not had the military capacity or political will to seize the island. However, some Western military analysts now believe that China is in a position to fight a successful war with the US over Taiwan using conventional (i.e. non-nuclear) weaponry. That does not mean that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is imminent, though it can’t be ruled out in the next decade. Even if the Chinese regime does have, or soon will have, the conventional military capacity to invade Taiwan successfully, it will still remain a risky move for the Chinese ruling class.
First, there is a danger that such a war could spill over into a nuclear war, which China could not win against vastly superior US nuclear strike power.
Second, even if an invasion was initially successful, there is the possibility of a long, drawn-out insurgency. While some wealthy Taiwanese capitalists, who have extensive and very profitable investments in China, might go along with an invasion, there is no indication that the mass of Taiwanese workers and young people are going to welcome Chinese troops as liberators. Moreover, there is a long history of resistance to occupying imperialist powers in Taiwan. China’s rulers have seen what damage the long-term occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have done to the US empire, and before that the Russians in Afghanistan. Why risk going down that road?
Third, such an aggressive step by China risks pushing surrounding countries—India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines—deeper into the US camp and risks the possibility of Australia, Japan and South Korea deciding to develop their own nuclear weapons.
As to the US’s approach, some commentators have argued that the US government will not be prepared to go to war over Taiwan, and that the US can’t win a conventional war and is very unlikely to risk a nuclear war. These commentators argue that at some point, the US will cut a deal with China and abandon Taiwan. If that were to happen, it would be a major setback for US imperialism. It would be a real sign of decline and weakness, both in the Asia Pacific region and on the broader world stage. The Asia Pacific is increasingly the key area for world capitalism. For the US to meekly surrender its domination there would represent an enormous retreat.
So, while we can’t entirely rule out the possibility of some sordid Munich-style agreement—in which the French and British imperialists in the 1930s handed over Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in a futile attempt to avoid war—it is not the most likely response of the US ruling class to China’s claim to Taiwan. The US abandoning Taiwan would hardly inspire confidence in its allies in South Korea and Japan. These allies could conceivably start to go their own way, cutting individual deals with Beijing and thereby further weakening the US’s strategic positioning.
Moreover, Taiwan is far from being a poor Third World country. It is a significant industrial economy, the 19th largest in the world, with the 13th highest GDP per head in terms of purchasing power parity.
It has considerable importance to the US economy, as it is the major supplier of high-quality microchips. Indeed, Taiwan’s role as a microchip producer is becoming increasingly important as demand for chips is growing rapidly. The Taiwan Semi-Conductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) was recently listed as the 10th most valuable company in the world. So, for the US to totally abandon Taiwan would have considerable costs.
While the Biden administration has not as yet pledged to fight a war over Taiwan, the US is increasing military aid to the country as well as of course massively increasing its own military spending and attempting to deepen its alliances with the fellow Quad nations—Japan, India and Australia.
The socialist standpoint is straightforward. We oppose an imperialist war between the US and China over Taiwan or over any other issue. We stridently oppose any Australian involvement in such a war, a war that could cost many hundreds of thousands of lives if fought with conventional weapons, and untold millions if nuclear weapons were unleashed. You could not, for example, rule out the possibility of the US launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike on North Korea as a warning to China if an invasion of Taiwan seemed imminent.
In Australia, where our government is so stridently in the US camp in this conflict, socialists and anti-war activists need to be directing their campaigning against the enemy at home—our own ruling class and its allies.
But that does not mean that socialists should give Chinese imperialism a blank cheque. Some on the left, various Stalinists and supporters of regimes that are hostile to the US such as Assad’s Syria, Putin’s Russia, North Korea and Iran, have backed the brutal Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong and argue that China has a legitimate claim to Taiwan. They argue that Taiwan was historically Chinese territory that was taken from China by imperialist powers. Even if this historical claim were true, that would not justify a murderous invasion that would not be supported by the mass of workers and ordinary people in Taiwan and not in any way advance the interests of workers in China itself.
In reality, though, the Chinese claim Taiwan is not a strong one. Taiwan is no more integrally part of the Chinese nation than is Tibet, the Uyghur territories, Vietnam or Singapore. Taiwan is a classic early example of a colonial settler state that displaced the original indigenous Polynesian inhabitants, who are related ethnically to the New Zealand Maoris, Samoans and Tongans. There was no significant Chinese presence on the island before the 17th century.
It was only during the period of Dutch colonial rule over part of Taiwan from 1624 to 1662 that the colonial authorities brought in Chinese settlers. These Chinese settlers were used by the Dutch to work the land confiscated from the indigenous population. The Dutch faced rebellions from the indigenous people and eventually, in 1662, a Chinese invasion force took advantage of one of these revolts to seize the island and incorporate it into the Chinese empire. So, the Chinese claim to Taiwan is not much stronger than a British claim to Ireland or Russian to the Ukraine.
