On Dec. 17, US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced that the US and Cuba would normalize relations after 53 years. It was the end of one of the last vestiges of the Cold War.
During this period, the US had isolated Cuba politically and economically in its attempts to bring about a change of government away from the Castro-led Communist regime. Obama felt, rightly so, that this policy was not working, and is now shifting to a policy of engagement.
However, there is still another vestige of anachronistic thinking around that dates back to the 1970s — the lack of diplomatic relations with Taiwan. At that time, Taiwan was ruled by Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), the losing side of the Chinese Civil War. Chiang had escaped China in 1949 and imposed his repressive regime on Taiwan, while continuing to claim to represent all of China.
In the 1970s, this claim became less tenable. In October 1971, Chiang’s representatives — who did not even represent Taiwan at the time, let alone China — were kicked out of the UN. In December 1978, then-US president Jimmy Carter decided to break relations with the Republic of China and establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China.
That break in relations further delegitimized the repressive KMT regime, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Taiwanese, under the guidance of Taiwan’s “Father of Democracy,” former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), brought about a momentous transition to democracy.
The fact that it now has a democracy should be a good reason for the US and other Western nations to normalize relations with Taiwan, and establish diplomatic relations with the nation. Instead, there is an endless reiteration of the “one China” mantra that perpetuates Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation.
The problem is of course that China persists in claiming sovereignty over Taiwan, threatening retribution if other nations move toward recognition of the country.
The answer lies not in kowtowing to China, but in convincing the rulers in Beijing that its own interests would be served best if it normalizes relations with Taiwan.
Accepting Taiwan as a friendly neighbor would be so much better than perpetuating the current hostile policies of blocking relations between Taiwan and other nations, and attempting to prevent Taiwan’s full membership in international organizations. This zero-sum game by China is indeed a relic of the past.
However, by itself, the current Chinese government will not easily deviate from the trodden path; authoritarian regimes rarely do. So it is essential for the US and other Western nations to make a concerted effort to open the way for diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
As was shown in Nov. 29’s nine-in-one elections, Taiwan is now a vibrant democracy in which the populace values good governance and transparency, and rejects the old ways of the past. Taiwanese have also made it abundantly clear that they want to be a full and equal member of the international family of nations.
If Obama can normalize relations with a regime that is still not democratic in Cuba, then certainly he can find ways to move toward normalization with a free and democratic Taiwan. That would be the kind of change everyone can believe in.
Mark Kao is president of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, a Taiwanese-American grassroots organization based in Washington.