During his visit to East Asia early last month, US Vice President Joe Biden made a couple of seemingly contradictory remarks.
Referring to China’s announcement of its air defense identification zone, Biden said on Dec. 3: “We, the United States, are deeply concerned by the attempt to unilaterally change the ‘status quo’ in the East China Sea. This action has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation.”
The next day, during his visit to the US embassy in Beijing, he spoke to a group of young Chinese waiting to get visitor visas processed in the embassy’s consular section, saying that he hoped they would learn during their visit that “innovation can only occur where you can breathe free.”
“Children in America are rewarded — not punished — for challenging the ‘status quo.’ The only way you make something totally new is to break the mold of what was old,” he added.
Obviously, Biden was talking about two different “status quos”: the first related to the actual control by Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, [which Taiwan and China also claim and are known in Taiwan as the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台列島)]; and the second related to the stifling control by the Chinese Communist Party over its people.
In the same vein, there are different sides of the “status quo” when talking about the position Taiwan finds itself in after so many decades of a “one China” policy by which the international community maintains only unofficial relations with Taiwan.
Taiwanese have enjoyed their democracy and de facto independence for more than two decades, so when they are asked in opinion polls whether they prefer the “status quo,” unification or independence, then it is the “status quo” that often gets the highest preference.
However, when given a real choice for their future, the picture changes quite a bit. This has happened in opinions by TVBS and recently by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
A 2011 TVBS poll asked: “If a choice exists, would you want Taiwan to be an independent nation, or be unified with China?”
The response was 68 percent for independence, 18 percent for unification and 14 percent with no opinion. The DPP poll outcome was, if anything, a bit conservative: 60.2 percent for independence, 23.4 percent for unification and 8.7 percent for the “status quo.”
Both polls show that the majority opt for independence, while only a small number want unification with China. So, when given a real choice, Taiwanese want their country to become a full and equal member of the international society instead of being relegated to the status of an international pariah. The international community therefore has a duty to help move Taiwan out of international isolation.
In the 1970s, the international community adopted a fuzzy “one China” policy, relegating Taiwan to second-class diplomatic status. This was perhaps understandable, as Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) perpetuated the untenable myth that his “Republic of China” represented all of China.
Since then, Taiwan has gone through a momentous transition to democracy, with the government elected in a relatively democratic fashion. So, it is reasonable to ask that US and European policies be changed now a new and democratic Taiwan has formed.
From the polls, it is clear that the “status quo” of diplomatic isolation needs to be challenged.
Perhaps it is time for the West to break the mold of the old and outdated “one China” policy, and to develop ideas and strategies on how to normalize relations with Taiwan. Normalization worked for relations with the People’s Republic of China in the 1960s, so it poses a good model for the 21st century.
Gerrit van der Wees is editor of Taiwan Communique, a publication based in Washington.
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