Not a crisis, but an opportunity

By Gerrit van der Wees  / 

Fri, Mar 01, 2019 - Page 8

On Feb. 15, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, wrote an article published by Project Syndicate titled “The Looming Taiwan Crisis.”

Haass stated that while traditionally, US policymakers worried that Taiwan would “upset the apple cart” by moving toward independence, stability in the region is now being jeopardized by China and the US.

He said that China’s economy is experiencing a significant slowdown, and that this could prompt Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) to turn to foreign policy — threatening Taiwan — to distract public attention from faltering GDP growth.

He also argued that the US under US President Donald Trump is “less protective of the diplomatic arrangements that have worked for the past 40 years” — the “one China” policy — and that Chinese assertiveness abroad and increased repression at home have led to a “good many Americans wanting ... to send the mainland a message and believe there is little to lose in doing so.”

Haass’ perspective is flawed for three fundamental reasons.

First, if the “one China” policy is such a “winning formula,” as he said, why is there still a problem? If the construct devised by then-US national security adviser Henry Kissinger and then-US president Richard Nixon had been so successful, then there would no longer be a problem, right?

Part of the problem is that US policy makes insufficient distinction between the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) “one China” principle, and the US’ “one China” policy.

In a US House of Representatives hearing in April 2004, then-US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs James Kelly attempted to clarify the difference when he was asked to define the “one China” policy.

He admitted the difficulty of defining the US’ position, saying: “I didn’t really define it, and I’m not sure I very easily could define it.”

“I can tell you what it is not. It is not the ‘one China’ principle that Beijing suggests,” he said.

Since then, the distinction has remained fuzzy at best, leading the PRC to believe that the US’ position is more or less aligned with its own.

The second flaw in Haas’ argument is that he takes insufficient account of the fact that Taiwan is very different from the Republic of China (ROC) of 1979.

When the current “one China” construct of formal ties with Beijing and informal ties with Taipei was established in the 1970s, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime in Taipei was still claiming to represent all of China.

However, in the early 1990s, Taiwan made a momentous transition to democracy and is no longer claiming to represent “China.”

The policies of the US and other democracies should have adapted to that new situation, but due to collective inertia, lack of vision and the China threat, they are still clinging to outdated concepts.

The third flaw in Haass’ argument is that he perceives any move to push the envelope of the “status quo” in Taiwan’s favor as “symbolic steps” that would elicit a strong response from China.

He describes the telephone call between President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and then-president-elect Trump, as well as a recent US Senate letter urging US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to invite Tsai to address a joint session of the US Congress in that way.

The problem with that argument is that he lets our response and decisions be dictated by an authoritarian China.

Should other democracies not be more clear in showing China that they support their fellow democracies, and make it clear that they will help defend Taiwan?

The vagueness of the “strategic ambiguity” lauded by Haass is actually extremely unhelpful and has prompted China to take a more aggressive stance.

In any case, symbolism is inextricably linked to the substance of diplomatic relations. If it were “only symbolic,” why would China make so much fuss about it?

Instead of retreating back to a flawed “one China” cocoon, the US and other democratic nations need to display a new vision and base their policies on the fact that Taiwan is a free and democratic nation that deserves to be a full and equal member of the international community.

Countries need to move away from the convoluted constructs of the past and move toward clear policies that have their basis in the principles of freedom, democracy and self-determination.

Taiwanese should be able to make a fully free decision about their own future.

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 to 2016 he served as editor of Taiwan Communique. He teaches history of Taiwan at George Mason University.