The Invisible Armada

Taiwan or: the thwarted wedding of sovereignty and independence

Alain Brossat



What makes Taiwan a marked singularity in the general picture of political and state entities making up the world today is essentially due to two things: on the one hand, the non-coincidence of sovereignty and independence; on the other, the uncertainty as to the form of the nation-state – to what extent the Taiwanese population constitutes a properly national entity identifying with "its" state, unlike any other – even though the official name of this State links it, precisely, to another entity , another history than that of the island strictly speaking, another “world” – the Chinese continent? Taiwan is just the name of use of an established sovereignty, facing the outside world as the Republic of China (ROC).

The non-coincidence of sovereignty and independence, in this very particular case, almost unique in today's world configuration, is based on a fairly thin distinction, but one that is heavy with practical consequences: what is at stake , in the first place,  are not so much elements of verifiable reality, established facts, as recognition procedures , that is to say factors falling within the relational dimension of international politics and the rules which preside over the existence of a supposed international order. Indeed, the recognition of Taiwan as an element of reality, as a political entity, an economic power, a group of people does not give rise to any particular problem, at this primary level; Taiwan exists in the eyes of the world, its inhabitants travel around the world by presenting a passport designating them as Taiwanese, citizens of the ROC, the goods circulate between Taiwan and many other countries, starting with China, the Taiwanese currency is convertible, Taiwanese representations exist in many foreign countries, etc.

We can therefore clearly see here that when one defines, as is commonly done, Taiwan as a de facto sovereignty , one affects to define it as a raw fact, but disconnected from any kind of recognition, the latter being confined to the dimension of law – de facto , as opposed to de jure . But this opposition is not only simplistic - it misleads: innumerable are the channels through which the recognition of Taiwan, understood as a global entity and in all its dimensions, circulates and solidifies. Basically, this recognition consists of this: the outside world, foreign powers in particular, take note of the existence of an entity and a power called Taiwan and designated as ROC, a power manifesting itself in the form of a modern State and fulfilling all functions, with a specific population; this power is established as a sovereignty, with in particular its means of defence, its borders, its constitution, its capital, its flag, its own political system, etc.

This level of recognition is the subject, on an international scale, of almost complete consensus: very few countries refuse entry into their territory to travelers with Taiwanese passports, in contrast, for example, with the Israelis who for a long time were not able to go to many countries, starting with the Arab countries. People travel to China without any problem with a Taiwanese passport. As well, nationals of the People's Republic of China who have entered Taiwan illegally, including those among them who invoke political persecution, are routinely sent back to China by the Taiwanese authorities. There is therefore a whole formal, juridical, legal framework that governs relations between the two Chinas and makes possible, among other things, the intensity of the movement of goods and people between the two countries. The rigid opposition between the de facto and the de jure is therefore not only a simplification here, but a fiction.    Taiwan, as a state, a political, economic entity and, quite simply, country and population does not live in a state of legal weightlessness in its relations with the rest of the world, but is on the contrary linked to the outside world by a dense network of relations of legal type – an area governed by norms, customs, procedures assuming on the part of the powers involved in it, an effective condition of mutual recognition. All you have to do is pass through Taoyuan International Airport, the island's main airport and one of the most important hubs in East Asia, to be convinced: it takes law, a lot of legal rules to ensure traffic so dense air traffic in the direction of all directions of the planet, with travelers of all nationalities – including in particular daily flights to Beijing, Shanghai, Canton, etc.


Saying this is only a question of lifting a corner of the veil when it comes to this rather confusing question: what exactly do we mean when, sticking to the agreed elements of language, we designate Taiwan as a de facto sovereignty , a pure state of affairs in matters of sovereignty? In reality, when we stick to this definition, we shed less light on what Taiwan would be on the positive side than on the negative side: the de facto is restrictive, it points the finger in the direction of what Taiwan lacks - the international recognition in good and due form, diplomatic relations with the States and/or nations constituting what it is agreed to call the international community and, correlatively, the absence of a seat at the UN and in the major international organizations more or less directly incorporated or related to it.


The de facto designates this singularity, without it being a matter of all or nothing: there are indeed diplomatic-type relations between Taiwan and the great powers of the planet, but also most of the countries that make up the said International community ; simply these relations are of weaker intensity and less exposure than those which constitute the general norm of the recognition of a state and national sovereignty (or supposed such) by another and of each one – this global system based on reciprocity in the games of recognition of sovereignty – not to mention the negligible number of states that maintain formal diplomatic relations with the ROC.

We can therefore say that in practice Taiwan does indeed exist as an established sovereignty – which presupposes forms of recognition of variable form and intensity. The notion of a sovereignty existing simply as a pure fact, as a given, independently of any form of recognition is devoid of meaning. Sovereignty, of whatever type, cannot exist - in a space that is populated, marked out, shared, structured somehow by the system of nation-states - like an aerolite that has fallen in the middle of the Sahara (or the Gobi Desert), as a pure object or fact outside any legal framework, in a perfectly anomic state (a- nomos ). In the reality of the world, present or past, such fiction never meets reality.

