Sat, Jun 17, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan can play the long game

By Ben Goren

The decision by Panama to cut diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC) after nearly a century has dominated the news.

Reactions to this have included the usual fevered media speculation and goading, partisan glee at the alleged loss of face suffered by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and her government, chicken-little hand-wringing, indifference and even optimism that such derecognitions might be an avenue for Taiwan to finally shed the cumbersome skin of the ROC and emerge as itself, blinking into the fresh light of the international stage.

In the latter, presidential adviser Koo Kwang-ming (辜寬敏) has perhaps been the most explicit, arguing that the switch, which, it should be noted, had been a goal of Panama since at least 2009, was an opportunity for “the government to normalize the nation by seeking international recognition as ‘Taiwan’ instead of as the Republic of China.”

Koo is correct in his assessment of the trend of the ROC’s diplomatic position. There is no way to reverse the drip-drip loss of diplomatic allies and the remaining allies are all small players on the world stage who, despite valiant efforts over the years, have not halted the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) increasing influence in the UN and its regulatory bodies.

For Taiwan, the loss of these allies is more symbolic than substantive, and aside from more bureaucratic hurdles to conducting trade with these nations, both politically and economically, Taiwan has emerged from each loss relatively little better or worse than before.

If anything, the loss of these allies has reduced the amount of money Taiwanese taxpayers spend on medical and other support that has largely been a one-way street with little visibly gained for Taiwan in return.

As it stands, the only really deeply symbolic loss of relations would be if the Vatican switched recognition, something that remains an implausible outcome at least under the administration of the current pope.

However, Koo is wrong in his call for Tsai to normalize Taiwan by renaming the ROC as Taiwan and drafting a new constitution. This would be a deeply unwise move and it would undo and directly contradict Tsai’s careful strategy of allowing China to paint itself into its own corner of “victimhood,” thus in turn exposing its own increasingly unfair, illogical and unreasonable position toward Taiwan.

Koo says there should be no more talk of maintaining the “status quo,” but in doing so, he misunderstands how Tsai has painstakingly, and with great rhetorical self-discipline, recaptured the term from the KMT, which had under former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) reformulated it to equate Taiwan with being on an inevitable trajectory toward unification.

The “status quo” now once again means what it needs to mean: An ambiguous fudge that allows neither side of the Taiwan Strait to move rapidly in either direction.

Koo wants to scrap a fail-safe in cross-strait relations that acts as a canary in the coal mine for the influence of hardline annexationists among the government and military in China, and for independence advocates in Taiwan.

Now is not the time for such political adventurism, if only because it would inevitably invite a circling of the wagons of international opinion against Taiwan.

“Tensions Tsai” only has to make a telephone call for international media to be full of words such as “provocation,” “renegade province” and “sparking fears of” ad nauseam.

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