During a visit by Harvard professor Joseph Nye Jr, cofounder of the neoliberal school of thought in international relations, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said cross-strait relations were improving because of Beijing’s “soft power,” while Nye suggested that Taiwan was using “smart power” — a combination of soft and military power — to maintain its security. However, both the renowned professor and the president seemed to miss one critical point: As Taiwan buddies up with China, Taiwan’s soft power is increasingly being tarnished by the association.
Beijing is undoubtedly an economic force to be reckoned with. Many countries look to Beijing to acquire manufactured goods and they want to maintain good relations to tap into that vast market. Taiwan is no exception and benefits from its status as a neighbor with a similar culture to China. However, economic power does not translate into soft power.
Under the Ma administration, Taiwan, in its sprint to cement economic ties with Beijing, has acted against some of the values underpinning a soft power strategy that the nation has used with great effect for years, most notably support for human rights, freedom of expression and democracy. The government seems afraid to demonstrate its core values on the international stage — it was unwilling to invite Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer to Taiwan to attend a screening of the film The 10 Conditions of Love, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at one point labeling her associates as terrorists; Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama was snubbed instead of being invited with open arms as in the past; Ma’s speeches on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre were toned down, while after Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) was named as the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ma’s exhortation that China “solve major human rights incidents with honesty and confidence” was disappointingly — if not embarrassingly — tame.
Silence on China’s human rights abuses is not the only point where the government is departing from the foundations of Taiwan’s soft power. Taiwan’s stand for democracy and the rule of law has served it well, too. However, elements of these have been hollowed out as evidenced by what appears to be the government’s outright refusal to allow a referendum on the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, the curious timing of the final verdicts in former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) cases right before municipality elections and the fact that some in the government spoke so strenuously against the not-guilty verdicts, raising the question whether the executive branch had influenced the judiciary’s guilty verdicts.
While the foundations of Taiwan’s soft power erode, China’s hard power looms over its soft power. Chinese Communist Party officials appear to think economics trump everything and that they can do whatever they want because the world relies on China’s factories and access to its market. Meanwhile, which countries in the world, besides Myanmar and North Korea, want to emulate China’s political system? China has become synonymous with repression no matter how many Confucius Institutes it builds or Confucius Peace Prizes it awards and Taiwan does itself no favors by proclaiming itself a friend of such a regime.
Taiwan is slowly becoming more vulnerable as it buddies up with China, allowing many of its core values to be muddied by close relations with one of the world’s worst human rights offenders. Smart power relies on an adequate balance of soft and military power. Taiwan’s military power is already well below that of China, while the contamination of the sources of its soft power poses risks to the nation’s ties with the one country that stands as its military benefactor — the US.