During the Cold War, Finland, a small country in the shadow of a powerful neighbor, was obliged to enter an agreement with the Soviet Union to guarantee her own preservation. In addition to military understandings, the agreement covered foreign relations and domestic issues.
With the former, it entailed avoiding dealings with countries the Soviets considered their enemies; at home, it entailed censorship of anything that might be considered anti-Soviet in nature. The Finns felt forced to make concessions in order to survive.
Lately their past predicament has been mentioned repeatedly in the media, which have likened it to the situation in which Taiwan finds itself. Are we, the discussion goes, in the process of “Finlandization”?
Finlandization, as a concept, has been discussed in Taiwan in the past, although it has never before been accepted by the mainstream as relevant to our own situation. Of course, the similarity between Taiwan and Cold War Finland is the factor of intimidation by a powerful neighbor. Both the pan-blue and pan-green camps, however, reject the comparison. If we want to look at why this is, we need to consider certain differences between the respective predicaments of Taiwan today and Finland back then.
The first involves the question of Taiwan’s sovereignty. In Finland’s case, the Soviet Union never actually laid claim to its territory or prevented the Finns from participating in international bodies.
Finland’s neutral, or even pro-Soviet, stance in foreign relations was entirely a result of their strategy of appeasing the Soviet Union: It didn’t have the risk of losing national sovereignty poised like an ax over their necks.
By comparison, China claims that Taiwan is a part of its territory and has consistently prevented Taiwan from taking part in international bodies, denying our very status as a nation. The difference here, then, is that Finland had its very survival at stake, while Taiwan stands to lose its sovereignty.
The second point concerns the degree of public opposition to the idea. With Finland, there was no danger of losing its sovereignty. When the Finnish government was formulating its policy toward the Soviet Union, it had several options and was open to debate.
With Taiwan, the idea of “Finlandization” with China is much more than just a simple public policy: It entails national identity and as such is sure to be highly contentious.
The rise of a Taiwanese identity since the advent of democratization has meant that any suggestion of Finlandization would be met with firm public opposition.
The third and final point involves the question of international allies. For a long time now, Taiwan has been a de facto ally of the US and Japan and, as part of the regional security network, has basically been a member of the US’ East Asia power system.
As soon as Taiwan strikes out along the road of Finlandization, choosing China over the US, it is going to change the regional power structure in East Asia. As far as Taiwan is concerned, that means throwing away the national security and diplomatic foundations it has developed over a long period of time. Once we have thrown in our lot with China, there will be no turning back.
It is for these reasons that the idea of Finlandization has never been taken further than discussion. No leader has actually attempted to adopt it as a model, nor proffered it as a challenge to Beijing’s “one China” principle. China wouldn’t even give tacit consent to such an idea, much less outright approval.
The US academic Bruce Gilley, writing in Foreign Affairs, has likened the current administration’s cross-strait policy in the past year and a half to a kind of Finlandization. In the article, he underestimates Beijing’s designs on Taiwanese sovereignty, just as he overestimates Taipei’s ability to resist.
That notwithstanding, Gilley’s article does serve as a stark warning and clearly demonstrates how the government’s overly China-friendly cross-strait policy has already reached a critical point. We are now seeing internal rifts appearing in society, with people seriously divided on the issue. We are also witnessing the erosion of the foundations of trust on which our old alliances are based.
If the government continues on this path and fails to find a balance, Washington may well take on Gilley’s ideas. If this happens, the US will freeze weapons sales to Taiwan and expel it from its group of Asian allies. It will give up on the idea of a neutral Taiwan. We shall have to say goodbye to a Taiwan supported by international powers. In the future it will no longer be a case of Finlandization, it will be more like “Hong Kongization.”
Huang Chih-ta is deputy director of the Democratic Progressive Party’s Department of International Affairs.
TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER
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