Enough with legalism already. Open a book, a newspaper or a magazine about Taiwan and chances are the reader will come upon legally based argument as to why Taiwan is, or should be recognized as, a sovereign state with a status equal to other countries around the world.
If one were to check every box down the list of legal reasons why Taiwan should be embraced by the international community, he or she would rightly wonder why it hasn't happened yet.
Let's give the list a by no means exhaustive glance: The Cairo Declaration of 1943 is nothing but a non-binding communique that, as was recently argued in the pages of this newspaper, never said Taiwan would be handed over to the People's Republic of China (PRC). Check.
The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 refers to the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, rights which in many ways have been denied the Taiwanese. Check.
Article 2(4) of the UN Charter states that "All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations" -- something Beijing certainly has not respected by passing the "Anti-Secession" Law in 2005, which makes it "lawful" (in the PRC) to use force against Taiwan under certain circumstances. Check.
And so on and so forth, from legal document to legal document, all of which, upon close scrutiny, discredit any claim of ownership by the PRC over Taiwan.
So why is it, one wonders, that Taiwan's status remains in limbo, given the overwhelming legal material in its favor?
The reason, it turns out, is relatively simple; so simple, in fact, that it seems to have eluded most academics and pundits who spill ink to no end arguing in Taiwan's favor: Politics is not about the law -- it's about emotions, myths and illusion. Oh, and self-interest.
If law were the principal determinant of politics, Palestinians -- to use but one among a litany of shameful examples -- would live in freedom, their land unoccupied by a foreign military, Israel's, that illegally (so argues UN documentation) occupied territory it seized by force in the Six-Day War of 1967. In fact, if we were to follow the writ of the law, you and I would be basking in a world free of the ills of injustice, theft and murder.
The truth of the matter, sadly, is that human nature is very selective in choosing when to abide by man-made laws. On more emotional issues such as nationalism, one's choices are rarely governed by rational thought, upon which adherence to law is predicated. As US ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew wrote on the eve of World War II: "To shape our foreign policy on the unsound theory that other nations are guided and bound by our present standards of international ethics would be to court sure disaster."
Given this, for Taiwan and its supporters to maintain an emphasis on legally based argumentation alone will, at best, be an intellectual exercise in futility. The defenses will be sound, eloquent and no one (except the PRC) will disagree with their inherent logic. But in the end, all this work will avail to little as it encounters the cold reality of human nature and international politics.
The foregoing, however, by no means signifies that Taiwan's chances of being recognized as a member of the community of nations with full rights and distinctions are nil. Nor does it imply that the search for a legal basis for Taiwanese sovereignty is unimportant. What it does signify, above all, is that if Taiwan is to be successful in its bid, it must look beyond the legalistic approach, the reams of documents signed over the past decades, and claim its space in the international arena by means similar to those employed by all the countries that have succeeded in achieving liberty -- emotion, myth and illusion.
No amount of heart-pumping epiphanies, of eureka moments where the pundit exclaims "At last, I have unearthed the legal reason why Taiwan does not belong to China," will ever confer upon Taiwan the long-lasting freedom that it deserves. If it is to emerge the winner in the battle for identity, Taiwan must find ways to awaken the imagination not only of its people, but also -- and perhaps more importantly -- that of the rest of the world.
This it will achieve not at the UN, the WHO or other legal international bodies, whose handling of the law is, to put it generously, rather tenuous. The roots of Taiwan's success therefore lie in how it advertises itself to the world through literature, music, movies and so on.
It may sound simplistic, but thus is the nature of politics, an imperfect blend of arts and science, often governed not by law but rather by emotion.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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