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Testing Analogies about Taiwan: Is It Gibraltar or Switzerland?

Testing Analogies about Taiwan: Is It Gibraltar or Switzerland?

Article by Juan Alberto Ruiz Casado.

Abstract: The current hegemonic rivalry between China and the United States has placed Taiwan at a geopolitical crossroads where the island state has to struggle to decide its role in said conflict. Taiwan’s mass media, in their role as opinion builders through specific editorial lines, have launched proposals that are adopted by political parties and projects and ended up forming part of the country’s political imaginary. This article analyses the discursive practices of one of the Taiwanese media with the largest circulation in English, the Taipei Times, specifically describing and criticizing the discursive articulation of analogies between Taiwan, Gibraltar and Switzerland. It argues that these analogies are built through discursive contradictions that jeopardize the original good intentions of placing Taiwan as a neutral refuge capable of avoiding conflict and preserving its de facto sovereignty.

Keywords: discourse theory, Taiwan, Taiwanese neutrality, anti-China narrative, rhetoric of the enemy
Header image “Gibraltar” by John Finn is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Creating analogies to illuminate the elusive nature of one object of study by comparing it with a more familiar one is a common form of explanation. But it also entails a conscious way of discursively constructing meaning according to the interest of the subject elaborating such analogy. First of all, analogies are not innocent tools of analysis, insofar as the mere choice of the object B with which A will be compared depends on a starting point, a common sense, as Gramsci (1971) would put it, in which the creator and the reader are unavoidably embedded. At the same time, as will be seen in this article, the analogies about Taiwan reproduced in mainstream media and embarked on an anti-China narrative are not merely intended to explain to the rest of the world—and to the Taiwanese society itself—what Taiwan is or should be. Rather, these discourses seek a performative result through the establishment of a chain of equivalences around what Taiwan means, until it becomes naturalized as the truth—a mechanism that would be perfectly explained by Laclau and Mouffe (1985)’s discourse-theoretical approach.

This article begins with a recent analogy published in an article in the Taiwanese media outlet the Taipei Times, comparing Taiwan to Gibraltar[1]. The article ends with this assertion: “For the US and its Asian allies, Taiwan remains a solid rock of democracy; it can also be their Rock of Gibraltar for peace; they only need to step up to the plate”. Gibraltar has officially been a “crown colony” since the territory was “ceded” by Spain in 1713 after war negotiations. In 2002, instead of returning this colony to Spain as it previously did Hong Kong to China, the United Kingdom decided to stop using the label “colony” for Gibraltar and use the more politically correct label “British overseas territory”. But Gibraltar remains an obvious reminder of colonial and imperialist times. Indeed, more than a safeguard of peace, Gibraltar is a centre of conflict. As a product of colonial occupation, Gibraltar has been a reason for constant sieges and threats between countries: it is now a source of diplomatic conflict due to the desire of the Spanish nationalists to recover the rock and the nostalgia of those who want to maintain the British colonial pride. But even more important is the role of Gibraltar as a tax and fraud haven: in March 2021, Spain and the UK signed a treaty that aims to finally end the consideration of the Rock as a “tax haven”. Freedom in the purest neoliberal style was the one that reigned in Gibraltar for decades, something that after Brexit seems to be changing for the better (something good had to come out of Brexit, after all). Does Taiwan really want to become a Gibraltar? Is Keating suggesting that Taiwan should become a colony of the “free world”—i.e. the United States (US)—in its crusade against China?[2]

