Over the past few years, it has become commonplace for US officials to praise the “stability across the Taiwan Strait,” presumably brought about by the cross-strait rapprochement initiated by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
For example, during an April 4 hearing in the US Senate, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel 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.”
However, considering the broader picture, it is obvious that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has not pursued stability in the region, but on the contrary has become increasingly belligerent on a number of issues: differences with Japan over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), differences over territorial disputes with almost all nations bordering the South China Sea and most recently its mishandling of developments in Hong Kong over the procedure for the election of the territory’s chief executive in 2017.
In particular, Hong Kong provides a model for Taiwan: the repressive and undemocratic moves by Beijing show Taiwanese what would happen if the nation moved too close to China. The recent developments are a clear indication that rapprochement with Beijing on the basis of its current policies would be detrimental to Taiwan’s hard-won freedom and democracy.
How can the apparent contradiction be explained? An ostensibly benign and peaceful approach across the Taiwan Strait contrasted with an aggressive and much more assertive approach elsewhere?
The answer lies in the basic, but false, premise under which the current cross-strait rapprochement has taken place: The leaders in Beijing agreed to keep relations with Taipei on an even keel and proceed with a number of economic agreements because the Ma administration gave them the impression that this would gradually lead to unification.
However, those policies are now increasingly at odds with the aspirations of Taiwanese to remain free, defend their democracy and be a full and equal member of the international community.
Domestically, the KMT’s policies and actions have led to an erosion of democracy, as exemplified by a rather dysfunctional legislature and a judicial system that is too often prone to be used by the ruling party for political purposes, while the executive branch’s close ties with big business have also become increasingly apparent in various scandals.
Internationally, the Ma government and China have supposedly adhered to a “diplomatic truce” in which neither side would attempt to capture existing diplomatic recognition by third countries, but in reality, the PRC pushed hard to keep Taiwan from having any new diplomatic ties or any real representation in international organizations such as the WHO, the International Civil Aviation Organization and the UN.
Real stability across the Taiwan Strait can only be achieved if the leaders in Beijing understand that they need to accept Taiwan as a friendly neighbor, that they need to dismantle the more than 1,600 missiles aimed at the nation and that they need to agree to international space for Taiwan, so it can be a full and equal member in the international community.
The democratic Western nations can help bring about 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 KMT regime of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) perpetuated its outlandish claim to represent all of China. That was obviously not the case and led to the withdrawal of its international recognition.
However, since then, Taiwanese have made their momentous transition to democracy, so it is time to move away from old “one China” idea and move toward a new policy that accepts a vibrant democracy as a member of the international family of nations.
The Sunflower movement and Ma’s extremely low approval ratings clearly show that Taiwanese do not want to be pushed in the direction of a repressive China, but want to play a role in the global community.
Taiwanese at home and overseas want the nation to grow and flourish, but that can only happen if the country can play a full role internationally and not be hampered by restrictions imposed by an undemocratic regime next door, or by outdated “one China” policies in the West.
The US and other Western nations need to view Taiwan as a free democracy in its own right and move toward new policies that lead to normalization of relations with the nation. Only if Taiwan is accepted as a full and equal member by all its neighbors, including China, will there be true stability in the East Asia region.
Mark Kao is president of the Washington-based Formosan Association for Public Affairs.
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