Taiwanese citizens take the nation's defense into their own hands: Interview with scholar Wen Liu

Portrait of Assistant Research Professor Wen Liu, photo used with permission

For people in Taiwan living under regular military threats from China, Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the West's responses to it have prompted queries about the Taiwanese military forces’ own readiness and resilience.

In the early days following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Taipei quickly put its support behind Kyiv and distanced itself from Moscow by joining the list of countries implementing sanctions. It continues to support Ukraine by sending official visits to neighboring countries sheltering Ukrainian refugees and offering reconstruction funds.

But Taiwan is also learning from Ukraine because it sees a parallel with its own relationship with China and possible future scenarios: should it be attacked or blockaded by Beijing, how will the US and Japan — the island's two strongest military, political, diplomatic, and economic allies — respond? Indeed, about half of the population of Taiwan expresses doubts its military forces would be able to defend the island against a Chinese military invasion. The big question for the Taiwanese is what level of military commitment the US will offer in the event of an attack from China. Indeed, the main document regulating Washington's defense obligations toward the island is the Taiwan Relation Act (TRA) which, in essence, maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity.” Enacted in 1979 by the US Congress, this policy allows the US to sell military equipment to Taiwan but creates no obligation for the US to directly intervene militarily if China invades the island. At the same time, the US maintains about 50,000 military forces in Japan in close proximity to Taiwan.

Global Voices talked to Assistant Research Professor Wen Liu at Taiwan's Academia Sinica in Taiwan to understand how specific segments of Taiwanese society are preparing for a possible military invasion or attack on the island by Beijing. Wen earned her Ph.D. in Critical Social Psychology at the City University of New York and analyzes trans-Pacific geopolitics, queer movements, racial subjectivity, and national sovereignty from a psychological and affective perspective. In 2024, she will publish her book “Feeling Asian American: Racial Flexibility between Assimilation and Oppression” (University of Illinois Press) which offers insights into contemporary political discussions from the viewpoint of a diasporic Asian American scholar. She is also a queer activist, novelist, and translator.

The interview was conducted over email in English following and has been edited for style and brevity.

Filip Noubel (FN): You recently said at a Taiwan-Ukraine event that Taiwan is perhaps the only country whose army was initially a party’s army, and this explains the level of distrust from many Taiwanese. Could you elaborate and explain for audiences not familiar with Taiwan’s history?

Wen Liu (WL) Taiwan's army initially belonged to the Kuomintang [the party that ruled Taiwan from 1949 to the early 2000s and remains one of the two main parties] and its objective was to fight the civil war between the Nationalists (Republic of China, or ROC) and the Communists (People's Republic of China, or PRC). As [Taiwan's leader till 1975] Chiang Kai-shek’s dream of ‘taking back the mainland’ looks no longer tangible or possible in the 1970s, the ROC government tried to refocus the army's purpose and a series of nationalization efforts between the 1980s–2000s attempted to leave the authoritarian baggage of the army behind. However, the army's leadership is largely preoccupied with more pro-China (in an ethnonationalist sense) sectors of the Taiwanese population, which creates distrust in the main public.

FN: Given that Beijing is escalating military threats as it opposes any notion of Taiwan as an independent state, many in Taiwan have raised the issue of a need for strong civil mobilization. How is this taking place, and who is leading this movement? 

WL: Different sectors of the Taiwanese civil society have since then mobilized to create infrastructures of resistance while the state's response to China's threats is slow. I generally divide them into three parts: one is a sector that has focused on the rising ‘China factor’ in Taiwanese society ever since Xi's rise to power in 2012. These include social movements-oriented grassroots groups that understand China's threats in both political and economic terms, and conceptualize war in terms of ‘hybrid war,’ which is already happening in Taiwanese society. Second, organizations cultivate community resistance through the disaster prevention approach, which is treating war as any other type of natural disaster to depoliticize the issue and make it appeal to a wider audience. Third, people who have expert knowledge of specific skillsets such as airsoft guns or hand-held radios occupied the other category, in which some of the ex-military officers are involved. Most of them are hoping to be more integrated with the state institutions to reach wider civilian participants.

FN: You also said that civil mobilization is a space where perhaps gender equality is at its strongest. Could you explain? 

WL: The wartime mobilization would only mobilize less than 15 percent of Taiwan's population [of 23 million people]. The remaining sectors of the civilian populations are the untapped capacity of any given conflict and should be of use and trained In these civil defense organizations, the military knowledge or training is not a privileged subject but something to be democratically distributed and all areas of knowledge and skills are mobilized (including medical aid, information management, food preparation, etc). In that sense, civil defense requires a more equal and diverse form of gender expression, and hence less masculized. Furthermore, in Taiwan it's mostly women who participate in different kinds of civil education classes even after their formal school training. This fact allows these spaces to have more diverse forms of gender participation than the traditional military sector.

FN:  There is a lot of “Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow” talk pointing at the fact that Taiwan should learn from Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine as it cannot exclude a similar attack from China. What do you make of this comparison, and what have you learned from the Ukraine response, including the integration of queer troops in the Ukrainian defense forces?

WL: What Taiwan can learn from Ukraine is about the unpredictability of dealing with authoritarian regimes. There is no rationality of Russia’s invasion but its imperial ambition, similar to China’s. Ukraine had the opportunity to regroup after 2014’s invasion but Taiwan does not. What we can learn is how the civil society really pushed the state to reform its military structure and policy as well as increase the civilian capacity in defense and resistance. The lessons are that it’s never too late to start but we must start somewhere from the bottom up.

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