The whole question would therefore be to know what we are talking about when we refer to Taiwan as a sovereignty. According to the established rules of political discourse validated in the West, we will insist all the more on the indisputable fact of Taiwanese sovereignty as we decouple this fact from the hypothesis or the prospect of the island's independence. But what exactly does this sovereignty constantly put forward as an established fact consist of? It is due, first and foremost, to the verifiable existence of a state entity separate from any other, presenting its own features, endowed with its emblems, equipped with the means of its force. The Taiwanese State is a distinct singularity, it functions according to its own rules, is equipped with an administration (a bureaucracy) which is the distinctive mark of a developed State (Max Weber), it has a modern [1]army , Taiwanese nationality is recognized in practice throughout the world, insofar as the citizens of this State move abroad under the title of this one and not under that of another; this without forgetting the economic power of the country which contributes in an essential way to its identification as its own identity.

However, these functional and structural characteristics which tend to make the Taiwanese state a "normal" modern state, in all respects conforming to the general standards in force in the developed countries of the global North, in particular, mask a difference or a singularity of primary importance in the historical or genealogical dimension of this State: it is, in its tangible reality, a post-colonial State, insofar as its bases were laid during Japanese colonization (1895-1945) [2]. But it is also, in an essential part, an imported or transported state since its sovereignty directly refers to the modern history of mainland China. And it is, as such, a state whose supposed reserve of legitimacy does not coincide at all with the present state – “Republic of China” – which China? Isn't the “real” China elsewhere, on the continent?


What is at stake here is not only a certain blurring of the origin of sovereignty (this is often the case, as soon as we look closely, in most modern nation-states and contemporaries [3]). It is the glaring discrepancy between the discourse on origin or provenance as a source of legitimacy and the present, real and verifiable state of the country, the state and the population placed under its jurisdiction. According to the Constitution of the ROC, this one includes de jure , still and always, all mainland China, Tibet and Xinjiang included. The parties in power on the island have never initiated a reform of the Constitution aimed at adjusting the constitutional apparatus to the reality of the exercise of sovereignty – and for good reason: to do so would amount to proclaiming that Taiwan is Taiwan and nothing else, that is to say an independent sovereignty – which would be precisely the casus belli (with the People's Republic of China) that, until recently, no one wanted.


We therefore clearly see how, strangely, this pure fiction constituting and instituting the Taiwanese State, built and maintained by Chiang Kai Chek, his heirs and successors (including the rivals of the Kuomitang currently in power), according to which the Republic of China reduced to dimensions of Taiwan, would be, in terms of historical legitimacy, all of China despite all, we can clearly see how, paradoxically, this fable basically serves to maintain, not peace to be sure, but a state of non-war in the Taiwan Strait for more than half a century.

What is therefore infinitely particular and even passably extravagant, from a soberly historiographical point of view, is this fundamentally fabulous, unreal and phantasmagorical feature of the foundation of historical legitimacy in Taiwan – one of the patent manifestations of which is, quite simply the fact that the country's flag, the national emblem (but also the national holiday, the national anthem) are, strictly speaking, imported products, attached in the loosest possible way to the island's own history.

For these reasons associated with what could be called the trouble over origins, Taiwan is indeed, in the current sense that is assigned to this term today, a sovereignty - but a sovereignty reduced to the pure state constitution, floating, without historical roots, devoid of any "national novel", this in contrast to the powers of the West and the global North which serve as a standard for the sovereignty, in its narrow and even fusional  relations with the nation-state [4].

The nation-states of the West around which the model of national-state sovereignty was organized generally endowed themselves with a credit or a genealogical reserve made of founding events, memorable dates, names of heroes and illustrious men, etc. Taiwanese sovereignty is notoriously lacking in this area, with no kind of consensus existing, either among the competing governing elites or among the population itself, about a “narrative” encompassing and mobilizing such elements [5]. From a genealogical point of view, in Taiwan, sovereignty is reduced to its simplest expression – a state apparatus founded and installed on the island by the party of the vanquished in the Chinese civil war. The striking thing is that, since the withering away of the authoritarian regime set up by Chiang Kai Chek and the alignment of the mode of governance of liberal democracies, the narrative normalization of sovereignty has hardly progressed: Taiwan is and remains a sovereignty without a past , which comes from nowhere, devoid of any historical depth and as such as if suspended in a state of weightlessness in the conditions of present history [6].


