Several US academics have argued in recent articles that the US should distance itself from Taiwan because China’s power and influence are rising and it would become more “costly” for the US to maintain close ties with Taipei, and in particular maintain its defense obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act.
Charles Glaser of George Washington University argued along those lines in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, while Bob Sutter, also of GWU, recently painted an equally gloomy picture, saying that the rise of China is giving Beijing leverage over Taiwan, and in light of Taiwan’s weakening positions in economic and military strength and the diplomatic front, the status quo is becoming unsustainable and Taiwan has very limited options for its future and unification with China is deemed inevitable.
The academics seem to make two assumptions: first, that the rise of China is unstoppable and the US needs to adjust its policy to accommodate Beijing’s increasing influence on the international stage; and second, that given China’s economic and military power, Chinese annexation of Taiwan is a foregone conclusion.
Neither of these assumptions takes account of the most important reason for US support for Taiwan — that Taiwan is a democracy and that China is still ruled by an authoritarian regime. If the US wants democracy to prevail in East Asia, it needs to be more assertive in its support for a democratic nation like Taiwan.
If the US wants China to become democratic, it needs to maintain a vibrant democracy on its doorstep. Right under the surface in China, people are clearly longing for a more free and open political system. Hundreds of human rights activists are languishing in prison, including Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波). In recent months, China has, in an effort to prevent anything similar to the revolutions spreading across the Arab world, intensified repressive measures and arrested and imprisoned more human rights activists, journalists, Internet bloggers and artists.
The basic conclusion is that China will not become democratic if the US gives up on Taiwan. However, the scenario of Taiwan’s eventual unification with China is also totally out of step with the aspirations of Taiwanese. A recent opinion poll conducted by the Global Views survey center showed that nearly 70 percent of respondents rejected unification with China, and given a free choice, would opt for independence.
At this point, the people of Taiwan can still say what they want, in spite of China’s military threat and intimidation. In less than eight months, on Jan. 14, Taiwanese are going to the polls to elect a new president.
The choice is clear: the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has maneuvered Taiwan into closer orbit with China, while the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wants to retain Taiwan’s freedom and democracy, and — if elected — would steer the nation toward a more balanced policy, seeking closer cooperation with the US and other democracies like Japan.
Taiwan is at a critical juncture in its history. Recent opinion polls have shown that DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), the first female presidential candidate in the history of Taiwan, is in a good position to win the presidency. In a recent Forbes article, she was described as a pathfinder and a creative thinker who has proposed practical and moderate approaches to dealing with China.
Instead of distancing itself from this budding democracy, the US should be more supportive of democracy in Taiwan and respect the aspirations of Taiwanese to continue to live in freedom and democracy.
Chen Mei-chin is a commentator in Washington.