At his year-end press conference on Friday last week, US President Barack Obama touched on a wide range of issues, from Russian hacking during the US presidential election, the civil war in Syria and impending fall of Aleppo, to the highly improved employment situation in the US.
For the people in Taiwan, his most memorable remarks came during the question-and-answer session, when Mark Landler of the New York Times asked him if he agreed that the US’ “one China” policy could use a fresh set of eyes and what was the big deal with having a short telephone call with the president of Taiwan.
In his answer, Obama actually started off alright: He acknowledged that “all of our foreign policy should be subject to fresh eyes,” that “America benefits from some new perspectives” and that “it is not just the prerogative, but the obligation of a new president to examine ... and see what makes sense and what doesn’t.”
However, he then dug himself into the old “one China” rabbit hole by elaborating how “there has been a long-standing agreement, essentially, between China, the United States and, to some degree, the Taiwanese, which is to not change the status quo.”
Obama then added: “Taiwanese have agreed that as long as they are able to continue to function with some degree of autonomy that they won’t charge forward and declare independence.”
In making this statement, Obama overlooks a pretty fundamental point: He fails to take into account that Taiwanese were not part of the “agreement.” It was made over their heads between Beijing and Washington, imposing on them a second-class status and international isolation.
Fortunately, between 1979 and now, Taiwanese forged a momentous transition to democracy, which does mean that they are now ready and able to take their place as a full and equal member in the international community.
The new “status quo” is that Taiwan functions with full autonomy and is for all intents and purposes a free, democratic and independent nation. The problem is of course that the US’ “one China” policy has not really kept up with new reality on the ground.
So, instead of clinging to vague concepts and fuzzy understandings dating back to the 1970s — arrived at over the heads of Taiwanese — why does the US (and western Europe) not start thinking of a way to normalize relations with Taiwan and thereby move toward more sustainable peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait?
It is essential for the US and western Europe to start seeing Taiwan in its own light and in its own right: a free and open democracy, a vibrant and innovative economy, and a strategically important partner in the East Asia region.
Mr Obama: This is really change we can believe in.
The problem is also that China is now challenging the “new status quo” in the Taiwan Strait by trying to isolate Taiwan even further and by threatening military moves if Taiwan does not fall into line.
For China it is important to move toward a new mindset and stop looking at Taiwan as a piece of unfinished business dating from the Chinese Civil War.
Beijing should take advantage of this window of opportunity and start working toward a positive and constructive relationship across the Taiwan Strait in which the two nations would work toward the normalization of relations and eventually recognize each other as friendly neighbors.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat and former editor of Taiwan Communique who now teaches History of Taiwan at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virgina.
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