Some answers can be found in a previous article by the same author, published in 2017 and titled “Taiwan as the Gibraltar of Asia”. Let us see the main arguments embodied by this analogy. First of all, Keating (2017) reproduces the idea of Taiwan as the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” of Asia. What does this imply? An aircraft carrier is an offensive weapon, the most powerful tool of imperialist projection and the best example of military intimidation. How this idea fits with the rock of Gibraltar for peace suggested by Keating can only be the result of discursive prestidigitation. This idea of a legendary “anti-communist unsinkable aircraft carrier” (Chen, 2020) off the Chinese coast portrays an unambiguous militaristic and aggressive role of Taiwan against China, a Damocles sword threatening communism face to face. The immense investment in weaponry by Taiwan is justified by Keating (2017) with charming analogies: “During World War II, Gibraltar became the bastion that prevented the Axis powers from making the Mediterranean their mare nostrum”. Of course, if Taiwan is Gibraltar, then China is implicitly constructed as the fascist enemy in this discourse. Who could oppose Taiwan becoming Gibraltar when it comes to be described as a Manichean conflict between the perfect evil and the magnificent West!

The idealistic analogy is finalised with the goal that this new Western colony would undertake: to corner China on its own shore, because “Beijing desires Taiwan as an immediate access point to the Pacific Ocean as it seeks to expand its empire”. Of course, China expanding its empire is illegitimate under the Western hegemonic “common sense” because it threatens the empire of the latter, and here is where the analogy becomes hilarious: China wants to expand its empire by taking ours, so it must be stopped by the militarization of our own new Gibraltar! Put it differently, what is depicted as negative here is not imperialism, but Chinese imperialism. The connection of this narrative with the current wave of Sinophobia is clear: anything coming from China is evil and jeopardizes “all the rules, values and relationships that make the world work the way we want it to” [my emphasis], just as Anthony Blinken boldly stated (see Toosi, 2021).

In the end, Taiwan is not a rock for peace but, as Keating admitted (2017), for Western-hegemonic countries “a free, democratic Taiwan” is “their rock of security; it is their Gibraltar”. This is rather a rock to suppress, a rock to continue imposing their hegemonic will and keeping the world the way they want it to be. The main function of Gibraltar was not to maintain peace in the world but to maintain the hegemony of the UK, a reason utterly absent of altruism. Indeed, the cession of Gibraltar came with a concession absolutely opposed to freedom: in the same treaty, the British obtained from the Spanish a 30 year monopoly of the Asiento de negros (the permission to sell slaves in Spanish possessions), which was precisely the main casus belli for the War of Spanish Succession that ended with Gibraltar in UK hands. After this, English slave trade boomed and the acquisition of Gibraltar meant for UK the maritime, commercial and financial supremacy in the seas, a boost for its imperialist expansion around the world. Continuing the analogy, the real reason that justifies the transformation of Taiwan into a new Gibraltar is to instrumentalise Taiwan in order to subdue China or, better still, to incite a military conflict of which the main beneficiaries would be neither China nor Taiwan but the US and its world hegemony.

China imperialism cartoon” is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A second analogy to analyse in this brief article is the one comparing Taiwan with Switzerland. Keating (2017) already dropped this analogy in passing when writing his article on Gibraltar, calling Taiwan “the Switzerland of Asia”, whose “neutrality, like that of Switzerland, gives it importance; the same applies to the sense of its role as the Gibraltar of Asia. It is important that a bastion of entry and control should be one that maintains democracy and neutrality”. The identical proposal that Taiwan is or has to be neutral like Switzerland is defended in another editorial article in the Taipei Times, by Lawrence Chien (2020), titled “Following the Swiss defence model”. Is this really the case? Is Taiwan on the path to adopting a neutral role in the ensuing Second Cold War?

The analogy begins with a brief historical analysis of the Swiss peculiarity. It is mentioned that the great European powers signed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 that Switzerland should be “permanently neutral”, which allowed Switzerland to maintain its neutrality during the world wars. In the brief historical exposition, particular emphasis is placed on the Second World War and the threat of Hitler, who is surreptitiously equated with the danger of the malignant CCP. The analogy is clear insofar as the discourse is based on taking the example of how a European country avoided the great danger of having a belligerent and aggressive neighbour. Similar to the previous analogy, if Taiwan is Switzerland, then China is Nazi Germany. This widespread analogy between China and the Third Reich appears particularly incongruent when we consider that the most logical comparison in cultural and geopolitical terms would involve the employment of Imperial Japan. However, since the camaraderie towards Japan is significant in Taiwan, and since, unlike Germany, Japan has not admitted its atrocities during the war, it seems much cleverer not to unnecessarily alienate Japan.

