The Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB) announced today the final list of founding member nations, including UK, Australia, Iran, and Brazil. After Taiwan’s last-minute controversial application to join in March, the Bank’s chief architect China said “No” to Taiwan becoming a founding member.

Not only was the last-minute application by Taiwan’s Ma Administration done hastily and without legislative or civil debate, it was also vehemently attacked by critics sensitive to Taiwan’s sovereignty and relations with China. Opponents of the Administration accused the government of dwarfing Taiwan’s sovereignty, pointing to the fact that the government chose China’s Taiwan Affairs Office as its first point of contact while other states submitted applications through China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Protesters took to the street again, demanding transparency in the Administration while expressing fear of Taiwan’s sovereignty being sacrificed for the sake of committing to a regional economic framework headed by China. Of course, China does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state, but rather a target for unification.

While sovereignty and cross straits relations have always been emotional topics in Taiwan, the AIIB debate presented to the Taiwanese civil society, for the first time, a new kind of puzzle: “What should Taiwan do when China engages in global, multilateral action that affects more than just the relation between Taiwan and China?” To answer these questions, Taiwan’s civil society must learn to go beyond the lens of ethnic and identity politics, and see that the AIIB question, like many that will surely follow, needs to be considered from historical and comparative angles too.

A potential social polarization

Taiwan’s young generation expressed one core dissatisfaction with Taiwan through the Sunflower Movement—the vicious cycle of political infighting tearing apart the society. They witnessed how chaotic and unproductive the political scene in Taiwan has become, which was not much more than repetitive bickering from the outdated perspective of “ethnicity” (pre-1949 Taiwanese or post-1949 “Mainlanders”). This was not only detrimental to social trust, but obscured the real substantive problems of class and inequality, a result of crippled policies that lacked the capacity to deal with fast social changes following rampant economic development.

While Taiwan’s society is trying to run away from that political ill, there is also a trend growing unconsciously amongst the new generation itself. How many times do we see from mainstream news outlets, from social media, or just talking to friends, something like the following:

Pro-AIIB = Pro-China = Pro-colonization = Not “loving Taiwan” enough = Greedy Chinese
Anti-AIIB = Pro-Independence = Anti-trade = Isolationism = Backwards Taiwanese

These quick conclusions are not only greatly flawed and reductive, but also dangerous. They very conveniently and neatly divide the society into two polar opposite groups, each distrusting the other.

The unsettled cross strait relations between Taiwan and China is one of the core disputes in Taiwan’s society, yet it never should become the only one. While people tirelessly debate this topic to death, other crucial issues—such as educational reform, legislative reform, environmental protection, ballooning disparities between urban and rural communities, and unjust distribution of resources—will not resolve themselves. We must not harm the health of our civil society by ingesting an unbalanced diet, obsessing over what might seem to be the most vicious issue while ignoring other essential functioning pieces of our society.

Beyond sovereignty: history, geography, economics

What then do we do about the AIIB question? If the discourse is to move beyond  the lens of identity politics and love/hatred of China, then we must begin to look at the bigger picture of historic and geographical contexts. Taiwan’s problems are not with China alone; Taiwan’s problems are part of global problems.

Looking at the AIIB question through history and geography, China’s efforts in the AIIB is not the paradigm-shifting challenge to the current world order as some have suggested.

First, from a historical vantage point, there are some distinctions that set the AIIB apart from the US-led International Monetary Fund (IMF) or World Bank. While some have compared the AIIB as China’s attempt to spread an ideology in the same way that the IMF and World Bank spread globalized capitalism, this analogy misses an important historical context. Both the IMF and World Bank were established in 1945, the year that World War II ended. The US was facing a war-ruined Europe and a chaotic world economy, not to mention the threat of the Soviet socialist bloc. To both rejuvenate the world economy and contain the Soviet bloc, the US needed to promote free trade and neoliberal values. Ultimately, from a realist point of view, the US became the only global hegemony.

Today, the critics of AIIB say that China is copying the same path to compete for the role of a superpower, yet that might be overestimating China’s current capabilities. As China’s rise itself was dependent on the global capital and retail markets, especially the American market, it is clear that no one will be benefited for China to “defeat” the US in an interdependent globalized era one which is very different from when the American-led international organizations were first established. In addition, being a world power entails great responsibility to be entwined in international affairs, as shown by the US’s engagement in almost every global issue. Can China really take on this role right now? Not before it deals with economic sustainability and Beijing’s political legitimacy first. China’s trajectory will still place its domestic interest as its priority for some time to come.

Second, from a comparative perspective, as much as this is a China-led initiative, there will be other players as well. Critics believe that the AIIB will potentially neglect international regulations on environmental protection and human rights. Once again, this may be overestimating China’s weight in a multilateral framework. Other countries such as the UK, Australia, and European states have already emphasized that they are looking for a transparent and high standard of operations in AIIB.  Their economic influence not doubt will be a source for counter-balancing China. (Although China is now proposing that Asian nations control 75% of the bank and China to take the vast majority of that 75%.Therefore, the UK, Australia, and European states may expect a tough negotiation process ahead.)

The well-being of Taiwan’s civil society

Taiwan’s civil society is a precious, learning, and evolving thing. Given the complexity of global affairs, it is even more important that Taiwan, a nation dependent on foreign allies and trade, have a civil society that can debate and deliberate on its actions. Given China’s economic strength and desire for more global influence, plus countries wanting to form closer economic ties with it, chances are there will only be more occasions when Taiwan is inevitably drawn into these kinds of tough decisions.

Within the society, there will be more debates and clashes. Are we going to tolerate another era of easy finger-pointing because of a refusal to trust between opposing sides? Are we going to keep labeling each other to the extent that we can only dwell in the identities that others have “prescribed” on us? Are we going to shout to each other with our ears covered?

A healthy civil society should guide us to engage in clearheaded debates, allow us to explore various issues from different perspectives, and should have the courage to relinquish causes of social polarization. These conditions require a more open social climate that welcomes novelty and self-reflection, and at the same time being ready for breakthroughs in existing stereotypes.

(Feature photo of a bridge construction in Japan, by Sushiya on Wikicommons, CC BY 3.0)


Victoria Hsin-Hsin Chang

Victoria is a joint-honors student at the University of Sussex studying International Relations and Sociology. Her focus is East Asian studies, including research on labor movement in China. She also loves desserts, music, traveling, and dogs.

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