It is not only traditional powers that closely link questions of legitimacy to heritage – which is always a narrative construction with a more or less strong grip on the imagination. Modern powers, even when they are exercised in a “disenchanted” world, cannot do without founding and instituting references to heritage. However, if there is one foundation that continues to be evanescent and nebulous in Taiwan, because of the country's complicated history, it is this - any reference made by a leader or part of the governing elites to what could pass for an image, a sequence, names, places, dates acting as a heritage is immediately subject to contestation on the part of another fraction of the dominant elites or a part of society [7].


This is the reason why this deficit or “lightness” of origins must be permanently compensated by mimetic behaviors rigorously confined in a presentism placed under the regime of total democracy – Taiwan as a paragon of liberal democratic virtue modeled on the ever more resistible US “model”. But these mimetic behaviors which affect both the field of international relations, forms of governance and that of mores (after the same sex marriage , it is the Me too regime of hunting down sexual misconduct which has just been transplanted to Taiwan) mask only in a very approximate way what the persistent trouble about Taiwanese identity is made up of: in truth, the country, its people, its culture, its institutions find themselves included simultaneously in two wholes or entireties which engage in a struggle of which we can become more convinced every day that it is "to death" - the Chinese world on the one hand, the global Western/Northern world on the other, in which Taiwan now figures in the position of protected and invited 'honor. In the conditions of the present, the double identity is not a "wealth", as is sometimes said, but what exposes to a mortal danger.


Generally speaking, in the nation-state system that took shape in the 19th century and in modern societies, the notion of sovereignty has undergone a decisive change. According to the tradition stemming from Rousseau and the French Revolution, sovereignty is the emanation of the general will, it is "only its exercise", says the first, and the sovereign is a "collective being" who "can only be represented by itself” – sovereignty cannot be delegated, it cannot be transmitted (unlike power in its ordinary forms), because a will is inalienable.

In other words, the people from whom the general will emanates is the sovereign in action. From the moment it delegates its own power, it gives itself a master and loses its status as a people, “there is no longer a sovereign, and from then on the body politic is destroyed” [8].

Like Jean Bodin, the first modern thinker of sovereignty, Rousseau emphasizes that sovereignty is indivisible. However, this indivisibility is not envisaged in the horizon of absolute monarchy, as with Bodin, but in that of the people as a collective body [9]. The general will is the collective power of the undivided people and this power resists any form of representation. The general will is what is guided by the sense of the general interest or, says Rousseau, "what always tends to public utility" and it is in this sense that it opposes the wills that are driven by particular interests. It is not the sum of all the particular wills converging in the same direction but the emanation of the sense of the higher interest of the people – in this respect, "the general will is always right", even though it would not always coincide with the will of the majority, or even of all. This is because the will of the majority may very well be only the expression of partial interests or, says Rousseau, of "partial societies."

The effective existence of sovereignty presupposes that of a social pact which “gives the body politic absolute power over all its members” and it is this power “directed by the general will” which is designated as sovereignty [10].


The inflection that the notion of sovereignty has undergone since Rousseau wrote these lines is visible to the naked eye: sovereignty has moved massively towards the States as they are the supposed doubles and executors of the nation in terms of effective power. Rousseau's people, the political body  from which emanates the general will and its effective manifestation, gave way before the State considered as a real power, acting among other powers, in the name of the nation. The State is presented here as an empirical doublet of the nation considered here as a transcendental subject or supposed subject. Sovereignty is now manifested by means of the signs of power, finding its confirmation in its recognition by other powers.

This form of sovereignty is at the same time heterogeneous to that of which Bodin produced the first definition - absolute, indivisible, inalienable, perpetual and tailor-made for absolute monarchy - and to that of Rousseau intending to found the notion of a popular sovereignty in the form of an unobtainable democracy. For it to take shape and tend to become the norm in modern and contemporary societies, the narrative ( the instituting fiction ) must impose its authority according to which the State is the double in act of the nation, its place -holding and legitimate expression of its power. The people have given way to the nation, which in turn is called upon to give way to the state.


But the problem is precisely that Taiwan, in its very singularity, is struggling to adjust to this reality-producing, powerfully normalizing fiction. What is very specific to Taiwan is that, much more distinctly and unilaterally than elsewhere, the people as a (supposed) nation is above all a construction of the State , much more than the effect of complex interactions, extended over time, between a human body taken in a more or less continuous process of homogenization and a State apparatus, an administration, ruling elites. In Taiwan, during the early years of the military dictatorship, the state established its authority as a foreign entity to the majority of the population – the Taiwanese, the majority population of Chinese origin established on the island through migration over the centuries. After the defeat of Japan and even more so the arrival of Chiang Kai Chek, the State appeared in their eyes as the emanation and the representative of the specific interests of the new arrivals, the continental administration, then the vanquished of the Chinese Civil War. In part, therefore, especially after the White Terror episode of 1947 (with its lasting consequences), the state imposes its authority by violence and intimidation on the majority of the Taiwanese population, as 'come from elsewhere', a body foreign to it. The consequences of this conflict, which is inseparable from the establishment of State authority on the island, have never been erased, no more than the differences and disagreements accumulated between the "natives" and the remnants of the "nationalist" apparatus landed on the island the day after the defeat against the communist armies and settled there as conquerors.

