There has recently been much in the news about the comments of certain academics and strategists in senior positions in the US about minimizing commitment to Taiwan in the light of Chinese growth. Perhaps we should not be too influenced by this. It is likely to be just a phase set against the backdrop of a very long period of Chinese economic growth, a performance that cannot have gone unnoticed by US strategists from the 1990s.
However, neither must we preach complacency. Within Taiwanese party and presidential politics any premature radicalism in relations with China or on the official status of the nation could undo what we might call the “Three Great Works.”
The first of these is the measurable development of US capability and determination that still acts as a deterrence to China. The second is the slow, tortuous development of meaningful relations across the Taiwan Strait (the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, or ECFA, being the most obvious example) and is not subject to the whims of short-term electoral politics in Taiwan. The third is the equally slow and even more unsure evolution of genuinely critical, non-regime thinking and interests within China, based around the growth of a large, youthful middle class. The failure to detach the global information system from the fingertips of this high-consuming class — with its rising expectations concerning consumption, lifestyle and political liberty — and the economic need to draw more resources (especially labor) from the less developed areas of China have destabilized old ways of life just as it has spread growth, income and employment way beyond the original growth areas of the special economic zones and coastal regions.
As the world recovers from financial recession, witnesses civil outbreaks against a clutch of North African and Middle Eastern regimes and seeks to manage the global impact of strong economic and trade growth in China and India, any sudden policy changes in Taiwan based on emotionalism could well trigger sudden changes, with the same power to impact cross-strait relations as the sudden return to power of the old military wing in China.
We may not have any control over the latter, but in a young, democratic, thoughtful society like Taiwan, we do still have power over the former.
This is all very well, but what is the optimal strategy for Taiwanese politicians in Taiwan and around the world?
A first task might be to discuss the possible combined impact of the Three Great Works (US capability, improved commercial links across the Taiwan Strait and the growing weight of a critical Chinese middle-class) on Taiwan and our relationship with China. For instance, if we focus on improved commercial links, how might that affect US attitudes and actions? If we publicly attack China on major issues, how might that influence the attitudes of potential allies within the new Chinese middle-class?
This may seem unduly academic, but Taiwanese are increasingly thoughtful democrats and need some critical meat to feed on.
When every electoral race is limited by emotional blinkers then no one, including the electorate, can see the bigger picture or they forget it in the heat of the moment.
A second point of public discourse in Taiwan should be the potential uses of “soft power” (cultural and social suasion across the Chinese diaspora and in China) to encourage progressive thought within China, without in any way joining the US-led anti-China clamor over such issues as political freedom or environmental degradation — with its scandals and its international isolation in various global forums, the US has always appeared hypocritical on both issues.
The promotion of middle-class lifestyles should come naturally enough to Taiwan and there is a plethora of pathways to pursue this through exchanges, education and training programs, cultural exhibitions and exchanges, language and communication improvements, etc.
Using soft power in this way is not to be soft, it is to be sensible and protective of existing linkages, but in a manner that gives space for China to change without losing face.
In this way, Taiwan might become one of several Chinese windows into the future, a role that can be played without being subservient to the broader Chinese cultural system, which does, after all, embrace very important, sometimes powerful, groups in the US, Europe, Australia, Indonesia, as well as the immediate East Asian diaspora.
Public discussion at this level might well provide Taiwanese with their own democratic check list. When a politician proposes overthrowing, say, the ECFA, in the heat of nationalist discussion, check. When another politician suggests curtailing cultural relations with Chinese groups or institutions on flimsy grounds, check. When a third politician supports US-led anti-Chinese environmental policies, check. When anyone damns the US for not defending the inalienable right of Taiwan to independence, check.
Ian Inkster is professor of international history at Nottingham Trent University in the UK and professor of global history at Wenzao Ursuline College, Kaohsiung.
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