One, if not the, principal element that in the long term will hamper sustainable peace in the Taiwan Strait is the tendency of world leaders to edit out the principal stakeholders in the equation — the Taiwanese people.
It goes without saying that the authoritarian regime in Beijing, unreceptive as it is to the political grievances of its own people, would ignore the whims and desires of 23 million people across the Strait. This largely accounts for the behind-the-scene, technocratic approach to cross-strait negotiations that Beijing has taken with President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration and helps explain why Ma and his Cabinet have also acted as if the will of the people were more of a nuisance — or at the minimum something to be shaped and controlled — rather than that which, in a democracy, should be driving government policy.
Confucianism and lingering paternalistic tradition, however, only partly explain why the Taiwanese polity appears to have been abstracted from the political calculation in Taipei and Beijing, because other countries with no such ideological baggage often commit the same mistake.
As I argued in a recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal Asia (WSJ), the much-hailed lowering of cross-strait tensions that has occurred since Ma came into office in 2008 will not be sustainable as long as the cost of that rapprochement is the ignoring of the views of Taiwanese on identity and sovereignty.
That popular sentiment — a growing number of Taiwanese identifying as Taiwanese, accompanied by growing support for independence immediately or at some point — isn’t a creation of this author to “derail” peace between Taiwan and China. It is, rather, a fact that has been quantified and documented time and again in poll after poll over the past 15 years.
Nobody, this author included, opposes peace in the Taiwan Strait. That said, this does not mean that the advocacy of a cautious approach to negotiation should be construed as opposing or “hating” China, an accusation that is often lodged against academics who favor that road.
Unfortunately, some responses to the WSJ op-ed, as well as to a related editorial pushing for arms sales to Taiwan, see it that way. Not only are the authors portrayed as fear-mongers, but the critics’ arguments completely remove Taiwanese from the equation, as if they didn’t exist and policymaking were the sole remit of unaccountable elites on both sides, with one external element — the US — acting as the necessary trouble fete.
One response, for example, alleged that the world’s greatest arms dealer was seeking to undermine peace in the Taiwan Strait by offering to sell more weapons to Taiwan. This accusation misses the mark altogether, as it ignores the fact that support for US arms purchases among the Taiwanese polity has been consistently strong, regardless of who was in office — even amid the detente under Ma. As such, US arms sales are not some outside means to derail peace, but instead are very much reflective of a desire on the part of Taiwanese to ensure their nation has the means to defend itself in a time of great uncertainty.
Another critic argued that the pessimistic view of the long-term effects of the current rapprochement was uncalled for and overlooked the increasing economic, cultural and social exchanges between the two sides. It added, in a misreading of the article’s core argument, that it was dishonest to claim that the current situation was more dangerous than when president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and his pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party were in power. This again misses the point.
There is no denying that the relationship is becoming more dynamic and that as long as it encourages peaceful relations between the two people that such efforts should continue. There is no way Taiwanese can cut themselves off entirely from the elephant in the room; in fact, it would be foolish to do so, given the importance of China in every aspect of global affairs.
This, however, does not mean that current policies should be blindly supported, nor that we should ignore Beijing’s position that all of this is thin cover for its policy of annexing Taiwan. Rather than oppose and doom peace, criticism of Ma’s handling of cross-strait dialogue is intended as a call for corrections in approach and strategy to avoid future conflict.
No one wishes war in the Taiwan Strait, but as I posited in my op-ed, should Beijing continue to ignore the will of 23 million Taiwanese — and annexation does ignore the will of the great majority of the Taiwanese polity, despite what the Chinese would claim — its response upon discovering that very few people in Taiwan want to be governed by the Chinese Community Party, is unlikely to be pacifist. This is not the author wishing war; this is, instead, the author warning that war could be likelier should we fail to address a potentially catastrophic spurning in the making.
In his classic The Best and the Brightest, US journalist David Halberstam wrote of a US field officer who was reporting back to Washington on the indigenous realities in Indochina: “[He] would also report on the growing pressure for independence, of the need to pressure the French to come to terms with it, and would be told by the French desk that he listened too much to the pitter-patter of naked little brown feet.” No one listened, and what came next were long years of an unwinnable war in Vietnam, unwinnable because policymakers chose to ignore reality and abstracted out the Vietnamese population.
Given the stakes in the Taiwan Strait, policymakers in Taipei, Beijing and Washington had better pay close attention to the pitter-patter in Taiwan, inconvenient though it might be, lest the errors of the past be committed anew.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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