Review – Taiwan: Nation-State or Province?

Taiwan: Nation-State or Province?

Members of the Republic of China’s Air Force rehearse for the 2012 National Day parade.

Taiwan: Nation-State or Province? (Fifth Edition) by John F. Copper

There is little doubt that the question posed by the title of John F. Copper’s book – Taiwan: Nation-State or Province? – is Taiwan’s most controversial issue, and China’s biggest foreign-policy headache. On more than a few occasions over the past two decades Beijing’s sabres have rattled very loudly at the first sign of Taiwan making any move towards declaring independence. Likewise, the issue divides the island’s populace like no other, though this is unsurprising given what is at stake. Yet readers shouldn’t judge this book by its cover; those eagerly picking it up in the hope of finding a definitive answer to this question will be sorely disappointed, and by the time they have reached the volume’s last page the authors own thoughts on the issue will not be much clearer than at the start. Indeed, in a spectacular example of circularity, Copper closes this fifth edition (published in 2009) on page 249 with the very same question he hooked readers with at the beginning:“The most important question, the one that relates to all the rest, is settling Taiwan’s status: is it a nation-state or a province of China.” This is a conservative strategy on the author’s part, for he knows as well as anyone else that the answer, if there is one at all, is mercurial and ever-changing.

While Copper studiously avoids putting forward any nuanced or original answers of his own to its title question, Nation-State or Province is still an immensely valuable book. Packed with recent facts and figures on everything from Taiwan’s soil to its social structure, and from the political system to patterns of economic trade, this is perhaps the most comprehensive and accessible introduction to the current state of the Republic of China on Taiwan in the English language. Any newcomer seeking to get a solid understanding of what Taiwan was, is, and might be, would do well to track down a copy. Indeed, one can well imagine Nation-State or Province being used as briefing material for diplomats, politicians, and government leaders, as well as it sitting on the bookshelves of university students undertaking a course on Taiwanese politics and economics. Copper is Stanley J. Buckman Distinguished Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College in the United States, and his skills as an area studies analyst are obvious. Despite his matter-of-fact writing style sometimes making the reader feel they have picked up a copy of the CIA World Factbook, he must be commended for his largely successful attempts to present some very contentious material in an objective manner.

John F. Copper - Taiwan: Nation-State or Province?

The fifth edition of John F. Copper’s Taiwan: Nation-State or Province?

Nation-State or Province is particularly strong on the subject of Chen Shui Bian’s impact on Taiwan’s international diplomacy and domestic economy, and he illustrates very clearly how the former President’s divisive ethnic politics and provocative remarks regarding Taiwanese independence damaged Taiwan’s credibility in Washington and elsewhere. Copper’s hard realist theoretical framework leaves him less well-equipped to interpret inherently subjective issues relating to Taiwan’s social and cultural fabric, but the overall result is no less impressive. One gets the feeling, however, that Nation-State or Province is too much about what other academics think and not enough opinion from the author himself, despite his obviously extensive knowledge and considerable experience studying Taiwanese affairs.

Copper doesn’t begin to address the future implications of the nation-state or province question directly until the book’s final section. To do so earlier would have required bringing discussion of Mainland China’s own domestic situation into the book from the start. Yet this in itself is mostly due to Copper treating Taiwan as a de facto nation-state, and only referencing Mainland China as another ‘black box’ nation-state rather than really digging down into the problem provinces – Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia – over which it does have control. A more lengthy discussion of the potential implications of democratic progress on the Mainland would also have been illuminating. Nevertheless, Nation-State or Province remains an excellent reference and a fantastic launch-pad from which to begin exploring this important issue in more detail. Just pay heed to the old adage: don’t judge Taiwan: Nation-State or Province? by its cover and expect to find a definitive answer to the question inside.

Taiwan: Nation-State or Province (Fifth Edition) by John F. Copper, published by Westview Press, is available at Page One, Taipei 101 Mall, priced at NT$1417.


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