Sunday, August 11, 2013

Taiwan Trip Wire


When I teach modern World History, the island of Taiwan makes a couple of cameo appearances. It appears during the resolution of the Chinese Civil War. Chiang Kai-Shek (CKS) flees to Formosa vowing to keep the fight alive from his new island fortress. In the way that I teach the class CKS is not a very sympathetic character. Coming from a Western perspective he is supposed to be the one that we choose as our champion, the one “our” side made deals with as being either the better or two evils or the lesser of two evils. CKS is no saint and is hardly worth much historical sympathy in my opinion and the conduct from the initial purge of communists, to his retreat to Taiwan to the white terror all attest to this.

I don’t shy away from discussing the atrocities of the communists and Mao, but I don’t deny the historical significance and revolutionary nature of some of the communist reforms. As coming from a colony of the “west” I don’t like to take on their heroes, since this is one of the ways that we on Guam prove our loyalty to the United States, by accepting their generic list of friends and enemies in the world. It makes people on Guam feel more American to hate communism even if they don't know what communism is. It makes them feel more patriotic to hate China even if they don't know anything about China.

As such, discussions about Mao, CKS, Taiwan and China can yield interesting microcosmic experiments. For most on Guam Mao is evil and if they know who CKS is, they know he is a hero of democracy, despite the fact that he ruled over quite a few military governments and dictatorships during his life. As my class does not accept the United States as being the center of history or as being the avatar of History, it means that we can discuss its accomplishments in a more objective context. It also means that we can take stock without that pressure to love those the US has lain in bed with and hate those who they have marked as enemies. For just a few minutes students come to admire Mao, if only for his decisiveness and his determination. He is someone who definitely changed the course of world history, and not only in terms of body counts and atrocities.

Taiwan is a site that I occasionally use in order to discuss Japanese colonialism. Formosa, one of the names Taiwan used to have, was a given to Japan by China in 1895. This was one of the first steps in terms of establishing the framework for aggression and expansion that later led to Guam and many other territories before it being invaded and occupied prior to and during World War II. I may discuss this in more detail now since the release of the film "Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale." The movie has lots of blood and action and is the one of the biggest films in Taiwanese history, but I would show it more for the representation of the indigenous Taiwanese people, to whom Chamorros have Austornesian language and cultural connections.

Finally, Taiwan also plays a significant role in how I discuss Guam as being the “tip of America’s spear,” and the ways that it might be “bloodied.” Taiwan is the most crucial chess piece in the geopolitical game between the United States and China, that if moved could end up pushing the players from their currently ambivalent (hu guaiya/ hu chatguaiya hao) games into outright warfare. Although the United States recognizes China, as in mainland China as the true China, it has stronger historical relations with Taiwan. It has vowed in various forms since World War II to protect the autonomy of Taiwan. If China ever did make a move against Taiwan in order to reassert its control over it, the United States would have a choice to make, and Guam would be dragged into whatever conflict it ensued. 

In the same way in which previous war plans did not bode well for Guam in any serious war, today strategic analysis of Guam's position in relation to any potential conflict is not sunshine, rainbows and unicorns. If a serious war ever broke between these two titans, it would not be good for Guam. I always tell my students that they should pray for peace in Taiwan, pray for peace with China, pray for peace in general if you are interested in praying for Guam.

Because of this I often think of Taiwan in empty ways. It is a sort of tripwire. If it is tripped, it means that something terrible is just about to happen to Guam. In the past I haven’t given it much contemporary identity beyond that tripwire warning status for Guam. I cite Taiwan in the same way I cite a favored and reliable source in terms of making an argument.  Eventually the complexity of that source may be lost on me since I have been using it for so long to make a consistent set of points. 

I can happily report that after visiting Taiwan last month, I have a much more nuanced understanding of Taiwan internally, but also a better ability to understand its connections to Guam. I'll be writing more about those in the coming weeks. 

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