Diplomacy | Taiwan

“Without our chips, your car window won’t open”

Taiwan’s diplomatic representative Shieh Jhy-Wey promotes his country’s interests in Berlin. A conversation about democratic alliances, the country’s authoritarian legacy and Xi Jinping

Shieh Jhy-Wey is sitting on a chair in his office. He wears glasses, a dark suit and a yellow and green patterned tie. On the table behind him are miniature flags of Germany and Taiwan.

Taiwan’s diplomatic representative Shieh Jhy-Wey, in Berlin

Shieh Jhy-Wey, Taiwan has played an important role in the foreign policy of other countries and especially the USA for years. In Germany, your homeland tends to receive less attention. Is that simply because of the geographical distance?

For a while, Taiwan was not only geographically remote from Germany, but also far from its thoughts. It was, in fact, a taboo, but that is slowly changing. It is revealing that I don't work in the “Taiwan Embassy” or in the “Taiwan Representation”, but in the “Taipei Representation”. This is because the Chinese government claims Taiwan for itself, thus creating an absurd situation: Taiwan fulfils every requirement for a state, but is still not recognised as such by most of the world. The background is the One-China policy, which also limits Germany’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Can you understand the German government’s attitude?

I can understand it, but I don’t have any sympathy for it. Until 1987, dictators ruled both China and Taiwan. At that time, I could relate to the treatment of Taiwan. But after that? Martial law was lifted, democracy flourished, the country developed, including free elections, a multi-party system and freedom of expression. Meanwhile, China has been developing in a completely different direction, at least since the Tian’anmen massacre in 1989, when the so-called People’s Liberation Army fired on its own people. This is one of the reasons why I feel the current situation is unjust. It must change - and it must change in favour of Taiwan.

While many say that you cannot change this status quo because of the One China policy, I think that is wrong. There are many examples and political junctures when the world fundamentally changed. If it weren’t possible to break new ground, the Berlin Wall would still be standing.

“Over sixty percent of the components of Apple products come from Taiwanese companies”

But it’s also possible to argue: Taiwan is a comparatively small island with a slightly larger population than Romania. Why should we be interested in this country?

For example, without Taiwan, there would be no German cars. A German car is nice and expensive, but without Taiwanese computer chips the window wouldn’t open and nor could you electronically adjust the side mirror. Probably the only thing that would still work would be the emergency warning triangle. But even that probably couldn’t be used because the boot wouldn’t open. Another example is smartphones and computers: over sixty percent of the components of Apple products come from Taiwanese companies. And the list goes on: Industrial machinery, biotechnology, smart weapons and missiles - many things would not work without Taiwanese chips.

Does it annoy you that Taiwan is usually only mentioned in the German debate in the context of China?

No, because I notice that more and more people in this country are starting to think about Taiwan. I consider that a success. But of course, it’s no surprise that China is a recurring topic. After all, the People’s Republic is still bigger and more important than Taiwan from the German perspective. At the end of the day, the German-Chinese trade volume is ten times as large as the German-Taiwanese trade volume. And we have only ourselves to blame for having been in China’s shadow for so long. Under the Kuomintang (KMT) and dictator Chiang Kai-Shek, Taiwan did not represent itself for decades, but acted as the “Republic of China”. This has had a lasting impact on the way it is perceived abroad.

“We have been living with the threat of a war of invasion for decades, but the tone today has become even harsher”

Recently, Chinese rhetoric towards Taiwan has become increasingly strident. Against this background, what is your assessment of Taiwan's current security situation?

The situation is frightening. We have been living with the threat of a war of invasion for decades, but the tone today has become even harsher. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the danger of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) implementing this reckless idea is more real than ever. One reason is that Beijing is running out of time. For a long time, part of my parents’ generation and also part of my generation clung to the idea that they would return to mainland China at some point. All you had to do was drive out the communists and you would be back home. For all these people, Taiwan was not a permanent home, but only a place of refuge. But with time, that has changed. Ties to mainland China have disappeared, direct blood ties are becoming diluted from generation to generation and, at the latest with the change to democracy, Taiwan has also established itself as an idea. For many people today, the country is a homeland that embodies new values and is worth defending.

Are you worried that Germany will make the same mistake with Taiwan that it made with Ukraine - coming in too late to support a democracy in the face of an autocratic aggressor?

First of all, it must be said that without Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Germany would probably never have arrived at this turning point. It is almost exclusively because of the war that people are asking whether they should be more resolute in defending their democratic values and recognising that “change through trade” with authoritarian regimes like Russia and China may not work. Of course, this could have been realised earlier, but I think this attitude is somewhat understandable. Since the Second World War, Germany has stood for dialogue, trade and development aid. Breaking with this peaceful tradition from one day to the next is complicated.

