The relations between Taiwan, the US and China have given rise to many an academic analysis. This is understandable and even laudable: The network of relations is complex and is open to various interpretations and insights. Many past treatises have made valuable contributions to the understanding of developments between the three countries.
However, once every so often an academic publishes an analysis that is so far removed from reality that it would be dismissed out of hand for its lack of understanding and its outright naivite. Bruce Gilley’s article, titled “Not So Dire Straits” — published in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs (January/February 2010) — is such a work.
Gilley’s basic thesis is that the present “rapprochement” between Taiwan and China opens the way for the “Finlandization” of Taiwan, and for the US to allow Taiwan to move from the present US strategic orbit towards China’s sphere of influence. Gilley’s misplaced assumption is that this process will somehow lead to democratization in China.
Gilley’s misconceptions are multiple, so in a brief essay like this one can only touch on a few major points.
To start with, the perception that “Finlandization” enjoyed “wide support in Finland at the time.” The question is: did the Finnish people have much of a choice, with the Russian gun pointed at their head?
A second general point is one of historical accuracy: Gilley writes that in 1949 “Taiwan and mainland China became separate political entities.” The truth of the matter is that Taiwan — as a Japanese colony — had been a separate entity for some 50 years, while before that period the influence of the Chinese imperial governments on the island was minimal at best.
The problem arose when the defeated Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was driven out of China and landed in Taiwan, treating it like occupied territory. It is also incorrect to say “most of the international community came to accept Beijing’s claim to territorial sovereignty over Taiwan.” This was only the case for pro-Beijing regimes of the likes of Zimbabwe and the Sudan. The US and other Western nations only “noted” or “acknowledged” Beijing’s claims, but took the position that it remained an unresolved issue, and that the island’s future needed to be determined in accordance with the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty.
But the most serious fallacy of the article is that it posits that a Chamberlain-like appeasement of China on the Taiwan issue will somehow democratize and pacify a rising China rather than embolden it. That is a fundamental misconception: Repressive regimes are never mollified by concessions; it only increases their appetite.
It would be a fundamental error to sacrifice the hard-won achievements of a vibrant and democratic Taiwan and let it drift into an uncertain, fuzzy “principled neutrality.”
Gilley wants us to believe that there is a distinction between this “Finland-style” status and “cowering acquiescence” as he calls it. An authoritarian power like China is hardly likely to be bothered by such finessing, and will remove any opposition to its rule; Tibet and East Turkestan are rather illustrative examples.
Gilley also argues that China’s claims to Taiwan may be less motivated “nationalism and … a broader national discourse of humiliation and weakness,” and more by a geostrategic rationale: By virtue of its location, Taiwan has strategic importance, and by bringing it into its sphere of influence it could enhance its ability to project its naval power, and thereby exert its influence in the Western Pacific.