During the past few years, there has been a tendency among Western policymakers to be lulled into slumber by the refrain from President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government that it is reducing tension across the Taiwan Strait and that its policies are beneficial to stability.
For example, during an April 4 hearing in the US Senate, US Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel said: “As a general matter, we very much welcome and applaud the extraordinary progress that has occurred in cross-strait relations under the Ma administration.”
Regrettably, Russel and others are betting on the wrong horse. The problem with the “progress” in cross-strait relations is that it has occurred under false premises: Ma has given China’s leaders the idea that these moves are eventually leading to “reunification,” — the absorption of Taiwan into China’s suffocating embrace.
This accommodating approach is now colliding with the aspirations of the Taiwanese to remain free, and to defend hard-won democracy. Ma’s approach is also fundamentally flawed, as it is in direct contravention of the basic principles of freedom, democracy and self-determination: the right of Taiwanese to determine their own future.
In some ways, Ma’s approach is analogous to that of former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who tried to accommodate an expansionist German regime that was moving against its neighbors Poland and Czechoslovakia. If the West had followed Churchill’s advice in 1938 and remained firm against German designs, then World War II might not have happened.
Real progress can only be made if China can be made to understand that it needs to accept Taiwan as a peaceful neighbor, that it needs to dismantle the more than 1,600 missiles aimed at Taiwan and that it needs to agree to international space for Taiwan, so it can be a full and equal member in the international community.
The democratic West can help normalization of relations across the Taiwan Strait by moving to normalize their own diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The country’s diplomatic isolation was prompted by the fact that in the 1960s and 1970s, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) was still claiming to represent China. That led to its international derecognition.
However, since then, Taiwan has made its momentous transition to democracy, so it is time to move away from old ideas and toward a new policy that accepts a vibrant democracy as a member of the international family of nations.
The recent Sunflower demonstrations in Taiwan and Ma’s extremely low approval ratings show clearly that Taiwanese do not want to be pushed in the direction of a repressive China, but want to play their role in the global community.
The Sunflower students and their supporters want Taiwan to grow and flourish, but that can only happen if the country can play its full role internationally and not be hampered and inhibited by restrictions and constraints imposed by an undemocratic regime next door.
Taiwanese and the international community need to bet on the racehorse of freedom and democracy, and celebrate Taiwan’s unique identity and strengths.
Mei-chin Chen is a commentator based in Washington.