One of the key components of Beijing’s policy on Taiwan and Tibet has been to internalize the problems and to fight efforts by so-called “separatists” to internationalize them. As the Chinese government accused in Question 38 of the 100 Questions about Tibet booklet it published in 1989, the Dalai Lama has aimed “to internationalize the Tibet Question” through his “New Proposal” of 1988 and meetings with leaders of other countries, efforts that continue to be met with the strongest of opposition by Beijing.
In Taiwan’s case, Beijing started paying close attention to Taipei’s attempts to internationalize the Taiwan Strait issue when Taipei began using its considerable economic clout under former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) to launch, as author David Lampton argues in The Making of Chinese Foreign and Security Policy, an “aggressive campaign” to expand its foreign relations. This sparked the checkbook diplomacy tussle between Taipei and Beijing in Africa, the Asia-Pacific region and South America.
Speaking at a forum on cross-strait developments organized by the Brookings Institution and National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations on Dec. 4, University of Hong Kong professor Richard Weixing Hu (胡偉星), representing the view from China, said Beijing’s focus should increasingly be on de-internationalizing the Taiwan question and institutionalizing, or internalizing, it.
The rationale behind this approach makes perfect sense, as the more internal the Taiwan question becomes for China, the easier it will be for Beijing to placate efforts, in Taiwan and abroad, to sustain Taiwan as a sovereign entity or argue for its defense. A successful bid to sell the story of Taiwan as a domestic matter would also make it easier for Beijing to use force, just as Moscow has managed to evade international opprobrium by portraying Chechnya as a domestic problem.
Under the administrations of Lee and former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), Beijing’s efforts to deny Taiwan the international space it coveted were met with resistance and countermoves by Taipei. There are signs, however, that under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), Beijing may find it easier to internalize the Taiwan question, with Taipei becoming more flexible on designations used for Taiwan in international bodies or in applications for membership in such organizations.
The latest instance of this decline was the change in the designation at the Asian Development Bank, from “Republic of China” to “Taipei, China.” Behind the scenes, Beijing has also continued to apply pressure on the private and semi-private sectors to refer to Taiwan as a “province of China.”
Beijing and Taipei’s apparent decision to circumvent the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species by treating the gift of a pair of pandas as a “domestic transfer” to expedite the process, though seemingly innocuous, would help reinforce the impression, both in the public eye and in legal documentation, that Taiwan is a domestic issue.
Equally worrying was the Ma administration’s removal of Republic of China flags from the Grand Formosa Hotel and in other parts of Taipei during last month’s visit by Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), as were the ostensible directives to law-enforcement authorities to prevent demonstrators from displaying symbols of nationhood at venues frequented by the Chinese envoy.
While the Ma administration would like us to believe that its meek response to, or flexibility on, designations that denigrate Taiwan’s sovereign status is part of its “rational” approach to cross-strait talks, it plays right into Beijing’s internalization strategy, and though the Chinese leadership may give Taipei bits and pieces to maintain the illusion of equanimity and goodwill, there is no doubt that in the long run the plan is to systematically de-internationalize the Taiwan question. This approach is very much in line with Hu’s paradoxical claim on Dec. 4 that as Beijing de-internationalizes the Taiwan question it must also find ways to give Taipei more space.
If Taiwan is to survive as an independent sovereign entity, every effort must be made to ensure that it remains an international problem, even if, for the first time in decades, such efforts must be made without government help. In other words, we may be presented with a case of sub-state actors being called upon to save the state from itself.
This will mean reaching out to Taiwanese communities overseas, governmental and NGOs, academics and the media, to keep Taiwan alive in people’s consciousness. Given the state’s ability — and the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) proclivity — to influence or control the media, these empowered individuals will need to make the fullest use of digital broadcasting — Facebook, Web blogs, YouTube and others — as well as more traditional means such as conferences, public relations campaigns, eye-catching events, movies, music and literature, to reach out, fire up people’s imagination and “sell” Taiwan to the world.
Already, the Wild Strawberries Student Movement has demonstrated that through persistence and imagination, and thanks to new technologies, groups with little financial means and without the support of the state can transcend borders, defy the authorities and engender interest abroad.
If the Ma administration won’t do it, the people can. Taiwan must remain an international issue.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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