The conventional wisdom on Taiwan’s status and its relations with other countries is that the “status quo” needs to be maintained. This adage has permeated official lingo over the past decade, and is often the mainstay of pronouncements by foreign observers.
However, the dynamics in the region are quickly changing: China is showing an increasing aggressiveness over territorial issues, which is changing the “status quo” in its direction. This has prompted a response from its neighbors and from the US, where President Barack Obama’s administration has initiated a “pivot” toward Asia. During this pivot, a narrow window of opportunity presents itself to enhance relations with Taiwan.
Taiwan has a very strategic position in all of this, given its location, and is a key link in the chain of democratic nations in the region.
However, because of its complex history, Taiwan is not treated in a “normal” fashion: The US does maintain economic and cultural relations with Taiwan, but for the rest the country lingers in diplomatic and political isolation. This is not good: In this fast-changing context the US needs Taiwan to be a strong partner, not a limp orphan.
The US and other Western nations therefore need to snap out of the fixation on the “status quo” and start moving toward treating Taiwan just like any other country. For all intents and purposes it is a country that in terms of population is bigger than three quarters of the member states of the UN.
Taiwanese have worked hard to achieve democracy, and may be wondering why they are still being sidelined by the international community. They may reluctantly accept the “status quo” as a temporary holding pattern, but if given a free choice they would certainly want to be accepted by the family of nations as an equal member.
In February last year, there was a very telling opinion poll by the pro-government TVBS: When asked whether Taiwanese favored unification with China, independence or the “status quo,” 61 percent of respondents dutifully answered that they supported the “status quo.”
However, when asked: “If the choice exists, would you want Taiwan to become an independent nation or be unified with China?” 68 percent chose “Taiwan independence” versus only 18 percent who chose “unification with China.”
It must be ensured that the “status quo” is changed in a positive direction, rather than allowing Taiwan to be pushed into an unwelcome embrace of an aggressive China. It is no one’s interest for Taiwan to be treated as a pawn to be traded. Rather than be treated as an “irritant,” Taiwan can be a full partner in resolving these regional disputes. To do this, the Obama administration and the US Congress need to be proactive in US policies toward Taiwan. Three areas are of particular importance.
First, it must be ensured that Taiwan has adequate means to defend itself, but also that it becomes a partner in a regional defense network, ensuring smooth communication and coordination in times of regional instability.
Second, in economic terms, the US should tie Taiwan more closely to the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership network. Taiwan itself of course needs to carry out the necessary economic restructuring, but there needs to be a political willingness on the part of the other partners to have Taiwan on board.
Third, the US needs to phase out the outdated political isolation imposed on the island because of its history, and work toward bringing Taiwanese in from the cold.
The present “status quo” is not good enough anymore.
Nat Bellocchi served as chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan from 1990 to 1995. The views expressed in this article are his own.