A couple of years ago, I wrote about the increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula and mentioned that as a young soldier, I had fought in the Korean War.
I concluded that it was important for Taiwan to come down on the side of its friends and allies: South Korea, Japan and the US.
At present, the situation is heating up again, with North Korea threatening strikes against the South, Japan and the US. While the government in Beijing is professing deep concern about the situation, its own bellicose behavior is part of the reason why North Korea is acting in this way.
China’s recent belligerent and provocative behavior against the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia in the South China Sea, and against Japan in the East China Sea has given North Korea the impression that it is acceptable for it to throw its weight around and bully its neighbors.
While some in China are apparently willing to soften their support for North Korea, the leadership still seems to want to prop up its fellow communist regime, perhaps to act as a buffer between itself and South Korea and Japan.
Several US observers have said that they have detected “a shift” in China’s attitudes and that Beijing can be convinced to lean on Pyongyang to step back. I believe it would be naive to think that China would significantly change its position toward its old friends and communist allies in North Korea.
China may give the appearance of shifting back and forth a bit, but after that, much will remain the same.
The now well-known statement made on April 6 by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) at the Boao Forum for Asia that “no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains,” falls into the smoke and mirrors category.
This can also be evidence in the developments surrounding a commentary published on Feb. 27 in the Financial Times, in which Deng Yuwen (鄧聿文), a deputy editor at the Chinese Communist Party newspaper the Study Times, called for China to abandon North Korea as an ally. Citing an array of strategic arguments, Deng urged Chinese leaders to press for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula rather than propping up the North. A few days after the commentary was printed, Deng was suspended indefinitely from his position.
So, where does Taiwan stand on all this? The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that it is “monitoring” the situation, and has urged North Korea “to exert self-restraint and to seek dialogue to resolve the issues about which Pyongyang is concerned.”
The Presidential Office announced that it is “paying close attention to the situation on the Korean Peninsula,” and that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) “has instructed the National Security Council to be fully prepared for any outcome.”
Still, Taiwan could do more: It could say that it is in favor of a transition to democracy in North Korea. The present “status quo” — in both North Korea and Taiwan — are outdated relics of the Cold War. If there is to be real long-term stability in the region, then the people of these two countries need to be allowed to make their own decision on their future.
This would require China to allow the processes of self-determination to run their full course and not interfere or threaten interference if these processes go in a different direction than the one it wants. What is needed is a Chinese Mikhail Gorbachev who respects the rights of all of China’s neighbors to chart their own destiny, which would also be in Beijing’s best interest.
Nat Bellocchi served as chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan between 1990 and 1995. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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