Why Taiwan Matters

Shelley Rigger’s new book, Why Taiwan Matters is out. If you’re in the market for an intro to Taiwanese politics, this might be for you. The following is an excerpt from my review for the China Quarterly.

Shelley Rigger is one of the most incisive analysts of Taiwanese politics in the field. Her first two books are among the finest on democratisation in Taiwan and are still highly relevant more than a decade after being published. But those of you hoping (as I was) for a sequel to Politics in Taiwan (Routledge, 1999) or the riveting From Opposition To Power: Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (Rienner, 2001), will be disappointed with her new book.

Rigger, as always, shows her observant eye and wisdom hewn by three decades researching Taiwan. The trademark anecdotes and tales from the field, seamlessly integrated into an ebullient text, will resonate with Taiwan Hands and charm students. One sympathizes with the way in which Rigger’s obvious affection for Taiwan is tempered by frustration and occasional bewilderment about its politics. Many readers will recognize Rigger’s sympathetic portrayal of the (in my words) plucky underdog, misconstrued and mistreated, which, despite performing economic and political ‘miracles,’ is unable to enjoy the fruits of its labour and is constantly under the threat of losing the astonishing gains it has made.

Taiwan as a polity, as a nation or whatever descriptive you prefer, is at a crucial juncture. Taiwan faces a series of political and economic challenges, and after three decades of political liberalization continues to wrestle with fundamental questions about what Taiwan is and should or should not be. Strategic challenges outside of Taiwan’s control are equally pressing.

In some quarters in the US there is growing demand for a reassessment, if not recalibration, of the relationship between the US and Taiwan that has prevailed during the past three decades. Such is the gravity of this scenario that respected Taiwan scholars have felt impelled to rebut the argument that the US should “abandon” Taiwan in order to facilitate its increasingly complex relationship with China. A strong demonstration to US policymakers that Taiwan matters as a long-time ally, global economy and exuberant liberal democracy could have been another important undertaking for the book.

The book is not a specialist text, nor does it offer much in the way of the rhetorical or polemical fireworks that the title may suggest. Instead, this thin, subtle and captivating book provides a convenient introductory student text with its potted histories, text boxes and chapter summaries. It is strong on structure and coherence and newcomers will feel secure in the light-footed linear approach and uncomplicated expositions. As an introduction to Taiwanese politics, it lines up against Dafydd Fell’s Government and Politics in Taiwan (Routledge, 2011) on a suddenly well stocked introductory text book shelf.

Despite my initial disappointment, which is partly a legacy of the rather misleading title (although the more apposite ‘Taiwan is an interesting study’ is admittedly less racy), the highest praise I can give Rigger’s book is that if I were undergraduate today with no prior experience of Taiwan, after reading this book I would sign up straight away for a Taiwan class and start planning a summer vacation trip there.

Mail me at jonathan.sullivan@nottingham.ac.uk, follow me on Twitter @jonlsullivan, or access my published and working papers at http://jonlsullivan.com