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Taiwan, a tiny Pacific Ocean tinderbox that could ignite a world war

This week, a spokesperson for the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games declared that there was only "one China".

He was responding to a question at a press conference about Taiwan's attendance at the game’s closing ceremony, which is due to take place on Sunday.

At the behest of Beijing, Taiwan competes in the Olympics as "Chinese Taipei".

Claimed by China, but backed by the United States, it has long been seen as the tiny Pacific tinderbox that could ignite World War III. Many now wonder if that moment is closer than ever.

Over the past year, China’s leader Xi Jinping continued his uncompromising rhetoric that unification "must be realised" and an unprecedented number of Chinese warplanes flew past the island.

The US President, Joe Biden, meanwhile, appeared to break with the long-running American policy of "strategic ambiguity", saying that the US would come to Taiwan’s defence in the event of a Chinese attack (although his aides insisted America’s ambiguous stance on the matter had not changed).

Today, as the China/US superpower rivalry grows, Taiwan is on the frontline of a deepening ideological battle between democracy and authoritarianism.

What happens here on this tiny island – just half the size of Ireland – could shape the world for generations to come.

China's leader Xi Jinping has continued his uncompromising rhetoric about Taiwan

So what is it like living under the threat of a Chinese invasion?

At a hilltop temple overlooking the Taipei skyline, a father and daughter sat on a stone bench, taking a breather after climbing the steps.

"I do feel threatened," the daughter told Prime Time, "because there are their planes flying in the sky, back and forth."

"That doesn't matter," her father interrupted, waving away her concerns. "It’s just a military exercise."

"We can’t talk about politics," the young woman sighed. "There’s always an argument."

This difference of opinion now splits modern Taiwanese society along a generational divide.

The old guard, many of whom fled China with Chiang Kai-shek after defeat by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War, saw themselves as the rightful rulers of the whole of China, which would one day be united under their control.

Waiting for that day, the Kuomintang ruled Taiwan with an iron fist, enacting one of the world’s longest periods of martial law. But, in the late 1980s, the island began to democratise – while China, after the crackdown in Tiananmen square, went the other way.

Taiwan's President, Tsai Ing-wen, whose partly was re-elected in a landslide in January 2020

In power, the Kuomintang pursued closer ties with Beijing, on the basis that they are all the same people, with a shared history and culture.

But Taiwan’s youth have little time for the battles or allegiances of their forebears.

Many see Taiwan as an entirely separate entity with a unique identity – something that incenses Beijing.

It’s largely this young generation that swept President Tsai Ing-wen’s DPP party to a second landslide victory in January 2020.

China’s leaders see Tsai’s party as dangerous separatists who will be made to pay for "splitting the motherland", something Kolas Yotaka, Taiwan’s Presidential Office Spokesperson, laughed off during an interview with Prime Time at the Presidential Palace in central Taipei.

"We are used to it," she said

She said that Taiwan was a sovereign, independent country with its own elections, military, president, national flag, national anthem and justice system

"Our existence is a fact," she said. "Taiwan is a Pacific island – people have been living here for thousands of years," Ms Kolas said.

"Indeed, there were Chinese immigrants who crossed the sea, 400 years ago. They brought their languages, their cultures – but they were just like other colonisation cultures, like Dutch, Spanish or Japanese."

Many countries likes the US, which sells arms to Taiwan, maintain informal and business ties with the island

Ms Kolas noted that her heritage is indigenous, and so too is the grandmother of President Tsai Ing-wen.

"We have a very different history to China’s," she said.

"And if you look back at the history, Taiwan was never 100% ruled by the Chinese empire at any point in history, so Taiwan is never part of China," she said.

Today, the nationalist party, the Kuomintang, is in opposition.

As cross-strait tensions escalate, they believe the current government’s talk of independence – while failing to maintain dialogue with Beijing – runs the risk of igniting accidental conflict.

"To talk to China doesn't mean to sell out Taiwan's interests" said Alexander Huang, the Kuomintang’s director of international affairs.

"Actually, it is protecting Taiwan's interests by making sure, that [China] would not choose the military option."

"We need to deal with this huge neighbour by our smart mind and a good mainland policy," he said.

Polls show that the vast majority of Taiwanese voters have no appetite for a formal declaration of independence. Nor do they wish to be united with China. They just want to maintain the status quo.

A difference of opinion now splits modern Taiwanese society along a generational divide

But the gap between the political systems on either side of the Taiwan strait is widening.

In China today, authoritarianism is palpable. There are facial recognition cameras everywhere, daily communications are monitored by an army of government censors and, as a journalist working there, you get used to being followed by secret police.

Although Taiwan feels very similar to China in many ways, those visible signs of state control are absent.

Under Xi Jinping’s rule, civil society groups have been silenced in China. But in Taiwan, they are flourishing.

"The truth is, we are an independent country," Victoria Hsu, the co-founder of the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights, told Prime Time outside the Taipei court, where she was presenting her latest case for transgender rights.

"That is why we can have marriage equality and why we can have an independent judicial system to promote LGBT rights and other vibrant civic movements," she said.

It’s in this modern, progressive Taiwanese identity that many in the younger generation see their future.

Kylie Wang and Ken Young run a popular daily news podcast, the KK Show – the kind of irreverent, no-holds-barred take on current affairs that simply could not exist in China today.

"We did a lot to achieve our current democracy," Mr Young told Prime Time.

A newly wedded same-sex couple celebrate their marriage in Taiwan

"When people say that, oh, you’re part of China, it hurts, because you pretty much overlook all of our efforts."

"It's like telling an Irish person that you're just part of Britain," he said.

"That I think that would hurt a little bit, right? Because I understand that Ireland has their own history … and a struggle that they have gone through to get their current status."

The crackdown in Hong Kong was a "wake-up call" for Taiwan, they said.

"For a lot of Taiwanese who were not so politically sensitive, they finally see the dark side of being part of China," Ms Wang said.

"Because before the Hong Kong protest, some people might see that maybe two systems under one country could work in Taiwan, but Hong Kong proves to all Taiwanese that this is not going to work because there's only always one system allowed by the Chinese government," she said.

China insists countries who have diplomatic ties with Beijing must break them with Taipei.

Today, just 14 countries officially recognise Taiwan, although many more maintain informal and business ties, including the United States, which also sells arms to the island.

Almost all of the world's semiconductors are produced in Taiwan

But Taiwan has its own secret weapon – its semiconductor industry. Almost all the advanced computer chips installed in everything from our phones to cars to critical infrastructure are made on this disputed island.

During the pandemic, the semiconductor supply crunch concentrated minds from Tokyo to Brussels on the world’s overdependence on Taiwan-made chips.

Some analysts call this the "silicon shield" to protect Taiwan from invasion. But the risk of military escalation is also a deterrent.

"If the conflict does happen between the US and China, that would set back China's revival for so long," said Wenti Sung, a politics lecturer at the Australian National University in Taiwan.

"So, for Beijing, it makes so much more sense to wait for a lot longer, so that down the road, when options and terms are much more favourable to Beijing," he said, "then Beijing will take action by that point, be it peaceful or coercive situations."

How long China will wait is anyone’s guess. But, for now, life in Taiwan goes on as normal – an island with a brutal history and a people with a quiet determination to survive.

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