Taiwan, embrace resurfacing ideas

By Lai I-chung 賴怡忠  / 

Thu, Oct 24, 2013 - Page 8

The way in which cross-strait relations develop will influence Taiwan, Asia and perhaps the whole world, Former American Institute in Taiwan director William Stanton said recently at a talk about the strategic importance of Taiwan.

However, he said that if Taiwan becomes part of China, the US will no longer give it assistance. Stanton deserves credit for speaking so frankly.

Something worth celebrating about the lecture — titled the “Strategic Significance of Taiwan” — was that Stanton said it was based on a paper written by former Japanese diplomat Hisahiko Okazaki entitled The Strategic Value of Taiwan.

Stanton mentioned that this paper was delivered at the Tokyo Round of the Taiwan-US-Japan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue in 2003. That dialogue was the second of four forums that the Taiwan Thinktank started working on from Aug. 2002. Before he delivered the paper, Okazaki first gave it to the Taiwan Thinktank to make sure that the three countries all agreed with its contents.

Many ideas were presented during the forums. A lot of them changed the way strategists thought about cross-strait issues and allowed participants to gain a clearer understanding of the internal contradictions of Taiwanese who say there is only “one China,” as well as of the democratic developments that were taking place in Taiwan.

However, the benefits from these dialogues were not as good as originally expected, mainly because of variables and problems that cropped up and had not been foreseen by the participants. These hitches prevented all the hard work that had been put into preparing for the talks from being put to good use at the time.

Nobody would have guessed that the ideas presented at these talks would resurface a decade later, forming the basis for a talk by a senior US diplomat who was not even present for them.

This proves that Okazaki was right when he said that clear, correct strategic ideas stand the test of time, while trashy ideas that result from slavishly repeating what everyone else says and flattering those in power will be naturally eliminated over time.

One of the reasons Okazaki said this was because the ideas at the dialogues were not in the mainstream ideas in their proponents’ respective countries. The participants were engaged in battles with their peers at home on strategic issues. The cooperation between Taiwan, the US and Japan is not something to be taken for granted. Back then, thinking about Taiwan’s relations with Japan and the US was limited to the Taiwan-US-China and Taiwan-Japan-China frameworks.

President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government still adheres to this thinking and it was under such a framework that Ma came up with his idea that cross-strait relations are more important than international relations.

Given that the triangular structure was a mainstream idea in US and Japanese thinking, when the idea of including Taiwan in the US-Japan alliance was brought up, China experts in the US and Japan two nations opposed it.

While US experts on Japan and Japanese experts on the US had an open attitude, they were not sure how including Taiwan would affect them. The forums helped show that Taiwan is important and why the US and Japan need to cooperate with Taipei, instead of seeing Taiwan as a function of US-Japan or US-China relations. The forums gave Taipei food for thought in terms of strategies.

People often mistakenly think that cooperation between the three nations is aimed at containing China. However, that ignores the value of Taiwan. Even more importantly, it overemphasizes the China factor and puts cooperation between the US, Japan and Taiwan on an unstable foundation because there is no way to predict how each player might react to China or how each side will maintain its own interests.

Therefore, instead of cooperation between the three parties that is controlled by an external factor — China — it would be better to identify a common interest that binds the US, Japan and Taiwan. This is the only way to develop a basis for sustainable strategies.

The people involved in the four rounds of the strategic dialogues between 2002 and 2004 tried to persuade their governments to accept the new ideas. However, their proposals were met with strong resistance. Political appointees may have agreed in principle, but they did not know which policy tools to use to implement the strategies. Senior officials who could have formulated policies from the ideas were mostly resistant to the ideas.

Strangely enough, it was a few Japanese mid-level government officials who were most receptive to the ideas in private. A decade later, those receptive officials have moved up the ranks in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and some have become key security consultants to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

In the US, it was Washington’s “pan-Asian faction” — which believed that US-Asian policy should be based on alliances — that was more receptive, while US diplomats who handled everyday foreign affairs were more reserved. The US’ proposed pivot toward Asia has made the ideas initiated by the pan-Asian faction more easily accepted.

Oddly enough, Taiwan is now the one resisting. Hopefully, this will change soon. A mistaken policy will not survive forever just because Beijing supports it. Consider all the promises that Ma made about how opening up to China would bring wealth and prosperity. How many people still believe that?

Stanton’s speech proves the old adage that it takes at least a decade of hard work to achieve anything worthwhile. If that is so, perhaps it will not be too long before a successful outcome emerges from the dialogues.

Lai I-chung is a member of the Taiwan Thinktank executive committee.

Translated by Drew Cameron