Experts sometimes complain that Berlin lacks a clear Taiwan strategy. Do you share this view?

I think Germany is currently in a phase of transition from a “China policy” to a “China strategy” and is also rethinking its attitude towards Taiwan. Of course, Beijing does not like this at all, because it means that China is increasingly perceived as a strategic and political rival in this country as it is in the USA.

“Despite the democratic change, Taiwan is strongly divided to this day”

Despite the threat from China and despite many domestic political upheavals, Taiwan has developed into one of the most stable democracies in the region. Where does Taiwanese society stand today?

Despite the democratic change, it is still strongly divided.  This can be observed particularly at times when the threats from China intensify. Then, on the one hand, some people are outraged, while others attempt to appease, saying: “You mustn’t provoke China!” To understand this, one must remember that Taiwan was ruled in a state of war for decades under Chiang Kai-Shek, who crossed over to the island with his troops in 1949 to flee the communists. At that time, the general arrived with about two million mainlanders and encountered about six million Taiwanese whom he wanted to make compliant. Executions, assassinations and the establishment of a KMT power apparatus followed, which only dissolved with the lifting of martial law in 1987 and the first free elections in 1992. To this day, however, there are still people with links to the mainland in many positions of power, from the post office to the military.

It is fitting that Chiang Wan-an, a KMT politician who boasts of being Chiang Kai-Shek’s great-grandson, was elected mayor of Taipei in November 2022. Has the process of coming to terms with the dictatorship been successful?

One German word I like is “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” (coming to terms with the past). However, there has never been anything like that happening in Taiwan. That’s why the transition to democracy in the early 1990s is also referred to as a quiet revolution. It was a compromise. The people got power, but the old KMT officials were not held accountable for it. Between 1947 and the end of the 1980s, well over 10,000 people must have been killed or sentenced to death in Taiwan. But not a single judge, not a single prosecutor, not a single perpetrator has been prosecuted. It is no wonder that the country is still torn apart…

... and that the KMT continues to have great influence, even though the incumbent president, Tsai Ing-wen, is currently provided by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The KMT may have lost the presidential elections twice in the past three decades, but its influence has never been broken in the state elections. If we take Germany as an example, it would be as if the East German community party, the SED, had continued after German reunification without changing its name. This is problematic for Taiwan because the KMT leadership continues to maintain relatively close relations with China. For example, when Xi Jinping congratulated the new chairman of the KMT, Eric Chu, on his new post in 2021, he replied that he hopes there will be a joint fight for Taiwanese independence from China! Of course, not all the party’s supporters think that way. But if one of the two parties in the country does not believe in the sovereignty of its own state it is of course a problem for democracy.

“Military preparations for an invasion of Taiwan are already in full swing behind the scenes”

How do you see the future of your country?

Up until recently, my prognosis would have been even more sceptical.  After all, we’ve experienced what happened in Hong Kong and watched China’s growing influence in the world. Under these circumstances - and knowing that China would have to be much tougher in Taiwan than in Hong Kong - we could only be pessimistic. But after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and with the new, tougher China policy of the USA, which started with Trump and is currently being continued under Biden, the world is looking different again. Western democracies have abandoned their policy of ambiguity to a certain extent and clear fronts are forming. On the one side are states like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea and on the other a democratic alliance. That gives me hope.

Nevertheless, your Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-Cheng says that he believes there will be an increased danger of war from 2025 onwards. China might have the military capability to seek a “complete invasion”. Are you concerned about this scenario?

Military preparations for such a scenario are already in full swing behind the scenes. The US is already active in the Pacific and has reached new agreements on naval bases in the Philippines. And the Australians are expanding their presence in the Indo-Pacific as well. But I prefer to focus on how we can prevent conflict. So far, China - just like Russia - has been excellent at driving Western democracies apart. But now the West has been shaken up by Putin’s actions in Ukraine. Whether that will be enough to protect Taiwan from a Chinese invasion, I cannot say. But I would like to cite General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded the Pacific arm of the US Army during the Second World War and wrote in a memorandum to his president, Harry S. Truman saying that he was convinced that the geostrategic interest of the United States would be acutely endangered should a hostile power bring Formosa (Taiwan) under its control. That was in 1950, more than 72 years ago, but the statement is as true today as it was then – and it’s relevant beyond the interests of the USA.

The interview was conducted by Lena Fiedler and Kai Schnier.
Translated by Jess Smee