Taiwan is therefore, taking into account these very recent historical particularities (on the scale of modern history), anything but a nation-state of classic form, the establishment of the state there precedes any kind of formation or genesis of a national people and the points of contention between the history of the State, the establishment of its authority and the history of the people (as a collectivity and a living whole in all its diversity, with its collective memory(s), its systems of customs, its own forms of life) remain there innumerable. The elites who govern the island today are all the more inclined to put forward the motive of the nation, to put it in all sauces, even that of the weather (the sun shines today "over the whole nation" rather than the whole country, we read in the newspapers) that the real, historical consistency of the latter remains nebulous and evanescent.

Each electoral deadline is, in Taiwan, the occasion on which the fractures which divide and separate circles and blocks of collective memory reappear in broad daylight; this about everything from which is woven, in principle, the collective history of a nation - what it is supposed to be in its own right, its provenance or its origins, what distinguishes it in its environment, its essential identity traits, etc.

Despite the three-quarters of a century of de facto sovereignty of the island, no consistent “national novel” with a consensual vocation has taken shape there. As soon as questions of identity come into debate, as soon as what is "proper" to the people, the nation or the sovereignty of Taiwan is questioned, it is the dispute rather than the consensus which is, for the inhabitants of the island themselves, the rule and the regime under which the discussion takes place. In the referential nations of the global North, people are divided and fought over questions of orientation and the political "color" of the rulers, questions of society, the class struggle visibly or invisibly overdetermines the stakes of the disputes in progress – but there is nonetheless a common base which is that of national history and national feeling. In Taiwan, all these traits are also identified, but against a backdrop whose pattern is infinitely less distinct: the properly national quality of the population living on the island remains to be established, there is indeed something like a Taiwanese people, but this presents all sorts of structural features of heterogeneity and national feeling is very variable in geometry [11].


The abrupt separation between independence and sovereignty is what first manifests the singularity of Taiwan's situation, in its local as well as global environment. The red line that separates one from the other leads us to the heart of the dispute over the status of the island, a dispute that is increasingly globalized and now likely to lead to a tremendous explosion of violence. If there is today, on the planet, a dispute involving camps, worlds, alliances, blocs and cultures and which is likely to become global insofar as it is local, in the moment or almost the onset of a crisis – it is indeed the one that has gradually taken shape and hardened around Taiwan.

The symptom of the irreducibility of this dispute is this sharp discordance between independence and sovereignty - if these two terms come from different genealogies, it happens that in the condition of the nation-states of today, they tend to overlap almost entirely: France (etc.) is an independent country insofar as it is sovereign , and vice versa. Taiwanese sovereignty can manifest itself all the more visibly in deeds and words as it is decoupled from recognized independence – this is the irreducible mark of an anomaly, a quirk or a historical incongruity.

However, today, the persistent game of the governmental elites of Taiwan and their supporters in the Western world consists in trying relentlessly to erase this singularity on the magic slate of History, by shifting the angle of view on the situation in Taiwan: it is as a supposed exemplary democracy that the Taiwanese entity can find itself normalized [12]. And it would also be as such that it would now find itself, according to this new “narrative”, promised independence in the short or medium term. But this endeavor comes up against the irreducibility of the dispute inscribed in the most intimate part of the fabric of modern and contemporary history and whose persistent topicality abruptly recalls to our memory: any declaration or recognition (by the Western powers) of independence of Taiwan would be, for mainland China, a casus belli [13].


However, the strange thing in this case is that what is really at stake here is indeed sovereignty , of which independence is only the figurehead or the decoy. The decisive and vital question is whether Taiwan constitutes a sovereignty in its own right (which can only fully exist if it is endorsed and recognized by the "community of States and nations) or whether it constitutes an entity (a " province”) under Chinese sovereignty (the People's Republic of China). The strange thing here is that what, in the general economy of discourse about the status of the island, both internally and externally, the taboo word is “independence” rather than “sovereignty”. Taipei Times never stops raving about Taiwanese sovereignty, but leaves it up to a few greener mavericks than greens in business , to openly claim the independence of the country. However, again and always, independence is never, as a general rule, anything but a correlate of sovereignty. Which means that, in the public discourse and the media noise around Taiwan, locally and globally, things are constantly upside down. All that aggregates and tenses around the word "independence" is, in fact, a noise parasite. What we must come back to in an attempt to untangle the tangled skein of the Taiwanese question is, again and again, the question of sovereignty [14].

