Timing is everything in life, and the timing of Thinking Taiwan could not be better.
Like many other readers of the American press, I have long had a problem. We are seldom exposed to thoughtful commentary — or even simple news — about developments in Taiwan despite the island’s importance to international security and its progress from dictatorship to democracy, rule of law and protection of human rights.
On several occasions I have felt frustrated enough to write respected friends at the New York Times in an effort to call attention to the problem. I have always received polite, indeed sympathetic, replies emphasizing the declining economics of the news industry. That answer has never satisfied me since the Times, admirably, has posted an increasing number of top-flight reporters to China but nary a one to Taiwan. Yet many able foreign and Taiwanese journalists have long been resident in Taiwan and available on a part-time, even piecework basis. Moreover, editors in New York have often failed to find space for the worthy dispatches frequently filed by wise wire service correspondents stationed in Taipei.
I came to believe that the root of the problem was not money but judgment, editorial judgment about Taiwan’s relative importance compared to that of China. Long before the recent Sunflower Movement was a gleam in any student’s eyes, I liked to point out that, in order to get the attention of the foreign press, Taiwan had to somehow interact with China. Or, as has just happened, thousands of protesters had to breach the barricades of government institutions in order to attract overseas media interest.
As recently as March 19, not twenty-four hours after the protests of Taiwan students became a major obstacle to cross-strait relations by bringing the island’s legislature to a halt, a group of New Yorkers concerned with East Asia policy heard a distinguished Western columnist offer a trenchant political tour of the area. Yet he did not once mention Taiwan. I was not the only person present who noted the omission. When questioned about it, the Japan-based expert stated that, “Taiwan was no longer interesting.”
What he meant by that, of course, was that six years of President Ma Ying-jeou’s cross-strait reconciliation policy had so successfully reduced People’s Republic of China (PRC)-Taiwan, U.S.-PRC and U.S.-Taiwan tensions that these related, enormously sensitive topics were not worth noting in a review of threats to international peace and security in Asia. The preoccupations spawned by nationalistic disputes over the East China Sea, the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula were supposedly far more important.
Taking for granted its impressive diplomatic achievement is unfair, of course, to the Ma administration, which needs all the appreciation it can muster, not only abroad but, even more, at home. Yet this achievement — managing to negotiate 21 useful agreements with a Beijing government that had previously refused to deal with Taiwan on an equal footing — has added to Ma’s massive unpopularity with a public understandably determined to preserve its de facto independence and democratic values.
Ma’s presidential election victories and some of his internal and external policies have made him a hated figure among “deep green” Taiwan independence advocates. They bitterly resent this “new Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)” president being the beneficiary of their decades-long struggle for democracy against the “old KMT” dictatorship that had been foisted on Taiwan by China after World War II. And Ma’s cross-strait agreements have only increased the concerns of many Taiwanese — not only those of “deep green” persuasion — that cross-strait reconciliation may have reached the point of significantly increasing the risk of another Chinese dictatorship descending upon the island, this time not by sudden military occupation as occurred in 1945 but by gradual economic domination.
It is this fear of creeping Chinese control that seems to have sparked the recent large and impressive student-led protests. Of course, citizens of every society need to be concerned about the implications of every trade agreement for their own economic wellbeing and that of their country. That is why the U.S. Congress is often reluctant to give an executive branch eager to get on with trade diplomacy the “fast track” approval process designed to minimize legislative scrutiny, interference and delay. Taiwanese surely have similar reasons to demand more legislative participation in the conclusion of the Trade in Services Agreement as well as the other cross-strait pacts scheduled to implement the 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement.
But it is politics, not economics, that is the root of what promises to be an ongoing struggle over two major issues: How much closer to China can Taiwan afford to get without seriously risking its independence and to what extent should Taiwan’s legislature and people participate in making that determination?
Not long after the start of President Ma’s second term, some Taiwan journalists asked for my comments about his prospects. In an effort to indicate how difficult I expected it to be for Ma to make much further cross-strait progress, I said that, if he could build on his impressive cross-strait record by finalizing additional agreements without prejudicing the island’s security and democracy, he should be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize.
For the past couple of years I have believed that cross-strait reconciliation may have peaked. The low-hanging fruit of economic cooperation had already been gathered during Ma’s first term and subsequent progress would encounter more substantial economic and political obstacles, as has now occurred. Moreover, a number of Taiwan observers have noted that future cross-strait negotiations can be expected to demonstrate greater Taiwan concern for the protection of the political and civil rights of the island’s people, a sure show stopper for Beijing.
At the same time, I have been worrying that the inevitable slowdown in cross-strait progress during the declining years of the Ma administration would gradually draw an adverse reaction from the PRC. It has generally been relatively patient about Taiwan during the Ma years while becoming unusually assertive in dealing with other areas on its periphery. The prospect of Ma leaving office in 2016, creating the possibility of a presidential election victory by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has yet to unify around a China policy less provocative than former president Chen Shui-bian’s, has not been comforting to Beijing. Even if the KMT should win, it is far from clear that Ma’s successor would share his enthusiasm for further cross-strait progress, given its domestic political costs.
What the Sunflower Movement has done is to accelerate by two years the concerns that have been quietly growing on both sides of the strait about their future relationship. Those concerns have largely been ignored by the U.S. and other countries confounded by the more immediate challenges of Ukraine, the Near and Middle East, North Korea and the East and South China Seas. Limited cross-strait reconciliation has lulled the world into complacency.
Yet, unless delicately handled, the status of Taiwan, not only legally but in the broadest sense, will again become the most dangerous issue dividing the two most important nuclear powers, the U.S. and China, which already have more than enough controversies between them. Americans and others must become much more aware of both Taiwan’s great importance to international security and its accomplishment in demonstrating that authoritarian Chinese political-legal culture can be transformed into vibrant democracy.
That is why I especially welcome the arrival of Thinking Taiwan. If it can vindicate its promise of providing a much-needed impartial platform for objective news and stimulating views involving the complex developments surrounding the island, it will make an essential contribution to international politics and the preservation of Taiwan’s democracy. Dare I say it should even strive for a Nobel Peace Prize nomination? In any event, best of luck!
Jerome A. Cohen is a law professor at New York University, Co-Director of its US-Asia Law Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.