By Jerome Keating
The supposed big meeting between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping has come and gone, and as far as Taiwan was concerned, it proved to be much ado about nothing.
To be sure, the leaders of both those nations had a chance to meet and form impressions of each other. Some groundwork may have been laid for future dealings — but given all the hoopla and verbiage that went beforehand, it was a bust.
In the weeks preceding the meeting, Taiwanese listened to a myriad of pundits trotting out a full range of theories, each shooting in the dark and hoping something might hit the mark.
On one side there were the boo-birds, worry warts and fearmongers; they repeatedly cried wolf about how an erratic Trump could easily sell Taiwan out or use it as a bargaining chip to “make a profitable deal for the US.”
They were correct in their analysis of how Trump often just “wings it” and is therefore dangerous, but they seemed to be almost wishing for something disastrous to prove their point.
On the other side there were the naive, rah-rah wishful thinkers, who blissfully hoped that the allegedly hard-dealing Trump would surely stick it to the Chinese. He would defend Taiwan, show Xi who was boss and make the world right and so on and so on.
At the end of the day, none of the above happened. The meeting proved to be low-key and the more rational, but less dramatic commentators were closer to the mark. They predicted it would be a simple, initial meeting where each side would start to feel the other out and not too much other than introductions could be expected.
However, on a different plane, while no tempest erupted, there were still lessons to be gleaned.
Once again, Taiwanese got schooling on the perspective that they should have kept from their past experience, namely: Do not look for salvation from the outside; find it in yourselves where it has always been.
Once again they were forced to go back and rediscover their inner confidence. In brief, the message was, whatever storms may threaten and whatever pundits predict, Taiwan’s destiny remains in its own hands.
Taiwan knows China’s threats, but as regards the unpredictable Trump administration, it is an unreliable mixed bag.
Understaffed, inexperienced and prone to opportunism, the Trump team continues to vacillate with little clear formulated policy. The best that can be hoped for is that things will not be messed up too badly.
However, what is more important for Taiwan is the realization that it has been through far tougher times. Its attitude needs to be: Learn what you can and cannot control and then let the devil take the hindmost.
Taiwan’s democracy and nationhood have never been a gift from others.
The 19th-century US transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way in his essay Self-Reliance: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men — that is genius.”
The genius for Taiwanese has repeatedly been to have the courage and ability to frankly assess their situation and realize that salvation must always come from their inner commitment.
Let the pundits churn out their hopes and fears, Taiwanese have the knowledge of their strengths.
What are those strengths? Taiwan is a mid-sized nation with a good location and progressive history, and entrepreneurial people who can maintain a robust economy and a vibrant democracy.
These are strong cards that can trump — no pun intended — almost anything that is out there.
Location is a two-edged sword that the well-positioned Taiwan is learning to wield.
True, it has a large avaricious neighbor to the west, but that is balanced by a strong, mutually supportive neighbor to the north and a more neutral neighbor to the south.
To the east is the vast Pacific Ocean, which makes Taiwan an economic gateway both into and out of Asia.
The island is defensible. In World War II, the Allied forces chose to bypass Taiwan for Okinawa.
With a ruthless approach, China could take Taiwan, but it would be a Pyrrhic victory and China already teeters with threats of its own implosion from many sources. It has unrest in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang and its economy is faltering; in the meantime, corruption remains strong and capital flees the country.
Even if Japan and the US did not interfere, how long could China control a democratic Taiwan that has already broken free from 40 years of one-party state, martial law and White Terror?
Taiwan’s historic pursuit of self-rule has been a long struggle and learning curve of self-trust. To quote Emerson again: “The magnetism that all original action exerts is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust.” Taiwan’s self-trust, like virtue, is not worn out by use.
Taiwan’s growth also includes surviving the problematic 1970s, when it faced losing its seat in the UN, former US president Richard Nixon visiting China and, finally, former US president Jimmy Carter transferring the US embassy from Taipei to Beijing on Jan. 1, 1979.
Taiwan had no control over such and was often informed of changes at the last minute, but that did not stop its growth in self-reliance.
Throughout all this, Taiwan has continuously maintained a robust economy that places it far ahead of three-quarters of the nations of the world. It went from manufacturing to high-tech and has the people needed to face the future.
This ability to economically adapt, joined with a commitment to democracy, has created Taiwanese who can live with the threats of China and the nay-saying pundits of China’s strength.
So let the naysayers cry out. Let the profit seekers pledge to a faltering false god of Mammon in China. Democracy remains Taiwan’s final trump card and identity.
With this history of self-reliance and a resilient trust in their principles, Taiwanese need not fear whatever is discussed between Trump and Xi, or anyone else.
Emerson closes his essay with words that all Taiwanese should take to heart: “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”
That is Taiwan’s history and identity.