The recent close mayoral elections in Taipei and Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s two largest cities, remind us that Taiwan remains a thriving democracy. Along with South Korea, Taiwan is one of two former Asian dictatorships that have made a true transition to democratic rule. This democratisation has won Taiwan many friends around the world, including the US, Australia, Japan, and Britain. But this support doesn’t change the fact that Taiwan faces a severe threat from China.

At this moment, China has more than 800 missiles aimed at the island. Its military often conducts exercises relevant to an invasion of Taiwan. That kind of power makes some observers in government, business, and academic circles wary of upsetting China. Yet China has shown that it respects strong, principled stands rather than a submissive, begging attitude.

China claims Taiwan as its own even though the People’s Republic of China has never controlled the island. Historically, Taiwan belonged to China only during the short period between 1945 and 1949, when the Chinese Nationalists occupied the island and killed some 20,000 Taiwanese who demonstrated for democracy.

The Ching Dynasty, which ruled parts of Taiwan from 1683 to 1895 was Manchu, not Chinese. At that time, China, too, was a Manchu colony. Like many nations, the US has two large “officially unofficial” diplomatic missions in Taiwan, while Taiwan has many missions in America. Both sides enjoy diplomatic privileges such as immunity and tax waivers.

With its Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which treats Taiwan as a state, the US has partially overcome the One-China policy. But many US bureaucrats still treat Taiwan as inferior. And many US allies have accepted the claim that the island is a province of China. In international relations, one of the closest parallels to Taiwan is East Timor, although Taiwan is much more prosperous and maintains a vigorous democracy. Only with the fall of Indonesian President Suharto in 1998 did the East Timorese people gain the right to vote.

Taiwan should also be integrated into a variety of international forums and activities. The island has formal diplomatic relations with the Solomon Islands and gives significant aid. It would help the Solomon Islands as well as donor nations if Taiwan’s aid could be integrated into the multilateral aid efforts that include the US, Australia, and Japan. Such efforts could be replicated elsewhere. Taiwan should also be welcomed into the Australia Group, which seeks to assure that industries in the 38 member countries do not assist states that try to acquire chemical and biological weapons.

Polls show that the number of people in Taiwan who consider themselves Chinese has declined from 25 per cent of the population in 1992 to about 6 per cent now.

A world that increasingly values self-determination would be a much safer place if China would renounce its false historical claim on Taiwan. — The Christian Science Monitor