Dennis Hickey’s article “Time to review US policy on Taiwan?” in the Aug. 5 edition of The Diplomat came across as more than the standard cry for regular and needed government policy review. Since few would argue that government policies do not need periodic review, where is the problem?
What makes Hickey’s effort problematic are the thoughts and suggestions that lie between the lines of his compilation of conflicting half-truths and innuendos: Here one senses that the author is doing more than raising the issue of review. He comes across as a man looking for a job, ie, he implies that not only should there be thoughtful US inter-agency governmental debate, but he should be on the advisory panel of such a debate. Why? He feels a need for a more pro-China slant in the review, as if there was not enough there in the first place.
For starters, has the US policy on Taiwan really been “frozen in time” as Hickey implied, or is Hickey only giving us this as one of his many half-truths?
Anyone who knows US policy realizes that, yes, the “strategic ambiguity” of Washington’s stance being “undecided” for more than 70 years is what keeps a frozen but still utilitarian format. On security measures this has changed regularly, so much so that perhaps the Taiwan Relations Act needs to be improved.
Hickey asked questions about Taiwan, but were his questions the right ones or was he asking in order to create need? Too often in his argument, Hickey played on US citizens’ fears of conflict with China like an insurance salesman who shows buyers illustrations of buildings going up in flames. This is simply sales technique and gimmickry.
In this, Hickey’s prime justification for requesting a review of the US’ Taiwan policy seems to be that because of the many pressing problems that the US faces, it needs China’s help. It needs it in a global economy, environmental degradation, health and energy issues, and North Korea, among many others. Because Washington will need cooperation with China in these, should it therefore placate Beijing to get it to cooperate? Did it placate Russia in the past?
A different question here is: What if China, with its expansionist ambitions, is actually a major cause of, or contributor to, these problems? How do you beg for cooperation in that scenario?
For example, how could the US get cooperation on pollution from one of the greatest polluters in the world when that nation’s economy depends on the means that produce pollution? Nestled behind this is greed, which is a different issue. Hickey played to those who know that there is still money to be made in China.
Like many traditional academics who do not want to hinder their access to the Chinese market, Hickey consistently declines to face off against China as one of the real sources of world problems. Instead, the new gambit is that Beijing must be cooperated with.
This seems to be standard fare for Hickey in his other writings, where he often tries to play both ends against the middle, while not offending China. In a different work, North Korea should not be taken lightly, but China can help in dealings with Pyongyang only if the US placates struggling China’s wishes and does not interfere.
Regarding Taiwan, Hickey repeated the standard meme that cross-strait relations have supposedly reached a zenith under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Yet here he also played both ends against the middle. First he said that Beijing’s major complaint against the US is Washington’s arms support of Taiwan. Reversing his position, he adds that under Ma’s administration, Taiwan has decreased its military budget. Although Taiwan has not been buying that much from the US, this has not created any gain in pleasing China. Should the US consider stopping sales altogether?
Despite this, Hickey does not see Beijing’s constant build-up of its threatening arsenal as a problem. For some reason, this is not seen as a threat to regional stability. Hickey instead uses China’s arms advances to suggest that the US think twice about conflict.
A different but related innuendo Hickey presented is the falsehood and fear that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) seeks to entrap the US in a war. How so? Should not the question be: What wars has the US been lured into in the past? Who exactly trapped the US into the real wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Was Baghdad really stockpiling weapons of mass destruction? Were promoting democracy and helping free those nations of dictators not used as supplementary support for war?
Iraq and Afghanistan seem to have difficulty establishing a democracy. Yet pursuit of democracy was used to justify the US’ involvement. Why did Hickey suggest that the US should abandon democracy in Taiwan, a nation with an established democracy?
To be fair, Hickey never actually said to abandon Taiwan, he only said policy should be revised. By throwing out a number of half truths, Hickey attempted to unify all his suggestions under this vague argument about rethinking policies. While Hickey’s aim might have been to be put on an advisory panel on the Taiwan issue, even his innuendos betrayed a Taiwan bias of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) over the DPP. The DPP were the bad guys seeking to “rebrand” themselves in Taiwan, so should not abandoning it also be on the table? In this, Hickey went as far as to suggest that it might be the DPP that has abandoned democracy. Has he ever proven that the KMT has actually “endorsed” democracy?
Taiwan is a thriving democracy, which even American Institute in Taiwan Chairman Raymond Burghardt admits is the US’ 10th-largest trading partner. So why should the US abandon Taiwan to gain cooperation from troublemaking nations like China?
The world is changing, Hickey said. No argument on that. Many of the problems of the 1970s are obsolete, he said. Again, no problem. In this changing world, what are the real issues that the US faces and the real questions that should be asked? The Russia threat that former US president Richard Nixon and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger tried to use to sell out Taiwan is obviously not part of the equation now. The problem is China, not Russia. That is where the rethinking should be.
Hickey avoided the growing tensions over the South and East China seas. He falsely suggested that the US might be the only one that would come to Taiwan’s aid if attacked? No “coalition of the willing” here? What about Japan, whose security is definitely linked to a free, democratic Taiwan? Perhaps all this would be brought into consideration when Hickey is appointed to the advisory panel he seems to be angling for.
Almost as if intentionally planned by The Diplomat, the next day there was a response to Hickey by J. Michael Cole, a former Taipei Times deputy news editor, titled: “Two myths about Taiwan’s DPP that need to be laid to rest.” You don’t get a one-day response if it is not planned. Does The Diplomat need more readers? What is the angle here?
In his response, Cole suggested that it is Hickey himself who might be lost in the 1970s as far as Taiwan is concerned. As for the present, Hickey is “naive” and even avoided talking about gangster groups supporting the KMT. Cole is of course paid to defend DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), and despite any disclaimers he might declare about his views, it is obvious he is not going to upset his main paycheck. Nonetheless, that does not in itself take away from his arguments.
However, Cole’s response still had its own unfortunate vagaries and innuendos. He rightfully defended Tsai from the absurd challenge that the DPP is manipulating civic groups, but he did it in his usual, self-aggrandizing way and played to the old memes by saying that the DPP is “no longer the party that gave headaches to the US”; it is not as “contentious as in the past” under former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). This implies that like good little boys and girls, Taiwan has learned its lessons from the US — which in one sense is true in that the DPP has learned how to play the game as the KMT did — but it still threw Chen under the bus and avoided the issue that the real source of past problems might have been the US’ own advisers.
Cole admitted that some ardent pan-green supporters question Tsai’s intentions, but then he fed that ambiguity. He assured readers that the DPP and the US are on the same page on important issues, but avoided defining what those important issues are. For obvious reasons, Cole did not want to or need to go near the dreaded “I” word, which is a different kettle of fish. Yet in the end, he did little but say: “Trust us,” almost in the same way that Hickey said: “Trust me to be your adviser.”
As Taiwan supporters sift through the he-said, she-said controversy presented in The Diplomat, they will have the feeling that they have been “set up” in its process of an online magazine pleasing both sides. That said, it does not take away from the fact that Taiwan has a vibrant democracy, one that should not be endangered by short-term economic goals, and certainly one that should not be threatened by angling “useful fools,” as Hickey appears to be.
Jerome Keating is a commentator in Taipei.
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