Subsequently, Japan seized Taiwan in 1895 and ruled there until the end of World War Two. Japanese rule was initially extremely brutal and provoked numerous local revolts. Nonetheless, significant economic development did take place under Japanese rule, which helped prepare the ground for Taiwan to become one of the so-called Asian tiger economies alongside Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong in the 1970s and 80s.
With the victory in 1949 of Mao’s Red Army over the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT), a section of the defeated KMT army and its supporters fled to Taiwan. In all, 2 million KMT supporters reached Taiwan, which had an existing population of only 6 million. In 1947, there had been an uprising on Taiwan against the KMT authorities who had taken over from the Japanese. A long period of reactionary terror followed, with hundreds of thousands imprisoned or killed.
Although the KMT was stridently anti-Communist, it established an authoritarian state capitalist regime that in many ways was very similar to the regime in Beijing. The KMT regime realised that if it was to survive in the face of the threat of invasion, it needed rapidly to build up Taiwan’s industrial base to provide the underpinning for a strong military. This could not be achieved by relying on the profit-driven whims of private capitalist investors. Only a powerful state could play that role. For decades the core industries, the banks and so on in Taiwan were either state enterprises or subject to rigid state control, as in “Communist” China. Furthermore, in order to accelerate food production and obtain the necessary labour force for urban industry, the KMT carried through a major land reform that essentially eliminated the old landlord class.
Initially, the US did not particularly aid the KMT regime, believing it was doomed to fall to Mao’s armies. But with the outbreak of the Korean War and the heightened tensions in the region, the US began to provide substantial military and financial aid to Taiwan.
By the early 1960s, Taiwan began rapidly to develop its manufacturing exports. Reflecting a common pattern for newly industrialising nations, initially these exports were primarily textiles and clothing. From the late 1960s, the KMT state pushed to move away from these labour-intensive industries to capital-intensive ones, including steel, aluminium, petrochemicals and synthetic fibres.
Then, from 1981, there was a liberalisation of the economy with more room for private capitalists. Trade with the US expanded rapidly with a turn to electronics, telecommunications equipment, microchips and the like. But state intervention remained very important to maximise profits by holding down wages, banning strikes, keeping unions weak and preventing welfare legislation that protected workers.
In 1987, martial law was finally lifted, and there followed a transition to bourgeois democracy. The DPP (Democratic Progressive Party), the current ruling party formed in 1986, in some sense represented those forces that were pushing for democratisation.
The DPP initially had something of a left-wing image and backed independent trade unions. Today, however, it loyally rules on behalf of the Taiwanese bourgeoisie, despite— somewhat like the US Democrats—managing to incorporate various progressive-seeming social movement activists as parliamentary candidates and backing causes like same sex marriage.
The DPP formally favours Taiwanese independence from China, but it does not really push the issue because it does not want to provoke the Chinese regime. The KMT, on the other hand, formally supports unification with China once the current Chinese regime is overthrown, and it still nominally upholds its absurd claim to be the legitimate government of China. However, since democratisation in the 1990s, it has essentially buried the issue. So in terms of practical politics, there is not much difference between the DPP and the KMT on the question of independence. Both prefer to avoid the issue.
There is something of a left in Taiwan, most of which, with the exception of a few small Stalinist groups, is pro-independence. The trade union movement remains fairly weak, though there have been some strikes, including an 11-day strike by flight attendants in 2019.
In terms of popular sentiment, a 2020 poll showed 35.1 percent support for independence, 5.8 percent support for unification with China and 52.3 percent support for postponing a decision on status or for maintaining the status quo.
There has been a marked collapse since the 1990s in the number of Taiwanese people, particularly young people, identifying as Chinese. In 2020, 67 percent of people identified only as Taiwanese, 2.4 percent identified as Chinese, and 27.5 per cent identified as both Chinese and Taiwanese.
Indigenous people make up between 2.5 percent and 4 percent of the population and have special seats allocated to them in the parliament. However, despite being poor and racially oppressed, they solidly vote for the right-wing KMT. There is nothing then automatic about racial oppression leading to left-wing attitudes. There is also a rapidly growing migrant population that currently makes up six percent of the workforce.
In conclusion, socialists should not support the forcible incorporation of Taiwan into China, let alone a Chinese invasion of the island. It should be up to the Taiwanese people to decide democratically. However, the question of Taiwanese independence cannot be separated from the growing imperialist tensions between the US and China. The US uses the issues of Taiwan, the oppression of the Uyghurs and the brutal repression in Hong Kong to inflame hostility to China. This is an utterly cynical and hypocritical approach given the US’s own long record of brutal suppression of democratic rights from Iraq to Afghanistan to Vietnam and Latin America.
Socialists should strongly oppose the current military build-up in the US and Australia, and the increasing Cold War-style rhetoric from our rulers. Any shooting war between the US and China would be an imperialist war, reactionary on both sides, which would override the specific issue of the Taiwanese people’s right to independence. Socialists need to campaign hard against any Australian involvement in such a war.