It’s a vibrant democracy with a population roughly the size of Australia’s, yet few Aussies could name its capital, let alone its newly re-elected female president.
Fewer still have visited, despite the fact it’s closer to our shores than Japan or America.
By almost any measure Taiwan is a success story.
Its population is highly educated and its annual GDP is greater than that of the Netherlands, Sweden or Norway.
It has a strong manufacturing and electronics base — if you own an iPhone or an Xbox One, your device was made in a factory run by Foxconn, the giant Taiwanese electronics firm.
Taiwan has a free and robust media environment, an extensive catalogue of national parks, a vibrant cultural sector, good food and world-class infrastructure.
It also has strong progressive credentials: 42 per cent of legislators are women; six seats in the national parliament are reserved for indigenous representatives; it’s the only Asian nation to have legislated same-sex marriage.
On paper Taiwan reads like a model global citizen. But while it has many trading partners, it has very few international friends — at least, not ones prepared to stand beside it publicly.
It’s been decades since any Western leader has formally hosted a dinner for their Taiwanese counterpart, let alone arranged a joint photo opportunity.
Despite it being a strategic US ally, America has no official embassy in the Taiwanese capital Taipei — nor does Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom or Germany.
Taiwan is the sort of “friend” you’re happy to chat with at a dimly lit party, just as long as no-one posts a photo of the two of you on Facebook.
Taiwan’s problem is that it lives in the shadow cast by its giant neighbour, the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
For decades China has run a concerted and successful diplomatic campaign to isolate and prostrate the Taiwanese nation.
Why is China so nervous about democracy in Taiwan?
China holds one of the five permanent seats on the UN Security Council, giving it veto rights over all significant UN decisions.
As a result, Taiwan finds itself in the unique position of being the only economically advanced, first-world country barred from membership of the United Nations and all other major international organisations.
But a clear majority of Taiwanese are now demanding greater international recognition — even at the risk of turning their island into a battlefield.
And there’s a growing sense that China may have overplayed its hand.
The basis of China’s claim to Taiwan
The Chinese Communist Party claims ownership of the island on two grounds.
The first involves the ethnic make-up of the Taiwanese population. It’s overwhelmingly Han — around 97 per cent.
The second is based on the fact that Taiwan was once part of the Great Qing empire.
In the 1950s Mao Zedong’s red armies moved to conquer all lost Imperial possessions and bring them under Communist rule. That included Tibet and Xinjiang.
But his troops failed to take Taiwan which, at the end of the brutal Chinese civil war, had become the last outpost of the former Nationalist government and its supporters.
Ever since, Beijing has labelled Taiwan a “renegade province”, ignoring the historic fact that Taiwan was never a part of the People’s Republic of China and has functioned as an independent political entity for seven decades.
For China’s President Xi Jinping, Taiwan also represents a personal political inconvenience.
“It puts the lie to the Chinese Communist Party notion that Chinese culture, Chinese civilisation, does not accord with democracy,” says the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Mazza.
“It acts as a potential shining light on the hill for people in China who are interested in a freer future.”
But why have Western countries allowed Taiwan to be isolated?
In the early 1970s the governments of both Taiwan (then a dictatorship) and the PRC refused to accept each other’s legitimacy.
Each claimed sovereignty over both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Eventually recognition of the PRC’s size and potential military might won the day and Taipei lost its seat at the UN to its rival.
But Macquarie University’s Roger Lee Huang says there’s another major factor at play when it comes to any attempt to formally bring Taiwan back into the international fold.
“Clearly Australia is very reliant on the Chinese economy,” says Dr Huang, who once worked for the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan.
“With China being Australia’s largest trading partner Australia has been very cautious with anything related to China. Taiwan clearly is one of the big issues there.”
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And Beijing has not been reticent in making its displeasure known when any nation attempts to improve its relations with Taipei.
“Taiwan and Australia were actually pretty close to creating a free-trade agreement a couple of years ago and China actively intervened and basically told Australia to stop,” Dr Huang says.
Dr Huang says there’s also been a concerted campaign by Beijing to remove any reference to Taiwanese sovereignty from world affairs.
At major sporting events, for instance, Taiwanese teams are forbidden to compete under their own name.
Hence, when the Matildas recently played an Olympic qualifier against Taiwan, the Taiwanese national team was euphemistically referred to as “Chinese Taipei”.
In 2018 the Chinese Communist Party was also successful in forcing more than 40 international airlines, including Qantas, to change their naming protocols so that Taiwan would be identified as a Chinese territory not an independent nation.
Despite the pressure, Taiwan has survived and thrived.
In the third quarter of 2019, the island nation jumped ahead of both Singapore and South Korea to record an economic growth rate of 2.9 per cent.
Calm under pressure
What’s most apparent when visiting Taiwan is how ordinary it is — ordinary in the sense of normal, everyday, functional.
Unlike in mainland China, the police and military don’t maintain a high public profile.
During January’s national election campaign there was no obvious sense of heightened security.
In fact, campaigning often had a distinctly carnival feeling to it, with candidates using loud hailers, flashing lights and music to attract attention as they drove through the streets of Taipei in open vehicles.
