Taiwan's own Meiji Restoration: A Chance for Peaceful Resolutions to Potential Crises

Taiwan could be headed for its own 'Meiji Restoration' in response to Chinese threats

"Horsecar between Nihonbashi and Kyobashi in Tokyo" by Kurenai Eisai (1882).

"Horsecar between Nihonbashi and Kyobashi in Tokyo" by Kurenai Eisai (1882). (Wikimedia Commons photo)

This editorial is an examination of threats to Taiwan based on American anthropologist Jared Diamond's new book "Upheaval," which examines how nations cope with crises, internal and external threats, violence, and change.

A focus of the work is how countries implement selective change to manage difficulties, which means knowing what needs changing and, in turn, constructing a “fence” to contain such difficulties so a country can differentiate between areas it genuinely needs to transform and develop and areas it does not. Additionally, a country’s identity and values are important, as are its leaders, decision-making practices, institutions and policies, self-awareness, conceptions of reconciliation and compromise, past responses to problems, and group interaction and consensus.

Taiwan does not seem to be facing any true "upheaval" in the present day. This does not, however, ignore the fact that there are problems that Taiwan faces — some of which are serious and threatening. I am not going to address environmental threats here, important as they are. Taiwan is experiencing environmental problems, but so far they come short of reaching a crisis stage.

Diamond examines wars that have disrupted societies, as well as external threats and internal disruptions. Taiwan has not experienced a true war since the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949, and there are no truly significant internal threats to Taiwanese society — political upheaval, insurgency, revolution, and the like. On the face of things, life seems ordered and peaceful, but we all know the potential threat that hovers on the horizon.

Things may look reasonably benign in Taiwan, but the threat posed by China looms large. We must recognize China as exactly this —an external threat that could give rise to violence and that poses an economic hazard to Taiwan. In short, these are the major upheavals Taiwan could face, and we must examine and consider them carefully.

In "Upheaval," Diamond examines Japan in the 19th century and the threat that the U.S. posed to the nation when Commodore Matthew Perry’s naval force arrived in Tokyo Bay in 1853. This was both an economic and a military threat, and we can view China as a similar twofold menace. China is probably far from landing on the beaches of Taiwan any time soon, but the very idea is taken seriously in many circles.

As for the economic danger, this could either take the form of Taiwan losing China as an economic partner or by overdepending on the Chinese market and thus losing much via a brain drain of professionals relocating to the Middle Kingdom as well as a diminishment of commercial exchange with other nations.

Needless to say, the U.S.'s actions in 19th century Japan led to the Meiji Restoration era, in which Japan decreed many sweeping changes to the nation’s economy and way of life. This brought the reclusive kingdom into the modern era. Japan utilized many of the "12 factors related to outcomes of national crises" that Diamond describes in his book, which will be examined in greater detail below.

Exactly what threat China poses to Taiwan has been the subject of many analyses. Some analysts do not see the threat as paramount, and it may be that China has little desire for truly aggressive behavior. Whatever expansionism China may be accused of, the truth is that it has not been a genuinely war-making nation in a long time. But that cannot distract from the fact that China’s military has readied itself for an attack on Taiwan and, to be sure, China’s leadership has made clear this possibility. The thousands of missiles targeting Taiwan right now certainly constitute a significant military threat. And so, the potential exists for a true upheaval in society.

The prospect of a war with China and what that might involve is too complex for this article, but let it be what it is: a danger in the most ominous sense. Many observers have given Taiwan good odds of repelling an initial invasion from China. This is to say nothing of other nations potentially coming to the country's aid in such a conflict. Diamond considers such assistance to be an important factor in how countries deal with crises.

Taiwan can look to other nations as models for best behavior. Taiwan, as a somewhat westernized Asian country, has done something just like this for many years. At the same time, Diamond takes into consideration the elements of a nation's prior identity, traditions, and history that must be maintained. This may be an area that has not been looked at in detail in terms of Taiwan, whose experiences of modernization and westernization seem to have strayed from this necessity.

