During an interview with ABC News on Thursday last week, US President Joe Biden responded to the suggestion that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan could undermine Taiwan’s trust in the US. Biden said that Taiwan’s situation is not at all comparable with Afghanistan, and he listed Washington’s relations with Taiwan alongside those with Japan, South Korea and NATO, which shows how much importance the US attaches to its Taiwan Strait strategy.
Few observers noticed something else that Biden said in the interview, namely that the US’ agreements with Taiwan and South Korea are not based on a “civil war,” but on helping a “unity government” to resist forces that want to harm them.
Biden also said that the US’ commitment under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty to respond in case of an armed attack against any of its NATO allies also applies to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
This part of Biden’s interview shows that there has been some change in the traditional US view of Taiwan’s status being an extension of the civil war between the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The US’ agreements to defend Taiwan and South Korea are not a matter of taking sides in divided countries, but of protecting united and friendly allies from invasion by external enemies.
The discourse that relations across the Taiwan Strait are a state of “civil war” is the excuse that the CCP uses to rationalize its harassment of and aggression toward Taiwan, and to obstruct the international community from intervening. However, a precondition for a civil war is that the two sides see one another as belonging to the same community, even while vying for control of it.
During the more than 70 years since the Republic of China government retreated to Taiwan, the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have undergone radical changes in their sense of belonging to one community. By now, each has developed mutually independent and somewhat conflicting identities, making the old discourse of the Taiwan Strait question being a “civil war” rather than “aggression” increasingly unreasonable.
At a time when countries around the world are reconsidering their relations with China and Taiwan, Taiwan should reconsider the civil war mentality that exists within it. This mentality is tied up with Taiwan’s particular historical experiences and institutions. It came about quite naturally, but has become disconnected from reality.
As the US and other allies of Taiwan are coming to view Beijing’s expansionist actions as aggression, and when they are actively developing their relations with us, Taiwan cannot afford to be doubtful and hesitant, or even misjudge the international situation because of this civil war mentality. It could sow distrust of the US and spread fear, and would likely have a negative impact on Taiwan’s trustful relations with its allies. Only communist China could benefit from that.
In the midst of new international realities, Taiwan needs to discard the old civil war mentality. Taiwan must clearly and resolutely tell the international community that China’s verbal and military threats are not the continuation of a civil war, as the CCP claims, but naked international aggression.
Only then can Taiwan convince more countries to realize the importance of the Taiwan Strait question and jointly resist China’s expansionism, while consolidating Taiwan’s relations of trust with its allies around the world.
Hsieh Wen-che works at a think tank in Taiwan.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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