The election marked a significant turning point in Taiwan’s democratic development with a record 57 per cent of the electorate voting overwhelmingly for Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party, giving her a second term.
In so doing, they rejected the main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), which was widely seen by analysts as being far more pro-Beijing.
“The KMT must convince the general public that it only engages the mainland for the purposes of creating peace, and that it would never sell out Taiwan,” senior party figure Chang Ya-chung acknowledged in a radio interview after the event.
A focus on diversification and relationship building
Dr Tsai consistently campaigned on the need for Taiwan to be less reliant on economic relations with mainland China (its major trading partner, despite the tensions) and to broaden its trade arrangements with other Asian democracies like Japan and South Korea.
Professor Frank Cheng-shan Liu, from Taiwan’s National Sun Yat-Sen University, says while that proved persuasive with the electorate, voters were also influenced by the solidarity and concern they felt for the pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong.
“Taiwanese people don’t ignore the market potential of mainland China, but last summer changed a lot of people’s perspectives,” he says.
Beijing has long talked about forcing Taiwan to become part of China under a Hong Kong-style “one country, two systems” arrangement, but the heavy-handed way in which protesters were dealt with in Hong Kong made Taiwanese voters uneasy, according to Professor Liu.
“The Hong Kong situation actually shrank the people’s positive belief that economic opportunities [with China] are the priority,” he says.
January’s election also confirmed the existence of a demographic shift in the way ordinary Taiwanese see themselves and their national identity.
Previous generations of Taiwanese, especially those who fled the mainland in the late 1940s to escape Communist rule, still saw themselves as essentially Chinese.
But young people today, says Professor Liu, now identify overwhelmingly as “Taiwanese” not Chinese.
“President Tsai reflected very well the new consensus to include Taiwan in their identity,” he says. “To attract the younger generation’s belief that she is the protector of Taiwan.”
Beijing’s own goal
Dr Huang believes Beijing may have underestimated the intelligence and political skill of the quietly-spoken Dr Tsai, a seasoned campaigner who holds a doctorate from the London School of Economics.
While Beijing regularly threatens war and accuses Taiwan’s leadership of being reckless separatists, she has been measured in her criticism of Beijing.
In her election night speech Dr Tsai spoke of the need to make peace, parity, democracy and dialogue the watchwords of all future Beijing-Taipei relations.
“Positive cross-strait interactions founded in mutual respect are the best way to serve our peoples,” she said.
“All countries should consider Taiwan a partner, not an issue.”
In an interview with the BBC several days after the election she was specifically asked about Beijing’s threat of conflict if she and her government move to declare formal independence.
In her response, she turned the proposition on its head.
“We don’t have a need to declare ourselves an independent state,” she replied.
“We are an independent country already. We have a separate identity and we’re a country of our own. We deserve respect from China.”
The woman China can’t topple
China’s Government has made little effort to conceal its dislike of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, and her landslide re-election is a massive blow to Xi Jinping, writes Bill Birtles.
Dr Huang argues Xi Jinping’s aggressive and highly-nationalistic style of politics may now be backfiring.
Broadly speaking, he says, the international community has learnt not to trust the Chinese government, pointing to events in Hong Kong as well as recent concerns over the PRC’s handling of the current coronavirus outbreak.
“I think China might have overplayed its hand in the last couple of years,” he says.
And he argues this month’s visit to Washington by Taiwan’s vice-president elect, William Lai Ching-te, could be emblematic of a nascent shift in global sentiment.
“Traditional allies and friends of Taiwan, countries that obviously share similar values, are now finally awakening again,” he says.
Although unofficial, Mr Lai attended various events and met with many senior political figures including the powerful Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi.
And there are other tentative signs of a global warming toward Taiwan.
In response to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, both the prime ministers of Japan and Canada publicly voiced their support for Taiwan’s inclusion in the World Health Organisation.
Professor Liu believes a lot will depend on how skilfully Dr Tsai manages the growing national assertiveness of the Taiwanese people.
Dr Tsai has spoken openly about the pressure she’s felt from elements within her party who want her to now go further in asserting the country’s sovereignty.
Professor Liu worries that tensions could escalate if politicians on both sides of the Taiwan Strait can’t compromise.
But Dr Huang doubts Beijing wants war.
“The party’s main concern remains political stability in China,” he says.
“If the People’s Liberation Army can’t deliver a decisive, quick victory this will most likely weaken the CCP’s legitimacy within China.”
In the US, both sides of politics have reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring the Taiwanese military is well armed and prepared for any possible Chinese incursion.
How the wider international community would respond to cross-strait conflict remains unclear.
The Chinese military has tested waters in recent months by sending a jet fighter briefly into Taiwanese airspace and by undertaking two separate naval convoys through the Taiwan Strait.
But it’s worth noting that for all her talk of peace, Dr Tsai has been unequivocal in stating her administration’s attitude to war.
“Invading Taiwan is something that will be very costly for China,” she told the BBC.
“Maintaining a ‘status quo’ remains our policy. I think that is a very friendly gesture to China.”
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