Sovereignty finds its practical and verifiable expression in two dimensions: the validation by a people or a nation of its mode of government or the form of authority, on the one hand, the determination of strategic orientations in terms of relations with other peoples, nations, States, on the other (“international politics”) [15]. It can be said that, in the general picture of what takes the place of world order today, the constant reinforcement of the forms of interdependence placed under the hegemonic regime in force has the effect that the spaces of sovereignty strictly speaking never cease to shrink, including for countries that pass for leading powers - in the face of the war in Ukraine, it is clear that the member states of NATO see their orientations and commitments on this issue determined first place by this membership.

With regard to Taiwan, it is clear how much the idea that gaining independence would complete the process of asserting sovereignty is based on an illusion: the proclamation of the island's independence would have as a forced corollary the increased dependence with regard to the United States, the Western bloc, Japan. Independence would never be more than the figurehead of a situation in which, de facto, Taiwan would become a kind of mixed between Hawaii and Okinawa[16].


We can identify two ways of considering the question of sovereignty: sovereignty over and sovereignty of. The leaders of the People's Republic of China tirelessly proclaim that there can be no sovereignty of Taiwan insofar as this entity (as a territory in the first place, but the population is here included in the territory) is an integral part of Chinese sovereignty, as practiced on the continent. They therefore intend to affirm the full and entire right of the State (the power) of which they are the leaders (legitimate, recognized) to exercise its sovereignty over the island and its dependencies[17].

What, in this case, as in general, characterizes here the dispute between the "of" and the "over", is that it is placed irreducibly under the sign of the dispute (différend)  – a radical, unsolvable dispute [18]: no arbitration body recognized by the two parties and supposedly impartial exists, which is likely to issue a judgment followed by effects regarding this conflict. The opposing positions are not reducible to the conditions of goodwill, regulated communication, negotiation, diplomacy. This is what makes this type of dispute so dangerous: only force is, on the merits, capable of deciding between incompatible positions – between those who intend to bring to life and recognize their sovereignty, affirm it as their own power, subject to no other, and those who consider that the entity where the former are established is an integral part of their own sovereignty [19].

As we clearly see here, and as Bodin had already forcefully established, the forces at play and in conflict here are not "governments" - which are of variable species and established in a limited time - but powers , of state form, in general – continuity of the state as power and body of sovereignty against impermanence of governments. What, in the configuration established around the Taiwan question, makes the situation so dangerous is that the conflict pits not aspirations for sovereignty (as, recently, in Catalonia) against an established sovereignty, but de facto, state-constituted sovereignty, with another sovereignty having an infinitely superior reserve of legitimacy and recognition (the People's Republic of China) – but this, precisely, in a regional and general context where things are in changing rapidly.

When the dispute around sovereignty (“over”, “of”) is thus frozen in the opposition between concretions of forces (armies, State apparatuses) and, beyond, systems of alliance (Western democracies unite around Taiwan), the balance of power is bare, the facts and the acting out appear as the permanent temptation of the protagonists in conflict. The more we witness the rise of outbidding, the more the region resembles a chessboard on which the adversaries move their pawns in view of the final explanation, and the more the field of discursive interactions between the parties in conflict is reduced to trickle. The protagonists having become antagonists no longer discuss with a view to a negotiated solution but rather within a horizon where the battle of narratives is an integral part of the global confrontation.

From now on, the key word, in this general configuration, is no longer the settlement, the search for a settlement of the conflict, but rather decision – the search or the wait for the decisive moment when everything will be at stake (and from which no one can be unaware that it is likely to adopt all sorts of forms, including apocalyptic)[20].


One could say that this situation is highly paradoxical at a time when the classic approaches to sovereignty tend to be blurred or complicated by the multiplication of supranational entities (in Europe in particular, but not exclusively), by the disintegration of the exclusivism of sovereignty, even the abandonment of sovereignty (like the Greek crisis of 2008 and the forms of its resolution, if we can use this expression here, have provided proof of this in the eyes of the world). This is because, at this very time, the question of Taiwan presents itself as a sort of conservatory of the invariants of sovereignty – everything that makes it an all-or-nothing issue, everything that associates it with powerful and compact terms like unlimited, absolute, permanent, perpetual, etc. All of which means that, when a conflict crystallizes around questions of sovereignty, then these call for clear-cut resolutions in the form of "either ... or else"; these leave no room for compromise, for middle ground solutions, for freezing angry questions, etc. This is what has the effect that, the more the tensions surrounding the issues of sovereignty over Taiwan harden, the more what seems to be returning to the present is a kind of time immemorial, extra-historical – “pure” time, mythical or fabulous in which a confrontation takes place under the sign of destiny, between two armed forces, about an issue of sovereignty.


It is not by chance that the figure or the example that comes to mind here, that of the struggle for the throne of England, around the year one thousand, as related between history and legend, the famous Bayeux Tapestry – a work of textile art that has undoubtedly come across the most conscientious of the thousands of Taiwanese tourists from the wealthy middle class who, each year, make the marked and ritual pilgrimage between the Loire Valley, with its castles, and the Mont-Saint-Michel.