In any case, it appears that a foreboding reality must be addressed. In this regard, China is something of what Diamond calls a “negative model." A period of rejuvenation could be in store for Taiwan as a reaction to the threat from China. This could be a positive outcome that ushers Taiwan into its own "Meiji Restoration" in the 21st century.

To continue, I will examine several of the factors Diamond listed as being related to the outcome of national crises in terms of the threats Taiwan faces and the potential for disturbance in this ostensibly well-ordered society with its outlets for national discussion and consensus.

In terms of leadership, Diamond asks whether nations require crises to “galvanize them into undertaking big changes,” and I believe he is principally thinking about leadership. The extent to which leaders significantly impact world events is debatable. The question becomes one of policy and procedure — how a country’s political framework has the most impact — rather than of “great" men or women. In this way, Taiwan is in a good position as a free democratic nation with the rule of law.

Nevertheless, if we take a hard look at Taiwan’s actual leaders, they have been less than significant. Taiwan’s leaders have tended to rely on trivial statements to garner popularity rather than make a true difference in world affairs. Supporting a given “status quo” does not great leaders make, and bolder action is called for. In the long run, a lot seems to be “okay” about leadership in Taiwan, but not much better than that. If we believe leaders really do make a difference — and I think most would agree this is true — then we need to raise the level of those elected in the country.

That said, Taiwan’s democracy does put it in good stead. The public voice goes far in identifying problems that the nation faces, or “building a fence” around them while leaving intact that which is good about Taiwan’s political system. Where this could lead may not be known at this time. Will the people of Taiwan stand up and demand better treatment and a stand-down from China?

In some sense, they are already doing this. The main point is that the people of Taiwan must be able to stand up for themselves and adequately solve their own problems. This would be a "reconciliation," which Diamond says is necessary for dealing with problems.

As far as getting help from others to deal with the main dilemma that Taiwan faces, again, it seems that the question is unsettled. The U.S. has certainly been a good partner in many ways, and the approach American leaders have taken toward the island has been more and more positive in recent months.

That does not answer the final question, however, of what could happen in the event of military actions from across the Taiwan Strait. Here, too, we have no definitive answers. Any war with China would not be welcomed by any country, including the U.S. Even absent an all-out war, countering Chinese aggression is still met with hesitance. Losing China as a trading partner is also not a popular option, and many countries are conflicted about this as China turns up the heat.

If a crisis arises, Taiwan may have to just hope for the best. Diamond writes that crisis is “a serious challenge that cannot be solved by existing methods of coping,” but this seems inaccurate. Whatever crisis Taiwan has faced — from colonialism to authoritarianism to the pressing demands of running a democracy — it seems that the nation’s politics, people, and identity are in a position to deal with them. Yes, there will be thorny issues, and to be sure, China has not made things any easier. But Taiwan has made it this far with a gorilla on its doorstep, and it seems it can make it further.

Diamond stresses the importance of national identity and the core values of a nation. National identity and its associated myths, ideals, and language offer a “shared pride in admirable things that characterize one’s nation and make it unique.” In these respects, Taiwan has crafted an exceptional and enduring distinctiveness in the world. Identity and values don’t fight wars in obvious ways, but Taiwan is on solid ground in this respect.

As far as aesthetic and home-grown values, the country is also in good standing and has in many ways become a world leader. Taiwan can be proud of its culture, ethics, and standards, which the world has just become aware of.

If there were a crisis with China, Taiwan would be faced with “honest national self-appraisal” and a “willingness to confront painful truths,” as Diamond puts it. Taiwan seems to be in good standing here as well, and I do not think the nation has ever been particularly dishonest with itself in any challenge it has faced. The nation appears to have a few of these painful truths on its plate right now, and the time has come to address them.

Associated with this is the idea of accepting accountability during any difficult period. The people of Taiwan are the key here, and we must trust that they will take up this duty with gusto. Such a stance would win the respect of other nations and could even positively impact China. The Middle Kingdom may not wish to be seen making trouble with a responsible, essentially blameless member of the international community.

My hope is that Taiwan can emerge from these difficult times and embrace, endorse, and establish a better future for itself and its neighbors by way of renewal and restoration of its fundamental principles and values. It can thus evince all that is good about life and living, people and politics, state and status.