These discourses unveil the necessity of resorting to the rhetoric of the enemy: the strategy to construct a political frontier against an absolute evil enemy with whom it is not possible to negotiate, that therefore must be eliminated, and against whom any measure is therefore automatically legitimised. Simultaneously, this discursive strategy also requires providing Taiwan with a specific role, transforming it into an adjacent signifier supporting the myth of the Chinese intrinsic evil. The concept of myth, as conceptualised by Laclau (1990), is an empty signifier that articulates a collective will around it, constituting the core of a political project with hegemonic aspirations. Chinese exceptionality and inherent wickedness constitute this myth and, consequently, Taiwan has become a signifier that supports this myth, discursively constructed vis-à-vis this malevolent enemy who denies its existence. Taiwan thus acquires a particular meaning as a representative of the fight of good against evil, offering the mobilizing support that this anti-China hegemonic project requires. Together with Hong Kong, the “Chinese virus”, and Xinjiang, Taiwan is just the most recent addition to the myth of the evil China opposed by the “free world”, and what Taiwan represents is crystallising, through a constant barrage of analogies (i.e. a democratic beacon, the best example of pandemic handling, the freest country in Asia, and so on), as a “common sense” in the struggle against the hegemonic enemy.

Interestingly, engrossed in this political imaginary of a struggle between enemies with no capacity for dialogue, for Chien the key to achieve a Swiss-style neutrality comes down to becoming a “complete system of national defense”: turning the country into a “porcupine” with enough defensive “facilities and strength”. Some of the Swiss exemplary measures proposed by this author to achieve such “national defense system” are: compulsory military service including female volunteers; to take home the military uniforms and guns, gas masks and other weapons, “with the exception of ammunition”; and the spread of strong nationalist sentiments that allow its people to “share a common goal of defending their home and country, uniting themselves against foreign aggression”. Under this lens, Switzerland’s ability to remain neutral seems to be merely based on its own military capacity and strong nationalist feelings. Nothing is mentioned about the importance of diplomacy to maintain neutrality in the event of conflict, because this approach does not fit well with the myth of the evil China. It is not mentioned how Switzerland promised to treat all sides with equanimity, or how it became the venue through which Nazis disposed their millions of dollars of looted gold, or that Switzerland had to make economic concessions to Nazi Germany to stay in its security bubble, as a diplomatic tool to deter a possible invasion during the years of greatest tension. Contrastingly, the possibility of negotiating with China is customarily negated in the current anti-China narrative: they are deceivers, they cannot be trusted, they are, indeed, intrinsically genocidal.

Most interestingly, the article suggests that Taiwan should join a US-led military alliance. It begins by mentioning that “despite being a neutral state, Switzerland is also a NATO partner country”, which allows it to engage in altruistic missions filled with noble ideals, such as “maintaining world peace and humanitarian relief”. Subsequently, Chien recounts the “long-standing friendship” between Taiwan and the US, and presents President Tsai’s desire to “actively participate in international cooperation”. Eventually, Chien directly states that “peace depends on national defense”, and suggests that “participating in the Indo-Pacific regional alliance, Taiwan will surely help maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the region”. This seems utterly contradictory: joining a military alliance that aims at counterbalancing China is not compatible with a neutral role. First of all, the initial premise offered in this editorial is misleading: that Switzerland joined NATO as a “partner”, a role completely different to that of the 29 member countries. The refusal to join as a member was “based on a longstanding policy of military neutrality”, as it is reflected in the organisation’s website. Therefore, the rule that obliges the signatory states to intervene if one of them is attacked, does not apply in the case of Switzerland. Therefore, its partnership does not imply that NATO has an obligation to come to the defence of Switzerland in the event of a “foreign invasion”, contrary to what the Taipei Times article suggests. In Taiwan’s case, joining an anti-China military alliance would either break neutrality or, if Taiwan joins as an observer partner, it would not contribute to its defence.

