Taiwan at a critical turning point

By Tzou Jiing-wen 鄒景雯  / 

Thu, Sep 06, 2018 - Page 8

In Chinese intellectual circles, there is no shortage of people discussing whether China is reaching another turning point. While such talk is by no means part of the mainstream and might even contradict China’s decisionmakers, these people are seeing things clearer than anyone else.

To a Taiwanese hearing these voices of reflection, this is precious not because of the implication that China could be on the wane as a result of the reckless bravado of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) regime, but rather because it is a reminder that the present is also a turning point in the history of Taiwan.

Contemporary Taiwan has gone through quite a few turning points: Taiwan’s entanglement in the continuing conflict between the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 is one, and the establishment of the first directly elected government in 1996 is another.

More than 20 years later, another potential turning point is appearing due to the unexpected crumbling of China’s diplomatic strategies — after having been unchallenged for a long time — as the US calls on the world to steer Beijing toward a different course.

Over the past 20 years, a clear diplomatic boundary has been defined by the Three Joint Communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act. Regardless of whether Taiwan was ruled by the KMT or the Democratic Progressive Party and whether the Republican or Democratic party was in charge of the US government, anyone who crossed that boundary was seen as “a troublemaker.”

The divergence on economic and trade policy is even narrower: To “boldly go west” is the main tune that transcended the 16 years of the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) presidencies. Whoever went against this trend was branded a fundamentalist and labeled an anti-intellectual.

Today, the tables have been completely turned and those who set the rules of the game are now saying that those strategies have failed: Engagement must now be replaced by containment, heading to China is wrong and returning home is the right thing to do or you will be in trouble with the US Department of Treasury.

Scrolling through the long list of Washington’s political announcements, Taiwanese will find that US President Donald Trump is now saying what they have been saying for several decades, and that he is saying it loudly for the whole world to hear — surely Taiwanese will be pleased that what they have been saying is finally gaining traction.

Such good timing should of course never be taken for granted. If former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton had been elected US president as was widely expected, things would likely have developed along a very different path. This is why Taiwan now finds itself at a very rare and precious turning point.

Having found itself at this critical juncture, the key to whether Taiwan will undergo a thorough change or continue its downfall will be to use this respite to cultivate the nation’s power, a task that is not as complicated or burdensome as the Chinese complain that it is.

The National Development Council on Thursday last week released its latest population projections, covering this year to 2065, which should serve as the foundation for the nation’s administrative planning. The report reveals two urgent and fundamental problems.

The first problem is the crisis posed by a shortage of labor and human resources, both of which are vital to the nation’s economic development.

To solve this crisis, the government must adopt a more ambitious approach and compete for talent with other nations.

During the eight years of Ma’s presidency, Taiwan did not take the initiative on immigration and President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration has faced this protectionist stance over the past two years.

The government’s pace, scope and complementary measures in dealing with this problem are worrying people with knowledge and insight. Unless the government grabs the bull by the horns and handles this challenge properly and promptly, the nation can stop dreaming of anything long term.

The second problem has to do with national security — the challenge of maintaining an independent national defense system. With an aging society and a falling birthrate, a shortage of soldiers will unavoidably become a problem, which highlights the recklessness of introducing an all-volunteer army.

This has been the common goal of several successive governments, but it is up to the current government to resolve this issue. It must conduct a comprehensive review of the military service system in order to establish an effective military deterrent capability to ensure peace.

When the Chinese elite speak of a turning point, they are worried about whether their leader has a vision for the future. When Taiwanese see this turning point, it is an opportunity for the nation.

Taiwan must seize the moment and put it to the best possible use.

Tzou Jiing-wen is the editor-in-chief of the Liberty Times (the sister newspaper of the Taipei Times).

Translated by Chang Ho-ming