The decision by Panama to cut diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC) after nearly a century has dominated the news.
Reactions to this have included the usual fevered media speculation and goading, partisan glee at the alleged loss of face suffered by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and her government, chicken-little hand-wringing, indifference and even optimism that such derecognitions might be an avenue for Taiwan to finally shed the cumbersome skin of the ROC and emerge as itself, blinking into the fresh light of the international stage.
In the latter, presidential adviser Koo Kwang-ming (辜寬敏) has perhaps been the most explicit, arguing that the switch, which, it should be noted, had been a goal of Panama since at least 2009, was an opportunity for “the government to normalize the nation by seeking international recognition as ‘Taiwan’ instead of as the Republic of China.”
Koo is correct in his assessment of the trend of the ROC’s diplomatic position. There is no way to reverse the drip-drip loss of diplomatic allies and the remaining allies are all small players on the world stage who, despite valiant efforts over the years, have not halted the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) increasing influence in the UN and its regulatory bodies.
For Taiwan, the loss of these allies is more symbolic than substantive, and aside from more bureaucratic hurdles to conducting trade with these nations, both politically and economically, Taiwan has emerged from each loss relatively little better or worse than before.
If anything, the loss of these allies has reduced the amount of money Taiwanese taxpayers spend on medical and other support that has largely been a one-way street with little visibly gained for Taiwan in return.
As it stands, the only really deeply symbolic loss of relations would be if the Vatican switched recognition, something that remains an implausible outcome at least under the administration of the current pope.
However, Koo is wrong in his call for Tsai to normalize Taiwan by renaming the ROC as Taiwan and drafting a new constitution. This would be a deeply unwise move and it would undo and directly contradict Tsai’s careful strategy of allowing China to paint itself into its own corner of “victimhood,” thus in turn exposing its own increasingly unfair, illogical and unreasonable position toward Taiwan.
Koo says there should be no more talk of maintaining the “status quo,” but in doing so, he misunderstands how Tsai has painstakingly, and with great rhetorical self-discipline, recaptured the term from the KMT, which had under former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) reformulated it to equate Taiwan with being on an inevitable trajectory toward unification.
The “status quo” now once again means what it needs to mean: An ambiguous fudge that allows neither side of the Taiwan Strait to move rapidly in either direction.
Koo wants to scrap a fail-safe in cross-strait relations that acts as a canary in the coal mine for the influence of hardline annexationists among the government and military in China, and for independence advocates in Taiwan.
Now is not the time for such political adventurism, if only because it would inevitably invite a circling of the wagons of international opinion against Taiwan.
“Tensions Tsai” only has to make a telephone call for international media to be full of words such as “provocation,” “renegade province” and “sparking fears of” ad nauseam.
Former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) learned this the hard way, despite having actually taken a far more conciliatory approach in cross-strait relations than he is ever credited for.
Why would Tsai want to hand such an easy victory to those, especially in the West, who have spent the past two decades placating China and platforming Beijing’s talking points across investment-compromised media outlets and think tanks?
Conversely, there is no denying that the “status quo” cannot be a permanent substitute for peaceful Taiwan-China relations or replacement in lieu of a transitional justice that sees Taiwan finally free of 400 years of colonial occupation.
However, for the moment, it remains as what currently works best in a bad, and arguably slowly worsening, situation.
Furthermore, calls for a new constitution are simply politically unfeasible. Despite the Democratic Progressive Party’s historic and large majority, even if the party had the numbers to pass a new constitution in the legislature, it would still have to be put to a referendum.
The KMT and its allies would ensure, as they did in 2004, that the referendum would fail.
Meanwhile, having failed to pass the referendum, the entire process would give the Chinese Communist Party the perfect pretext to use Taiwan as an excuse to divert attention from its own crumbling authority and maladministration.
The Chinese state is oppressive and hegemonic, it is brutally occupying Tibet and East Turkestan, and it is directly responsible for slaughtering hundreds of its own citizens who gathered peacefully in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
At the same time, its immediate collapse would also entail widespread political, economic and environmental damage that would have immediate and devastating impacts that would be felt globally.
While people should all aspire to fair and representational governance and reform that frees people from injustice and oppression, they should also be careful what they wish for. It is wise to remember that “May you live in interesting times” is not a positive adage for the age of instant news and commentary, but an age-old curse.
Perhaps the best response for the Tsai government is to remember that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Rather than undo the work put in thus far, Taiwan could build on and extend Tsai’s nuanced and creative approach to cross-strait relations.
One way would be for Taiwan to remodel relations with existing allies by actually recognizing a “one China” principle whereby the ROC would be removed from all diplomatic exchanges and replaced with simply the “territory of Taiwan.” This would allow allied nations interested in diplomatic relations with the PRC to stand by a “one China” principle while still retaining a full embassy and relations with Taiwan.
Of course, the PRC would object to this, but it would symbolically neutralize their legitimate objection to the absurd idea that there could be two nations concurrently claiming to be China, where only one of which controls a territory that is historically actually “Chinese.”
The move would also concur with a semantic trend in international business practice, as now commonly seen on the Internet, whereby Taiwan is included in a list of “nations and territories.”
It might also provide a framework for Taiwan to have greater participation in international bodies and forums since it would have discarded the albatross of the ROC from its neck, the stench of which has long acted as a deterrent against greater interaction among the world’s larger, leading and more spineless nations.
Whatever happens to Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, whether it loses more or not, what the Tsai administration must never do is respond with petulance or whine in a corner. Instead, it should carry on regardless, with continuity, clarity and creativity in policy and with maturity, strength and quiet self-respect in action.
The world is slowly waking up to the reality of China. Taiwan has been patient. It can and should play the long game.
Ben Goren is an essayist, businessman and long-term resident in Taiwan.
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