US needs to help protect free choice in Taiwan

By Nat Bellocchi 白樂崎  / 

Wed, Nov 09, 2011 - Page 8

It has become commonplace for Western observers to applaud the current rapprochement across the Taiwan Strait and praise the “relaxation of tension” it has brought. One example is the statement by Peter Lavoy, the acting US assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, at the US House of Representatives’ hearing entitled “Why Taiwan Matters” on Oct. 4.

“We welcome these initiatives [by President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government] and the relaxation of tension in the Taiwan Strait that has accompanied the improvement of cross-strait relations,” Lavoy said.

However, a closer analysis shows a picture that is perhaps less rosy. Looking at the broader picture, China has been more belligerent recently on issues such as the South China Sea and the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) and has hardly been cooperative when it comes to reining in repressive regimes such as those in Iran and Syria. So much for being a responsible stakeholder.

So, has China really been “reducing tension” when it comes to Taiwan? In my view, this is a false perception: Reality shows that the leadership in Beijing, and certainly the People’s Liberation Army, has become quite aggressive vis-a-vis its much smaller neighbors

It is perhaps “softer” on Taiwan because it feels that the present course of relations is conducive to its goals of nudging the country into its economic and political orbit. In other words, it is not making waves about Taiwan because it feels that the country is already moving toward “unification.”

However, is this what Taiwanese want? They have worked hard for their democracy and are not about to give that up in favor of incorporation in, or association with, a repressive China. They like good relations with Beijing, but at a safe distance.

In the view of many in Taiwan, the present approach leads to something that is “too close for comfort.”

Opinion polls in Taiwan have shown that people support the “status quo,” which in practical terms means they are a free and democratic nation that elects its own president and parliament. Taiwanese do lament the political isolation into which they have been pushed and expect that their international space can be increased over time.

However, what do they really want in the long term? An opinion poll by TVBS in February was — inadvertently perhaps — very enlightening on this point. To the question: “If the choice exists, would you want Taiwan to become an independent nation or to be unified with China?” 68 percent of respondents chose Taiwanese independence, while 18 percent preferred unification with China, with the remainder having no opinion.

So the question becomes: Does the US want Taiwanese to have freedom of choice? If the US remains faithful to its principles of democracy and adherence to the concept of self-determination as enshrined in the UN Charter, then the answer is “Yes.”

For that to happen, the US needs policies that are not based on a false sense of short-term relaxation in tensions, but rather ones that lay the groundwork for long-term stability based on mutual respect and recognition, respect for Taiwan’s democracy as a basis for its decisionmaking and recognition of Taiwan’s existence as a free and democratic nation.

A prime objective of US policy should be to establish the conditions for a fully free and open choice for Taiwanese regarding their future. The US needs to do more than the piecemeal, hesitant approach it has been following until now.

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