Switzerland refused to sign the NATO treaty in the past because the risk of a European invasion by the Soviet Union (today Russia) would upend Switzerland’s neutral status. Taiwan, likewise, should not participate in any military alliance that automatically implies taking sides in a conflict involving two blocs. Should a conflict break out between China and the US, Japan or any other neighbour, Taiwan should never be forced to break its neutrality if it wants to be like Switzerland. It is, therefore, a contradiction to promote neutrality and at the same time establish military alliances with China’s declared enemies. A serious proposal for Taiwanese neutrality would be an adequate response, most likely the only one, to grant peace in the Taiwan Strait in the future. But to do that, Taiwan would have to become the opposite of Gibraltar and this somewhat “Trumpist” idealisation of Switzerland.

A serious neutrality proposal should include a commitment signed by the US and China, among others, as what happened at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Some of the measures that could be agreed are limiting the purchase of weapons to defensive weapons instead of offensive ones, a commitment not to maintain relations in favour of either side, allowing or forbidding the passage of military planes or ships through Taiwanese territory on equal terms for all sides, or prohibiting the arrival of foreign military personnel to Taiwanese territory unless such visits are approved by all the signatories of the treaty. The function of such desirable neutrality would be to get Taiwan out of the equation of the struggle for hegemony between the US and China in the Pacific. If China fears that the militaristic escalation in Taiwan is driven not by a quest for self-defence and security but by an American desire to dominate Taiwan and to impede China’s strategic projection, the military threat and the discursive polarization will continue to escalate until it explodes.

This proposal of neutrality is totally incompatible with the antagonistic discourses elaborated by Keating and Chien (and the editorial lines of the main media in Taiwan, for that matter), insisting on drawing a non-existent reality through comparisons with Nazi Germany and Hitler. Progressively cornering China internationally through a polarising strategy while the US surrounds the Asian country with military bases, arming and instrumentalizing Taiwan, or through accusations of having created and exported the virus on purpose, they do not build a common sense of neutrality and peace.

NOTES

[1] Written by Jerome Keating (2021), a “writer based in Taipei”—these are the credentials with which he signs—who shows in each of his articles an undisguised distrust, if not hatred, towards China.

[2] My passport indicates that I am Spanish, so an article mentioning Gibraltar could seem to hurt my national pride. Nothing could be further from reality: “recovering” Gibraltar for Spain is something that, in nationalist terms, I find totally unnecessary. Nevertheless, Gibraltar seems to me an absolute aberration that should be avoided rather than copied.

[3] An empty signifier, following Laclau, is “strictly speaking, a signifier without a signified” (Laclau 1996, 36), a term that points to no specific object and has not an universally agreed meaning.

[4] I am referring here to the macabre discursive construction of a genocide in Xinjiang despite the lack of evidence (see Brossat, 2021), to all the conspiracy theories regarding the origins of Covid-19 and its articulation as a “Chinese virus” exported with evil intentions (see Ruiz Casado, 2021b, forthcoming), and to the construction of Hong Kong as an idealized movement for democracy rather than independence, leaving aside the fact that it is the result of western colonialism and interventionism, while belittling certain antidemocratic and supremacist tendencies within the movement (see Ruiz Casado, 2021a). Of course, to these recents myths we could add the oldest and most successful myth regarding China: that of the “Tiananmen Massacre” (see Mathews, 1998).

[5] A proposal that was voiced days before in another editorial also in the Taipei Times, under the title “Compulsory military service for women” (Tsai, 2020).

[6] NATO website, retrieved from https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_52129.htm

[7] For example, acquiring anti-aircraft missiles instead of combat fighters, or making anti-ship missiles instead of attack submarines.

[8] Something quite common in certain press in Taiwan and the US (see Ruiz Casado, 2021b, forthcoming).

REFERENCES

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