Geography is not fate; Taiwan still has options

By Nat Bellocchi 白樂崎  / 

Mon, Aug 15, 2011 - Page 8

Over the past few months, we have seen several articles by US academics advocating that the US back away from its commitments to Taiwan (Charles Glaser, et al) and others who suggested that the US “rethink” its relations with Taiwan. I have taken strong issue with these suggestions (“Charles Glaser’s fallacious arguments,” March 7, page 8 and “There’s no need for US to ‘rethink’ on Taiwan,” April 14, page 8).

Now comes Bob Sutter, of George Washington University, who argues that Taiwan’s freedom of action is diminishing, as Taiwan has gravitated into China’s orbit because of three sets of factors: one, China’s rise and its ever-growing economic, military and political leverage over Taiwan; two, Taiwan’s relative weakness as a result of its decreasing importance and its internal divisions; and three, eroding US support.

While I don’t quite agree with the full thrust of Sutter’s analysis, he raises an important question.

First let me explain where his analysis is incorrect, or at best incomplete. He gives insufficient weight to the element of democracy in Taiwan, both in terms of the role it played — and still plays — in US support and in terms of shaping the national debate in Taiwan on its future.

Taiwan’s transition to democracy in the 1980s and early 1990s was and is a major factor in US support for Taipei. In fact, the US Congress played a key role, with prominent members like former senators Ted Kennedy, Claiborne Pell and Jacob Javits and representatives Stephen Solarz, Gerald Solomon and Jim Leach in the forefront. This group expressed support for Taiwan in its own right, and not as a subset of relations with China. In his analysis Sutter describes several lines of thinking in the US — ranging from the Henry Kissinger “realists” to the staunch anti--communists — but seems to neglect this important aspect and the prominent role it has played.

Democracy in Taiwan, while still young and incomplete, is also turning out to be a major factor in the debate about the nation’s future. During the Democratic Progressive Party administration of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), it put a brake on how far he could go, while during the past three years it has reduced the room for maneuver of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration.

It remains to be seen what mandate voters give the president and legislature to be elected in January, but the era of democracy has shown that the Taiwanese do want a choice. They want to choose how to lead their daily lives and they want a choice in the nation’s future.

The important question raised by Sutter is: Does Taiwan have a choice? He presents a number of arguments, pointing to the erosion of the nation’s freedom of action. These are weighty arguments, but do they present the whole picture?

Yes, China’s rise has significantly increased its leverage over Taiwan, but will this rise continue?

He refers to Taiwan’s internal divisions as a sign of weakness. Yes, that may be the case, but by all accounts it is a vibrant democracy and come January, Taiwan’s voters could surprise us.

Finally, Sutter’s assessment that support for Taiwan in Congress is dwindling. I cannot agree: The two congressional letters to US President Barack Obama urging him to move forward with the F-16C/D sale — the Senate one signed by 45 senators and the House of Representatives letter by 181 representatives — are a clear example of broad underlying support in the US.

If push comes to shove, I am sure the US will be there for Taiwan, to ensure Taiwanese are free to decide their own future. Taiwan is of strategic importance to the US because it is an anchor for democracy in East Asia.

Nat Bellocchi is a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan. The views expressed in this article are his own.