The Bayeux Tapestry “recounts” how, the day after the famous Battle of Hastings (October 14, 1066), Duke William, “the day before still a bastard of Normandy”, became the new King of England. It recounts, essentially from the point of view of the (Norman) winner, the battle for the succession to the throne of England which pitted William against Harold Godwinson, brother-in-law of King Edward the Confessor. The emphasis is on the right of the victor, as opposed to the felony and imposture of his adversary. Here is how the affair took turn: The old king of England Edward decided to bequeath to William the Norman the crown of England. Harold swore he would respect the king's will and accept his position as William's vassal. It is because he was obliged to the latter in all respects: having been shipwrecked on the coasts of France, he was held hostage by a local lord and it was Guillaume who, using his influence with the former, obtained his release. Both went to Bayeux where Harold solemnly swore to William, on two reliquaries, to support him so that he succeeded Edward. But he later reneged on his promise, back in England, arguing that the king, on his deathbed, had reversed his original decision and appointed him as his successor.

Betrayed by perjury, William therefore has no other resource than to prepare the invasion of England and to fight the deceiver. Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings and William crowned King of England.

The succession quarrel is placed under the sign of the dispute (différend): each of the two claimants to the crown of England has his reasons and asserts his "right" and no kind of argument or negotiation can reduce the opposition and the incompatibility between the two positions: William refers to a solemn oath that Harold took, on holy relics; the latter invokes the dying king's last word, which he says was to hand over his estate to him – he may be lying, but he may also be telling the truth. It is therefore not simply pretensions or ambitions which oppose each other, they are two positions invoking each a right, claiming legitimacy. It is therefore not a situation in which two elementary, raw forces oppose each other, as in the state of nature, it is two "rights" which face each other and whose confrontation does not open up any communication space, does not leaves no room for diplomacy. The frontal conflict of the two rights (and not simply of the two forces, of two armed powers) necessarily leads to a violent confrontation, a battle whose outcome is doomed to set the decision (this is the Clausewitzian definition of the battle).

It is this pure différend that records (without objectivity) in images (embroidery) and texts (captions) and in fifty-eight scenes, the Bayeux Tapestry.


It will easily be maintained that, considered from the angle of the time immemorial of sovereignty, the question of Taiwan is today placed under a regime (or is situated in a configuration) which is quite similar to the situation described by the Bayeux Tapestry: between those who campaign tirelessly in favor of the independence of Taiwan, understood as what would complete and make manifest and legitimate in the eyes of the world the de facto sovereignty of the island and those who maintain that the island is an integral part of Chinese sovereignty, there is no space for interlocution in which the argumentative dialectic would be likely to prevail: discourses clash, bounce off one another, discursive productions (proliferations, rather) are placed under the performative regime of storytelling and the promotion of elements of language, the positions of each other, rather than evolving over the course of the confrontation, harden and become more radical – the tone rises relentlessly. Maintaining the status quo for an indefinite period, which until then had been the option to which the realists on both sides had stuck, appears to be a (provisional but lasting) solution that is ever less tenable and the decisionist temptation is ever more openly apparent – it's time to end it, whatever the cost [21]. Each side has its “Hastings dreamers” and their voices are always heard with more confidence and more force. But at the end of the road, it is not on the advent of a new "Norman" dynasty that the confrontation will lead but rather, things being what they are, on an unprecedented apocalypse whose first to bearing the brunt will of course be the Taiwanese and the peoples of the region.

This would perhaps be the only point on which we would be likely to agree with the agitated separatists in Taiwan and the mouthpieces of incantations about the "Chinese threat": the deadlines are getting closer, it is "five minutes to midnight" (Fünf vor Zwölf”), as they say in German.










[1]The good performance of the Taiwanese health state during the COVID crisis has distinctly contributed  to the identification of the island by world public opinion as a proper, autonomous entity, a modern developed state, an integral part of the global North. ..

[2]As a state and a society, Taiwan bears the indelible mark of colonialism, even if this would be the object of the most constant denials – the post-colonial state being supposed to be soluble in global democracy, of which the ROC appears as a flagship in East Asia. But it suffices to scrape, however superficially, the democratic envelope of state and society in Taiwan to find the compact strata of the colonial and the post-colonial – seen from the perspective of the subalterns (aborigines, workers and immigrant workers from Southeast Asia...), Taiwan, both in its social forms and in those of the established authority, remains a country in which the spirit and practices of the Colony remain alive.

[3]What is called in French the "national novel" (roman national) around which the nation, in all its components, is supposed to aggregate, and which inspires the history that is taught to children, is a dream account of the origins and the nation's past, a reconstruction tailored to the identity representations forged by the elites.

