An acquaintance of mine arrived in Taiwan (alias the “republic of China”) in 1971, the week after Nixon announced his intention to visit Peking. The air was thick with anxiety. Those who had somewhere to go were preparing to leave, considering that, with the collapse of American support and the anticipated expulsion from the U.N., the island would soon be overwhelmed by its enemies, the communists of mainland China. At that time, my friend tells me, you could buy a nice flat in central Taipei (Taiwan’s capital) for next to nothing.
“I should have bought!” he adds ruefully. Nowadays property prices in Taipei look like telephone numbers. In these 14 years the people of Taiwan have learned an interesting thing: that the whole mad charivari of international diplomacy — the embassies, exchanges, aid, the Olympics, the U.N. itself — are not worth a twopenny damn, so long as a country is determined to make a living and defend itself.
Chiao Chiao Hsieh, herself Taiwanese, has produced a detailed history of modern Taiwan’s relations with the outside world, from its origins as a refugee bolthole for Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists to its present status as an economic superstar enjoying proper diplomatic relations with practically nobody.
Chiang’s fantasies of “recovering the mainland” soon had to give way to realism. Military strategies were replaced by political ones, as the Taiwan authorities struggled to maintain respect for themselves as the sole legitimate representatives of the Chinese nation. Then, following the loss of their U.N. seat, the only strategy left was survival through trade.
For anyone concerned with the future of Asia, the last two chapters of this book are the most valuable. I have spent hours with Taiwanese friends discussing questions like: Should the island go nuclear? Make a deal with Russia? With Japan? Drop the “Republic of China” nonsense and declare independence? Dr Hsieh weighs up these matters in a few crisp paragraphs, leaving the reader content there is nothing more to be said about them.
In a world where the number of bogus “China experts” threatens soon to surpass the population of China herself, it is a joy to find oneself in the hands of a real scholar, whose command of her material is total. There is simply nothing that Dr Hsieh does not know about Taiwan and its problems. Probably not many people are interested in the fortunes of that lovely island. For those who are, this book is required reading.