The recent developments and discussions in Taiwan regarding the cross-strait service trade agreement with China emphasise an important dilemma: Does the country’s path toward liberalization, globalization and a place in regional trade bodies go through Beijing or not?
There is no doubt that during past decades Beijing has been a major stumbling block for Taiwan’s development of better economic — and to an even greater degree, political — ties with other nations.
Time and again, Beijing has obstructed Taiwan’s participation in a myriad of organizations and agreements, claiming that Taiwan should be considered a part of China.
This Chinese claim does not have any legal or factual basis. Taiwan has been ruled independently for more than six decades, while until 1945 it was a Japanese colony. Also, Taiwan’s transition to democracy in the late 1980s consolidated its existence as a free and democratic nation that can justifiably claim equal treatment as a member of the international community.
That Taiwan has not been accorded this equal treatment is solely due to political pressure from a rising China, which is preventing other nations from developing normal relations with Taiwan.
So how does Taiwan break out of this isolation imposed on it by a large and undemocratic neighbor?
One way would be to attempt to accommodate Beijing and seek its agreement through the establishment of closer economic and cultural ties.
This is basically the present approach.
Some observers think that Taiwan should “take a chance” with China by moving closer to it economically. They say that the road to liberalization goes through Beijing.
I disagree. That approach is fraught with danger, as it makes Taiwan increasingly dependent on the whims of a Chinese regime that is pertinently undemocratic and has not shown itself to be a constructive player in the international community.
As we have seen with Tibet, East Turkestan and Hong Kong, once a territory is firmly in China’s orbit, there is very little regard for basic freedoms or democracy.
This accommodating approach also exposes Taiwan’s economy to significant dangers if and when there is a downturn in China’s economy. Many prominent analysts such as George Soros are predicting that it is simply a matter of time.
Taiwan thus urgently needs to diversify outward from its economic dependence on China.
So, the road to liberalization and globalization obviously does not lead through Beijing. On the contrary, the path should be based on a clear and stated conviction on the part of Taiwan that it intends to play a full role internationally, and on acceptance of Taiwan by the international community as an equal player.
Taiwan will be taken seriously internationally if it can present itself as a significant player, both economically and politically.
It does need to open its economy to the world, but it can do that best by establishing better trade and investment ties with other democratic countries in the region, such as Japan, South Korea and nations like the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, and of course the US and Western Europe. Diversification is the word.
Credibility as a trading partner will also be enhanced if it is seen as a fully functional democracy, if the political system is seen to have adequate checks and balances and trade agreements are handled with transparency, balance and fairness.
Taiwan’s international marginalization and political isolation can end, but it requires more vision in Taipei as well as Washington.
Gerrit van der Wees is editor of Taiwan Communique, a publication based in Washington.
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