[4]Symptomatic of this persistent confusion about origins and one's own identity, this Taipei Times editorial entitled "Nation's name deserves referendum" (29/10/2022). If it is necessary to go through a referendum to know what this country should really be called or once and for all , it is therefore obvious that we are not quite dealing here with a State -ordinary nation. However, the separatist elites aligned with the United States continue to make it their profession of faith: Taiwan is a normal nation , as it is an exemplary democracy. ..

[5]This is why those who set themselves to the task (in Taiwan or elsewhere - in the United States in particular) of producing a narrative likely to reinforce the motif of Taiwanese sovereignty and, in its wake, of independence to come, never cease to reimagine in the most varied tones the past and the specific identity of the island. Taiwan is, from this point of view, a blank page on which are written the most varied chronicles of its own past, supposed to constitute the basis of its own identity, irreducible to any other. See on this point Michael Walsh, Adam Morrow, Yang Wen-Shi: “Myth od Taiwan as Pacific Nation”, Taipei Times , 10/2022. We can read there in particular these injunctions devoid of any ambiguity: evoking the way in which the American leaders knew how to "reimagine" for the benefit of their country the United States in "Pacific nation", the authors write: "While there are significant differences in the history, ideas and interests of Taiwan and the US, policymakers in Taipei could use a similar narrative framework to craft their own story about Taiwan as a Pacific nation (…) The government [of Taiwan] should start exploring these questions to better understand the merits of reimagining Taiwan as a Pacific nation – and ir should do so soon”. It could not be better said that the past is soluble in the conditions of the interest of the moment, that it is only the plastic material of useful narratives. It should be noted in passing that the three authors of this article come from the American and Taiwanese academic sphere.

[6]This is, again, why pro-independence supporters tirelessly campaign to free the discourse of Taiwanese identity from the supposed tyranny of the past, why they are active in favor of democratic presentism in the goal of emancipating oneself from the indelible historical composition of the island's present. The reason also why they define Taiwanese identity in a primarily negative mode - "we are not Chinese!" – an incantation which, in every respect, bears the mark of a desperate flight into the imagination.

[7]Difficult, not to say impossible, I experienced it recently, to organize a symposium around the issues of collective memory associated with Koxinga, Chinese warrior, trader and pirate who chased the Dutch from the island, deity revered by some, but decried agent of the Chinese empire for others, this in the very university which bears his name – National Cheng Kung University, in Tainan – the character is too controversial today, what's the point of exposing himself to untimely polemics...? This anecdote sums up the whole regime of widespread discord over the highlights of  recent and ancient past, as it continues today in Taiwan.

[8]Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract , Book II, ch. 1.

[9]Jean Bodin: The Six Books of the Republic, Book I (1576).

[10]Rousseau: Ibid., c. 2 and 3.

[11]This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why there is little understanding that sovereignty is associated with the continuity of legitimate power and not with the variability of governments – the reason why the argument of the separatists according to which Beijing could in no way claim sovereignty over the island, since it had never been placed under the authority of the Chinese communist regime - is worth nothing . The only valid question, from the point of view of a rigorous theory of sovereignty, is whether there is a legitimate (historical) continuity of the Chinese sovereignty exercised over Taiwan: now, this has been clearly recognized in action by the United States and the international community when Japan renounced, after its defeat, all claim to Taiwan. Moreover, the ROC (Taiwan) claims sovereignty over a number of islets located in the China Sea over which it has never exercised its sovereignty, in the name of historical rights. In this case, his reasoning is exactly the same as that which the leaders of China put forward in relation to Taiwan.

[12]The supposed democratic quality of Taiwan, which constitutes the main argument for promoting it to Western opinions, is the (thin) veneer that covers the real quality of this power, in the eyes of Western rulers: its vocation to be an impregnable bastion of the West in the China Sea or the most advanced position of American power in the Pacific, facing the Chinese subcontinent. The varnish is peeling off day by day, as this refrain grows louder: Taiwan is, potentially and in the making, the Israel of the Far East . It cannot be said more eloquently that the essence of democracy, in such a context, is due to its ornamental value : Israel is above all the proxy or the double exemplary of the United States in the Middle East, the lock of the West in the Arab-Muslim world and, for the rest, an apartheid state ruled for a long time by white supremacists, dressed in the tinsel of a chaotic parliamentary democracy. If this is the reference model, good luck and long life to Taiwanese democracy!

[13]The fact remains that the perpetual concentration of attention on Taiwan and the dangers which would threaten it (from a Western perspective) is largely a decoy: fundamentally, it is because the Western powers, starting with the United States have changed or are in the process of changing doctrine by relation to China that the issue of Taiwan becomes so hot - and not the other way around. It is that, under the conditions of the new cold war, these powers have renounced the illusion according to which the small or big Chinese communist difference (the Chinese revolution and its legacy) would be soluble in "capitalism with Chinese characteristics" and reverted to the offensive doctrine of the systemic adversary – or, in cruder terms, the sworn enemy, mortal danger. For the rest, neither the United States nor its allies make much of Taiwan as such – - except as a supplier of the essential semiconductors and, in the event of a direct confrontation with China, a new Fort Zelandia , outpost of the West facing the enemy. The United States and Westerners worry about Taiwan like my cat worries about its kibble – in the less disinterested way possible.

