Caught in the Taiwan-China Crossfire: a Guatemalan Perspective

Isis Briones, a Guatemalan national studying on a state scholarship in Taiwan, speaks on how the brain drain inevitably leads to a complex entanglement of people and international politics.

In 2018, I found myself pursuing any available opportunity to leave my cocoon where I was born, Guatemala - somewhat ironically dubbed the country of eternal spring and land of many trees, owing to its clement weather and lush green landscapes – looking for opportunities to study abroad, and attain a better quality of life. The opportunities my country holds are not reflected in its lush, fertile environment. I was itching to leave home, where social mobility and chances to fully exercise my potential were lacking. I applied to various programs for studying abroad and finally, on a summer afternoon, I found out that I was one of the students selected to receive a scholarship to study in Taiwan.

I was delighted to receive a full scholarship which, for me, meant that I could achieve my academic goals and enjoy the opportunities a developed country has to offer. These generous scholarships are given by the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Latin American and Caribbean nations who recognize the island’s sovereignty. The irony is that Taiwanese sovereignty is now threatened by China’s attempt to reclaim the island. Individuals like me – symbols of successful assertions of Taiwanese sovereignty risk losing what we have. Our education and futures are at stake as we are caught in the crossfire.

Although the Chinese invasion has never occured, its possibility constantly threatens Taiwanese independence.

Taiwan encourages other nations to recognise its sovereignty through soft power, such as the distribution of educational programmes and financial aid. Guatemalans are given the opportunity of a lifetime to learn the traditional Mandarin language, experience life on the island and deepen their understanding of Taiwanese culture. Taiwan, meanwhile, obtains an influx of outstanding students every year and is thus able to assert its position through bilateral relations. My scholarship is an outcome of this political bargaining.


A few months after finding out the fantastic news, I arrived in Taiwan with two big suitcases (and even bigger hopes). I was somewhat uncertain as to how I would fit into a culture so different from my own, but this was overwhelmed by excitement about my new life in East Asia.


What I love about living in Taiwan is the freedom and accessibility: the convenience of public transport, feeling comfortable walking alone at night and the access to affordable and efficient health insurance. It was the precise lack of such things in Guatemala which drove me beyond my national borders. Taiwan offers fully functional mass public transportation systems, has the second-lowest crime rate in the world[1], and boasts a healthcare system ranked 9th among 141 countries surveyed in the 2018 Health Care efficiency Index. What this island had to offer me was liveability.


The tensions, however, between China and Taiwan have been rising over the last few months, rendering my education and previously stable future plans uncertain. Still considering Taiwan as one of its territories, albeit self-governing, China has promised (or threatened) to one day take the rebel island back under its wing. Although the Chinese invasion has never occured, its possibility constantly threatens Taiwanese independence.


Taiwan’s successful handling of the coronavirus pandemic has granted the island international media coverage and recognition for its efforts. The country has recently hosted high-ranking politicians such as the American Health and Human Services Secretary (the highest-ranking US politician to hold meetings in the island for over 40 years) and the Czech Senate President, both of whom openly pronounced their support of Taiwan’s state and voiced the need for more international recognition. This international recognition of Taiwan’s status as a nation threatens the legitimacy of the People’s Republic of China, who have articulated their discontent by condemning politicians' support. They have also increased their military airfare to intrude upon the island’s territory. The fear of a Chinese invasion feels more real than ever.


Frequency of Chinese Air Force exercises within Taiwan’s airspace limits: Graph with dates along the y-axis (9th Sep to 17th Oct 2020) and frequency of air exercises along the x-axis. As we can see, on the 18th and 19th of September, exercises increased dramatically in alignment with a visit to Taiwan from U.S. Official Krach.
We are unanimous in our desire to stay; why is this multi-national community determined to remain abroad?

Seeing the tense rhetoric between China and Taiwan displayed in the media, I found myself worrying about the possibility of war and the consequences it would have on my future as an international scholarship student in Taiwan. I used a social media platform to ask the question 'where would I go?’ if China’s plan of taking the “rebellious” province back was actually put into action. I received numerous replies from both Latin American and Caribbean students under the same scholarship programmes who shared my concern about the situation. We are unanimous in our desire to stay; why is this multi-national community determined to remain abroad?

I have already addressed this question by identifying Taiwan's liveability as one part of the common ground that underpins this mindset, but a skewed view of one’s home country also contributes.


The media plays an important role in shaping individuals' ideas of their home countries, with networks fuelling confusion and uncertainty felt by individuals like me. Coverage of Latin America is saturated with frightening statistics: on crime rates, government corruption, migrant caravans and regional poverty. This reinforces the collective sense that these nations are failing, furthering the dilemma of whether it is worth returning home.


Taiwan’s long-lasting friendship with Guatemala and their generous scholarship programs, given in exchange for recognition of its exertion of sovereignty, granted me the chance to venture overseas and take hold of the academic goals and better standard of living I was seeking.

There is a sense of irony at being both a symbol of Taiwanese sovereignty’s success and simultaneously threatened by its loss, all whilst remaining Guatemalan.

The Sino-Taiwanese sovereignty battle may seem politically pedantic, but this represents a major personal threat to the Taiwanese, and now also to me and the many other Latino and Caribbean students who currently call Taiwan home. The remaining two years of my university education and my plans for the future, could at any moment be encroached upon by China’s plans for cross-strait reunification. There is a sense of irony at being both a symbol of Taiwanese sovereignty’s success and simultaneously threatened by its loss, all whilst remaining Guatemalan. This serves as a reminder that such pedantries involve real people, and stretch far beyond the Taiwan strait.

 

[1] https://www.numbeo.com/crime/rankings_by_country.jsp

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