Sunday, October 16, 2005

One Nation, Under Beijing?

One of the trickiest dances in international diplomacy over the past 30 years has been the Taiwan two-step the U.S. has been engaged it. It doesn't help that there are three people dancing--and all are trying to lead. But to make it worse, the U.S. is trying to dance a dignified Waltz, China's trying for a zesty swing, and Taiwan keeps changing between Tango and the Can Can.

If you're not an avid follower of China, it basically boils down to this: China claims Taiwan as a province, and is leaving all of it's options open to "get Taiwan back". Taiwan is playing coy, not saying it's independent from China, but not conceding to Beijing the right to come over and "take charge." The U.S. wants to be friends with both, and has a historical military commitment to preserve the security of the island. (Taiwan is closer to China than Cuba is to the Keys.)

There's plenty of disagreement in Taiwan over whether it should assert it's independence, in Beijing about whether China should launch an attack to compel Taiwan to "the Mainland's" view, and in Washington over a whole range of issues.

Mostly, the concern is what happens when the disagreement becomes a conflict. There are many on all three sides of this loveless-but-passionate love-triangle who assume this to be the inevitable outcome.

I'm going to throw out a different option. Rather than worry about the independence/autonomy/sovereignty of Taiwan, why doesn't the U.S. do a combination of what it's been doing, but with a new twist. Most "hawks" in the U.S. see China as a strategic competitor who will likely challenge U.S. hegemony in coming decades. (I'll ignore for now that hawk-policies are actually hastening the Chinese challenge by weakening the U.S.) The hawks also see defense of Taiwan against godless communist aggressors as a sacred duty, and one that we might consider into taking preemptive action against China, just to "show them who's boss." Not something that sounds very good to me.

The doves are convinced that peaceful rapprochement will eventually allow Taiwan and the Mainland to come to terms and reunite like a big happy family. I don't really adhere to this view either. Right now, Taiwan has too much to lose in reunification with the Mainland--especially in economic terms.

However, if China were to attack Taiwan right now, it's economy would be destroyed (where do you think a great piece of China's foreign investment and international connections come through? That's right, the small pesky island of across the straits of Formosa.)

If the U.S. really was serious about expanding the rule of law, and democratic reforms in China, we'd be seeking a way to create indigenous pressures in this direction. Enter Taiwan. It's a budding democracy, forging it's own path into multi-party elections, rule of law, and all the other trappings of Modern democracy. If the U.S. wants to see these reforms spread in China, it should make sure they are successful in Taiwan. If there is complete (or near complete) buy-in on participatory government, independent judiciary, a vibrant civil society, and limited government in Taiwan, then one-way or another, it'll start creeping into China. All the faster if China and Taiwan resolve their sovereignty dispute and merge back to one.

Many "hawks" fear a "rapid decapitation strike" against Taiwan which would cripple the country before the U.S. could intervene. My thought? If democracy is institutionalized on a personal level, and people are engaged in a vibrant, thriving, and successful civil society, it won't matter. Because the resentment of a Beijing-style curtailment of rights and liberties would result in mass-uprisings. The removal of legitimately independent courts in favor of Beijing-beholden mouth-pieces would cause an exodus of economic and social capital that would make the 1995-1996 emptying of Hong Kong look like a trickle.

Long story short: if you want a democratic China, do everything possible to make sure Taiwan's democracy is succeeding first. Then the Taiwan issue itself becomes less significant.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

i would love to discuss asian politics with you sometime... i'm passionate about the subject, as both my parents are from hong kong, but i will freely admit taht i am not well informed on the matter. feel free to look me up on my much less profound blog: and leave me a comment there