[14]Everything is upside down in the media rumor that continues to swell about Taiwan: the speeches of mobilization and conditioning of Taiwanese and Western opinion, ever more noisy, alarmist, imperious, in short exhort the public both local and global to stand ready to die for a sovereignty... which already exists, in fact, and over which hang only imaginary threats – the Beijing regime is not ready to risk its very existence for a matter of national self-esteem; if the Chinese Communists were fanatics blinded by ideology and nationalist fevers, they would certainly not have embarked on the path that led them, via the normalization of their relations with the United States and the reforms of Deng Xiao Ping, where they are today. Hence the perpetual misinterpretation on which the “Orwellian” readings, today predominant in the West, of Chinese-style “totalitarianism” are based.

[15]Sovereignty is an infinitely complex issue here: Pinochet's military coup in 1973, piloted by the US State Department, is clearly an attack on Chile's sovereignty. But conversely, when a military junta comes to power in Niger (July 2023), supported by the majority of the country's population and when ECOWAS brandishes the threat of military intervention intended to restore "democracy" in the country, it is the putschists who embody sovereignty in its most legitimate form and not the crusaders of global democracy.

[16]Just to mention it by passing: the “reasons” China invokes in the conflict of interpretations over the sovereinty over or of  Taiwan are and will always be more consistent than those that prevailed, based on a pure accomplished fact, as the US annexed Hawaii...

[17]What tends to weaken more and more the Chinese position in this debate is crystal-clear: since the end of WWII, the “right of conquest”, whatever its form might be, has been firmly rejected by the international community - this as a consequence of what recently resulted from German and Japanese expansionism; we have to remember at this place that in the Classic Age, the right of conquest was considered as a common expression of sovereignty. By contrast, at the Nuremberg Trial, the surviving leaders of the Nazi regime were prosecuted for the “crimes against peace” they had perpetrated, as the German regime had relentlessly relaunched the “right of conquest” to the East as to the West.  In the speeches he addressed to the Germans from his exile in the US, during the war, Thomas Mann branded Hitler as a criminal since he “thinks of himself as Gengis Khan” - the barbarian conqueror par excellence. Saddam Hussein has been thrown down because of his careless invasion of Koweit . Since the invasion of the Ukraine, Putin is routinely called a new Hitler in the Western press. Then, it is blatant that if China would be tempted to reassert its “historical rights” over Taiwan by using force, this action would, in the eyes of Western opinion and beyond, appear as an open infringement of the new (civilized) rule that bans the right of conquest, as a proactive expression of sovereignty.

[18]Jean-François Lyotard: Le différend , Editions de Minuit, 1983.

[19]We will insist here on the fact that the longer the de facto sovereignty of the Taiwanese entity lasts, the more the dispute hardens: indeed, those who live under the authority and under the conditions of de facto sovereignty , quite naturally tend to identify with it, to find their bearings, to "inhabit" it and to appropriate it. This is the reason why the younger Taiwanese generations increasingly tend to perceive themselves as Taiwanese to the exclusion of any other condition of identification or definition – their cultural condition tends to move away from what, historically , links them willy-nilly to “global” China. However, the more the dispute hardens, the more it contains promises of violent eruptions.

[20]Thinking about Taiwan's “becoming” in a perspective that would be emancipated from the tyranny of the present conditions, that would mean envisioning its present and future from two angles: that of a post- or trans-nationalism, beyond the formating of the people in/by the nation-state mould, on the one hand, and on the other taking a distance from the constraints of the struggle between the two antagonistic blocs, a configuration the island is the hostage of. But, if Taiwan, as a political entity, intended to declare its neutrality and give force of law to it, it should first proclaim its independance – which rejects it immediately into the vicious circle of dependance of the general conditions that prevail today – the independance of Taiwan as a casus belli for one of the two conflicting sides. 

[21]We see proliferating in the Western media a whole rhetoric of exasperation, the rhetoric of warmongers, pushers to crime who are chomping at the bit and stamping with impatience and calling for initiatives intended to the gunpowder - what are the United States waiting for to set up military bases in Taiwan, what are they waiting for to increase the volume of deliveries of high-performance weapons to the armed forces of the ROC, to multiply the passages of military ships in the Taiwan Strait, etc. ? It is as if the war in Ukraine had given these crusaders of booted and helmeted democracy an appetite – the opening of the “second front” in the East Asia-Pacific region is now their passion.