The Debate | Opinion

Look at Taiwan in Its Own Right

A recent article by Daniel Russel continues a long, flawed tradition of viewing Taiwan as a subset of U.S.-China relations.

By Gerrit van der Wees for
Look at Taiwan in Its Own Right
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

In his recent essay for The Diplomat, former Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel outlines how the intensifying struggle between Washington and Beijing may lead to a more open conflict on issues such as Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and above all, Taiwan.

We will leave a response regarding Hong Kong and South China Sea to others, but on the issue of Taiwan, Russel’s analysis is based on a number of rather fundamental misconceptions.

While it is indeed obvious that Taiwan is at the fault line between democratic rule of law and authoritarianism with Chinese characteristics,” Russel’s conception of Taiwan as “as an offshore rebuke to the PRC and an emblem of what a democratic China could look like” is based on the flawed notion of Taiwan as a “Chinese” democracy.

This notion derives from a fundamental misunderstanding of how Taiwan’s transition to democracy in the 1980s and early 1990s came about. It grew from the discontent of the native Taiwanese Hoklo and Hakka – together some 85 percent of the population – with the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Nationalists, who had come over from China with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949.

From the late 1940s through the mid-1980s, Chiang (and, after his death in 1975, his son) and his ruling clique had dominated positions in the governmental structure and the ranks of ministries, military, police, educational system, etc. By the mid-1980s a new generation of Taiwanese had grown up, and started to push for liberalization, democratization, and Taiwanization. This succeeded in 1989-1992 under then President Lee Teng-hui.

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It was thus very much a “Taiwanese” democracy, and not a “Chinese” democracy, not unlike the establishment of the United States itself in the 1770s, which was an American achievement, and not a “British” one. The Taiwanese rebelled against Chinese rule, just like the Americans rebelled against the British rule. It is essential for Russel to understand this distinction.

Russel then goes on to argue that Taiwan should not be used as “…a blunt instrument used to harass and discomfit the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).” We fully agree on that point: The United States should not use Taiwan as a pawn in the bigger chess game with China, and overall that has not happened. The current administration has enhanced relations with Taiwan because Taiwan is a vibrant democracy, and it is in the United States’ interest to be supportive of that democracy’s role and position as a full and equal member in the world community.

But this does bring us back to the other side of the coin: when Russel himself was in office it was common practice to invoke the question “what will Beijing think about this?” whenever an issue related to Taiwan came up. Too often, policymakers like Russel stepped on the brakes and said this or that with Taiwan could not be done because of a possible reaction from Beijing.

It should be clear that those days are over, and that the United States – and other like-minded nations that support human rights and democracy in East Asia – need to have a much firmer backbone in standing up to China, whether it is on Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, the South China Sea, or Taiwan. We need to see this new and vibrantly democratic Taiwan in its own right and its own light, and not always perceive it as a fuzzy and oh-so-sensitive subset of U.S.-China relations.

A third point requiring a rebuttal is Russel’s underlying assumption about “the imbalance between U.S. and Chinese interests vis-à-vis Taiwan.” He states that “for Xi Jinping, Taiwan is an historical and a political imperative.”

Yes, there is an imbalance, but it has been created by the failure of previous Western governments to emphasize that continued existence of Taiwan as a free and democratic nation is a “core interest” for the West. Somehow the PRC has succeeded in convincing policymakers that Taiwan is a “core issue” for the Beijing government, while the United States — and other Western nations — are still adhering to their confusing “One China” mantra (more on that below), and have failed to enunciate a longer-term vision for themselves.

In order to move to a more balanced approach, which is more likely to deter China and less likely to invite the miscalculation and disproportionate response so feared by Russel, it is essential that the United States and other like-minded nations enunciate more clearly that Taiwan’s continued existence as a free and democratic nation is a core issue on the road to a free and open Indo-Pacific.

This requires more than symbolic support for Taiwan’s efforts to strengthen bilateral ties and find a rightful place in the international family of nations. It requires that the United States and other Western nations go beyond pious pronouncements of a “peaceful resolution by the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait” and develop a vision of their own of the importance they attach to Taiwan as a key cornerstone in the framework of democracy in East Asia.

This is very different from the rather anachronistic concept of the “painstakingly constructed framework of the ‘one China policy’” Russel still seems to want to (re)impose on Taiwan. This concept was devised in the 1970s to respond to the very particular situation that there were two governments claiming to be the government of China: the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists of Mao Zedong. From the 1940s through the early 1970s the Nationalists had the upper hand, but their position became untenable in the early 1970s, so we switched to Beijing.

However, in the 1980s Taiwan went through its momentous transition to democracy, and by the early 1990s had ditched the claim to represent China. Thus, Taiwan in 2020 is very different from the ROC of 1979, as it has morphed into a new, free, and democratic country that wants to play a full and equal role in the international community.

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Current U.S. and European policies have not kept pace with that new fact, as the fundamentals of the “one China” notion implicitly and explicitly leave Taiwan dangling out in the cold of international political isolation. We need to move away from such convoluted constructs of the past and move toward clear policies that have their basis in the principles of freedom, democracy, and self-determination.

Instead of retreating back into a flawed “one China” cocoon, the United States and other democratic nations need to display a new vision and base their policies on the fact that Taiwan is a free and democratic nation that deserves to be a full and equal member of the international community.

Let us hope the new U.S. government will have a forward looking approach on this.

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016, he served as chief editor of Taiwan Communiqué. He currently teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University and Current Issues in East Asia at George Washington University.

Editor’s note: Below, the response from Daniel Russel:

I appreciate the passion of Gerrit van der Wees’ call for Taiwan’s statehood and admire his zeal in championing that cause. I’m less impressed by his analysis of my June 3 essay on the significant danger of a crisis between China and the U.S.
I wrote that “For many in the United States, Taiwan has symbolic importance – as an offshore rebuke to the PRC and an emblem of what a democratic China could look like.” This straightforward observation is somehow misconstrued by van der Wees as demeaning Taiwan’s democracy.   
 
Van der Wees makes the accusation, without evidence, that I and my colleagues in the Obama administration put the “brakes” on actions to support Taiwan because we were afraid of what Beijing would think. Is he referring to the $11 billion in arms sales to Taiwan in Obama’s first term? Or the decision to send a Cabinet Secretary to Taipei after a 14 year hiatus? Or to include Taiwan in the Visa Waiver program? Or to initiate the Global Cooperation and Training Framework that boosted Taiwan’s engagement throughout the Asia-Pacific Region? Or to help Taiwan succeed in gaining observer status at the World Health Assembly? Hardly tapping the brakes. But one reason we were so successful was that both Washington and Taipei did think carefully about what Beijing would think … and accordingly designed effective strategies to advance Taiwan’s interests.  
 
Thirdly, the observation that Beijing and Washington have “unequal interests, influence, and capacity for military action” on Taiwan, which the writer does not dispute, sparked a heartfelt call for the United States and Europe to abandon their “One China Policy” in favor of recognizing Taiwan as a full and equal member nation of the international community. Would that it were as simple as  declaring Taiwan a “core issue” or just “developing a vision” of Taiwan’s role. Support for Taiwan’s autonomy and democracy is an important component of U.S. policy, but if it is not pursued wisely, and in full recognition of the imbalances that I mentioned, it will end in tears, not in the new, free and democratic country that van der Wees longs for. I’ll repeat for his benefit the caution in my essay: there is no situation that can’t be made worse and no reason that chronic problems can’t become acute ones. Defense of Taiwan’s democracy argues for U.S. policies that are both careful and smart.