‘Flashpoint’ narrative must change

By Gerrit van der Wees  / 

Fri, Nov 23, 2018 - Page 8

Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard University, got it wrong, again. In a Nov. 9 article on WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and the Washington Post, Allison took the commemoration of the end of World War I as an opportunity to elaborate further on his “Thucydides Trap” theory, pitting a rising power — China — against an established power — the US.

In the article, professor Allison described Taiwan as a major flashpoint, because, as he wrote: “For China, Taiwan is a “core interest” — regarded as much a part of China as Alaska is to the United States. Any attempt by Taiwan to become an independent country could easily become a casus belli. In 1996, when the Taiwanese government took initial steps toward independence, China conducted extensive missile tests bracketing the island to coerce it to stop.”

The problem is that professor Allison rather recklessly adopts the Chinese narrative on how it sees Taiwan and fails to present the facts as they are: In its long history, Taiwan was never part of the People’s Republic of China. The main point lost on the leaders in Beijing — and professor Allison — is that during the 1980s and 1990s, Taiwan morphed into a vibrant democracy that wants to live in peace with all its neighbors, including China, and wants to be accepted as an equal member of the international community.

So what narrative should we follow if we want to avoid a major conflict? That is what professor Allison professes to try to achieve with his essay. For one, his essay is titled “The next great war.” If one wants to push for peace, then it might be helpful to start with another title. How about “The next great peace”?

If professor Allison, and others like him who have rather carelessly used the Taiwan case to bolster their “realist” theories, such as George Washington University professor Charles Glaser and University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, it would be more constructive to analyze and present ways and scenarios that would lead to the peaceful coexistence of Taiwan and China.

For this to happen, it would be necessary for three parallel processes to take place:

First, the rulers in Beijing must look at Taiwan in a new light. Chinese leaders need to move away from the old animosities, contradictions and perceptions dating from the Chinese Civil War, which ended 69 years ago.

Beijing needs to understand that the perpetuation of the current zero-sum strategy of military, economic and political pressure is not conducive to cross-strait relations, and that peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait can only be achieved if China moves toward acceptance of Taiwan as a friendly neighbor.

Second, the international community must reimagine its Taiwan relations. Taking into account that democratic Taiwan is not the same as the repressive Republic of China of 1971. The US and western Europe in particular need to look at Taiwan in its own light and its own right. Taiwan needs to be brought in from the cold of political isolation and relations must be normalized. Under the principle of universality, Taiwan must be supported as a full and equal member in the international family of nations.

Third, in due time and at its own pace, Taiwan needs to reinvent itself. Through a process of democratic reforms, Taiwan needs to adjust the administrative, legislative, judicial and constitutional structure to fit present-day needs and realities.

Instead of the narrative of “Taiwan as a flashpoint,” Allison and others need to focus on these three interrelated processes, which provide a constructive way forward for Taiwan to have a bright future as a free and democratic nation that is accepted as a full and equal member of the international community.

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016 he was editor of Taiwan Communique, a publication chronicling Taiwan’s momentous transition to democracy. He teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University in Virginia.