At the G20 meeting in London in April, Beijing persuaded Washington to engage in a serious discussion of Taiwan’s future at the next meeting between Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and US President Barack Obama. Earlier press reports said Hu might visit the US to attend the opening of the UN General Assembly next month and call on Obama at the White House. However, the latest report from Washington is that Obama will visit Beijing in November.
The change of venue for the Obama-Hu summit does not augur well for the US. It smacks of the past tradition of a “barbarian king” trekking to the imperial court to pay tribute. As an invited guest, Obama may find it harder to stand firm in protecting the interests of the US and its allies.
Last month, Taiwanese communities abroad launched a “10,000 letters to Obama to save Taiwan” campaign. The urgency of that campaign has not been diminished by the change in the timing of the summit between Obama and Hu.
The negotiations at the Cabinet and sub-Cabinet levels will take place next month and in October, and it is important that Taiwan’s message reaches Obama and his foreign policy team before then.
Developments in the international community have made Taiwan’s survival as a democratic nation increasingly challenging. The economies of the US and China are interdependent: The US looks to China to fund its economic recovery efforts, while China’s export-dependent economy needs access to the US market.
The two nations need to cooperate in managing global economic recovery and climate change. Washington expects Beijing’s assistance in dealing with the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran. The US owes China nearly US$1 trillion, causing then presidential candidate Obama to warn that it is “hard to say no to your banker.”
After the end of the Cold War, then US president Bill Clinton drastically reduced the size of the US armed forces. Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US and the prolonged wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Pakistan. The US military is stretched thin, especially in East Asia. High priority is thus placed on deterring a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. However, when avoidance of any confrontation with China becomes the overriding goal, the US becomes susceptible to overt or implied intimidation by China’s People’s Liberation Army.
During a conference at George Washington University on May 19, luncheon speaker Henry Nau said Obama had swung the pendulum too far away from the policies of his predecessor, former US president George W. Bush. The Obama administration has cut the military budget and stressed counterinsurgency at the expense of conventional sea and air power. But diplomacy without leverage won’t work.
In his June 4 speech in Cairo, Obama eloquently extolled the virtues of democracy, then followed with a caveat that “there is no straight line to realize this promise ... Each action gives life to this principle (that governments should reflect the will of the people) in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone.”
This language sounds like the excuses made by many authoritarian regimes (see “The abandonment of democracy,” by Joshua Muravchik, published in the July/August issue of the Commentary).
The de-emphasis on promoting democracy, unfortunately, could also mean that the Obama administration may not place much value on Taiwan’s democracy serving as a model for autocratic China.
Lastly, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) pro-unification policies give pro-China realists among the US policy establishment a convenient pretext for dropping support for Taiwanese freedom. There is even talk of a G2 cooperation, whereby Washington would cede control and management of East Asian affairs to Beijing, thus pushing China toward the path of military aggrandizement, unrestrained nationalism and, eventually, confrontation with the US.
So what is the danger to Taiwan from the upcoming US-China summit? It is the possibility that Obama may privately cave in to Hu and shift the US policy goal dramatically from “peaceful resolution” to “peaceful unification.” Alternatively, Obama may even openly endorse a peace accord between Taiwan and China, an idea which both Beijing and Ma support. Either event would signify the cessation of US support for Taiwan and virtual abrogation of the Taiwan Relations Act.
Former US secretary of state Colin Powell once said that the “peaceful reunification” of Taiwan with China is US policy. When corrected, he grudgingly replied: “The term of art really is to have a peaceful resolution,” implying that US policy favored peaceful reunification but it was not politically correct to openly admit it.
In 2007 the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations of New York (the publisher of Foreign Affairs) published a task force report on US-China relations in which it obliquely advocated a US policy of peaceful unification. The task force was composed of 30 experts from US business, military, government and academia. There was only one dissenting opinion — Arthur Waldron, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who advocated supporting Taiwan’s freedom.
Obama is surrounded by China-leaning advisers and it is doubtful he will have time to digest Taiwan’s complex problems. His team consists mainly of realists who regard democracy and human rights as secondary considerations in conducting US diplomacy. So there are ample reasons to present the Taiwanese views and concerns to Obama, and to do so quickly.
Some people have asked: Would there be any legitimate basis for the US to interfere with Ma’s unification agenda since Ma was elected with more than half of the popular vote?
Adolf Hitler also gained power through an election, but he quickly turned around and destroyed the democratic institutions of the Weimar Republic. Similarly, Ma is turning the clock back to Taiwan’s White Terror era by suppressing freedom of speech and assembly, by pressuring the judiciary to act as the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) political tool and by reinstating the worship of dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石).
Second, the Taiwan Relations Act states that the objective of the US is to preserve and enhance the human rights of the Taiwanese people. There is no human right more basic than the right to self-determination. When Ma tries to surrender Taiwan to China against the wishes of the great majority of Taiwanese, Obama has a responsibility under the TRA to act.
Third, neither the Republic of China (ROC) nor the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has a legitimate claim of sovereignty over Taiwan. China ceded Taiwan in perpetuity to Japan in 1895. Japan in turn gave up its title to Taiwan and the Pescadores in the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which did not designate a beneficiary.
Fourth, Ma won the ROC presidency by mouthing false promises. Ma is basically Chinese, serving as Beijing’s agent in governing Taiwan as a special administrative region of the PRC. Ma has given up any legitimate right to rule Taiwan despite the votes he garnered. He does not represent the interests of Taiwanese. He has even subverted the republic he supposedly leads.
Finally, China played no role in liberating Taiwan from Japan’s colonial rule. US forces, which suffered huge casualties during World War II, were the ones who did that. The US, as the leader of the allied forces, has a legitimate right to intervene in any process dealing with Taiwan’s future international status.
As was pointed out in the letter to Obama, the US is vulnerable to a seminal geostrategic disaster in East Asia. The US’ national security and its democratic values both call for unwavering support of Taiwan’s freedom by reaffirming the Taiwan Relations Act, strengthening trade relations and military cooperation with Taiwan, and bolstering US naval and air presence in the Western Pacific, as mandated in the Act.
Li Thian-hok is a freelance commentator based in Pennsylvania.
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