- Introduction:The Chinese Factor and American Studies, Here and Now
On December 2, 2016, US president-elect Donald Trump tweeted that he received a call of congratulations from the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, and when questioned, defended himself with these wry complaints: “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call” and “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our projects going into …”1 Whether the call was a calculated stunt or a diplomatic gaffe, Trump’s tweets unwittingly reveal Taiwan to be “an American frontier,” to borrow the words of the long-forgotten George Kerr, US diplomat and military adviser posted there in the 1940s, who proposed to restructure Taiwan under US guidance, in effect creating an “accidental state” on the island.2 Wedged between the United States and China, since the Cold War days this Pacific island-nation has been positioned as a bargaining chip in the great power politics: released from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, it has since been un/willingly framed as a keystone in the western Pacific anticommunist front, acting as the opposite of the “subhuman, inhuman, and humanly unthinkable China” that allegedly threatens American happiness and greatness.3 As a US–China frontier and a military borderland emerging out of Han-Chinese settler colonialism, Japan’s colonial scheme for advancing to Southeast Asia, and US Pacific imperial cartography,4 Taiwan’s modern formations are deeply embedded in these transpacific entanglements, yet its significance has been disavowed and absented—indeed, it serves a space of exception that, as US media are quick to acknowledge, is “perhaps the most militarily vulnerable US partner anywhere in the world” despite being a top market for US arms sales in Asia.5
Our reason for invoking Taiwan here is manifold. As a central “problem” in US–China relations, Taiwan represents not just a political concern but, more important for American studies scholars, a methodological and conceptual inspiration for grappling with the complexities of “China” in the US global imagination.6 On the one hand, the reign of Trumpolitics has rendered Taiwan [End Page 443] more visible, both domestically and internationally, as a space of exception structurally linked to Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and Okinawa that are subjected to the regime of extraterritoriality, which is the norm—not exception—to postwar American empire.7 While Taiwan is neither an incarceral space nor a host of a US military base now, its reliance on US protection and increasing economic integration with China has locked itself in a state of “in/dependence,” a conundrum that pessimists have predicted would be resolved only by war.8 On the other hand, the way Taiwan has been fronted by Trump as a bargaining chip reveals how large China looms in the US global imaginary now and how central maintaining and managing the Pacific and other frontiers still is to the project of US imperialism. On a more personal level, as two Americanists with roots in Taiwan, we hope to better comprehend these entangled, conflicting spaces and politics, with Japan, Korea, the Pacific islands, and Southeast Asia deeply implicated in complex transpacific dynamism. Against the tired tropes of orientalism and Cold War divisions, we hope to initiate dialogue between the rich field of transpacific studies and inter-Asia critique as we strive to imagine more capacious and self-critical approaches to the “global” in American studies. Today, US–China relations are increasingly characterized by competition, collusion, complicity, and even collaboration on the global scale rather than simply domination and resistance on the Pacific front. Through rearticulating frontier spaces as critical borderlands in their disparate forms and modalities in this new context, we seek to highlight critical visions and practices that reorient America’s global imaginary about China as a relational comparativist project toward decolonization and de-imperialization.
Reconsidering Frontier Today
In his statements about Taiwan, Kerr characterizes Taiwan as “a trouble spot” where the “two frontiers [American and Chinese] meet and overlap,” and considered its national formation...