Review: Why Taiwan Matters

Why Taiwan MattersTaiwan, according to Shelley Rigger, is a small and beautiful island, but also a global powerhouse. A professor at Davidson College, Rigger has been living and visiting Taiwan for nearly three decades. Her new book, Why Taiwan Matters, reveals her extensive knowledge of the history of the island and its relationship to mainland China. Once, on radio, an interviewer compared Rigger to a cheerleader for Taiwan. She deserves the nickname. As a political scientist, her sympathy, awareness, and focus on the unique Taiwanese identity makes her book an excellent primer.

Rigger offers a picture of Taiwan’s economic miracle featuring its high-tech industries. What may be more intriguing to readers is Taiwan’s political miracle. From an authoritarian government under Chiang Kai-shek to today’s hustle-and-bustle democratic elections, Taiwan is showing with its home-grown democracy that Asian culture is compatible with democratic values.

In her book, Rigger uses the metaphor of “divorce” to describe the current relationship between Taiwan and mainland China. For Rigger, Taiwan’s unique identity naturally leads to a state. This theme of identity-building runs through Rigger’s impressively detailed coverage of the history of Taiwan. But the question remains: does a unique identity justify an independent state? Many separatist movements around the world struggle for independence and recognition based on their understanding of their own unique identity. On the other hand, some unique entities, such as the Basques in Spain, ultimately forgo a separate state to live in a larger, democratic federal structure.

At the present, mutual economic interest is the most significant factor binding the two sides of the Taiwan Strait closely together. Rigger devotes much space to a discussion of Taiwanese businessman (Tai Shang) on the mainland. This economic cooperation functions in place of political reunification. Politically, reunification both for Taiwan and mainland China is something that doesn’t need to be rushed. Both sides are satisfied with the somewhat ambiguous status quo.

As Rigger persuasively argues, “Taiwan matters, to China, to the United States, to the world — and above all, to its own people. It is not an object of others’ destiny, but the subject of its own history; it is not a means to others’ ends, but an end in itself. Regarding Taiwan in this way does not foreclose any outcome in cross-Strait relations, but it does call on others to support outcomes that affirm and uphold Taiwan’s dignity and democracy.”

Yunping Chen is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.