Taiwan and Democratic Chickens Coming Home to Roost

American Asia expert Richard Bush should not be lamenting Tsai Ing-wen’s prospective victory in Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election. As a supporter of the U.S.’ central role in institutionalizing Taiwan’s vibrant democracy, he should be welcoming it instead
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Peter Enav
By

Richard C. Bush III is a distinguished commentator on U.S.-Asia relations who over a long career (including a stint as chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan) has made signal contributions to American standing in the western Pacific. In an article published this week by the Brookings Institution (his present home), Bush offers sound advice to both Beijing and Washington on handling what by his lights is the profound challenge of Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) impending election as Taiwanese president. Not by chance does the article coincide with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) visit to the U.S.

The U.S., Bush says, should begin its approach to Tsai by giving her credit for things “she does not say things that challenge China’s interests,” while at the same time taking advantage “of the four-month period between the election and (Tsai’s prospective) inauguration to create more common ground between the two sides.” Moreover, he says, instead of focusing on what Tsai has said or done in the past, Washington should concentrate “on what she says in her inauguration speech and, most important, on what she does after she becomes president.”

As for China, Bush says, it should “not (back) itself into a corner (on Tsai) but (keep) its options open.”

So far so good, right? Absolutely. Only the most Pollyannish of observers could aver that the return of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to the Presidential Office in Taipei will go forward without generating profound consternation for China and deep-seated worries for the U.S. For all his problems with the people of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was a far more comfortable fit for both of them.

Unfortunately, however, Bush’s article goes rapidly south from there — far south in fact — creating the impression that the “blame” for what might happen in cross-strait relations after Tsai’s election is a direct result of her personal shortcomings and those of the DPP in general. In the main he does this through the deliberate use of misleading and distorted language. Thus, for example, he says, Tsai has made only a “modest effort” to reassure China and the U.S. about her cross-strait policies when in fact she has gone out of her way to proclaim her fealty to maintaining the “status quo” in the area. Similarly, he says “the policies of a DPP government might cause a reversal in cross-strait relations,” rather than “the policies of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] might cause a reversal in cross-strait relations,” which given the fact that it is China that is making all the running on cross-strait pressure seems to be a far more accurate characterization of the facts on the ground.

And that is only the start. Also included in Bush’s article is his unfounded description of the Sunflower Movement as a radical fringe, when in fact it enjoyed widespread popular support and help set the stage for the devastating Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) defeat in last year’s nine-in-one local elections. Beyond that it also features his identification of the Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) candidacy as the main reason from Ma’s low approval rating (actually this began in 2012) and his signal failure to point out that support for Taiwan’s eventual unification with the mainland has traditionally been so low as to hardly bear mentioning. For someone of Bush’s deep-seated knowledge, this is a perplexing lapse.

Looked at in a context, what comes out clearest from Bush’s analysis is the profound disappointment that he and an important section of the Washington policy community feel over the clear-cut failure of the Ma/China/Obama condominium to lay the Taiwan problem to rest once and for all. That community certainly put a lot of effort into seeing that this happened, among other things by helping to sabotage Tsai’s 2012 election bid via an sourced leak in the Financial Times newspaper insisting that Tsai was unfit for office. While they were surely succeeding then, they are just as surely failing now.

In retrospect, it appears, the condominium made two crucial mistakes in attempting to carry out its plans. In the first instance it hitched its wagon to a Taiwanese politician of such prodigiously modest gifts that he never had a chance to begin with, a man whose imperial style had no more chance of succeeding in a democratic polity than the proverbial snowball has of succeeding in hell. In the second instance the American end of the community seems to have blithely assumed that China would help Ma out when it counted most — by reducing the number of missiles it has deployed against Taiwanese targets, for example, or providing Taiwan with enough international space that the Taiwanese population at large could feel good about it. Of course China did nothing of the kind.

In the greater scheme of things, what is really going on now, it seems, is that Bush and other senior American policy makers dealing with Taiwan are harvesting the fruits of one of the most impressive achievements of American Asian policy in the entire post World War II era: the institutionalization of democratic systems in polities that once rejected them. It is a pity that they won’t recognize this fact and take pride in it. Rather than bemoaning Tsai’s prospective victory they should embrace it wholeheartedly. After all, they and their predecessors helped make it possible.

 

Peter Enav was head of The Associated Press bureau in Taiwan from April 2005 to April 2014.

3 Responses to “Taiwan and Democratic Chickens Coming Home to Roost”

September 24, 2015 at 3:38 am, David Dunn said:

Foreigners in Taiwan tend to have much closer connection to Chinese in Taiwan than to Taiwanese. By Taiwanese I mean the broad majority that speak Taiwanese and have family that have been in Taiwan for many generations. Well over 99% of foreigners study only Mandarin and in general don’t know that much about Taiwan as distinguished from China. Consequently the default view of such people is to be overswayed by the views of the Chinese minority that prior to democracy dominated Taiwan’s government. If these Sinologists studied Taiwanese in addition to Mandarin as I have they would have a much more complete insight into Taiwan.

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September 24, 2015 at 5:08 am, Dave Hall said:

America should take pride in having some part in helping to usher in democracy on Taiwan as the author mentions. To best support democracy the US should maintain neutrality in the upcoming election. Good article.

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September 28, 2015 at 6:55 am, Mike Fagan said:

Some of Mr Enav’s comments are fair, but others are not or are overstated.

“…creating the impression that the “blame” for what might happen in cross-strait relations after Tsai’s election is a direct result of her personal shortcomings and those of the DPP in general.”

Having now read Bush’s piece, I didn’t get the same impression at all. I read his description of Tsai’s effort as “modest” not as a criticism of her, but as denoting her position along a measure of Chinese perceptions of that effort. Nowhere does Bush say that this is insufficient, or imply that she has made a mistake in making only a “modest” effort. He also goes on to point out the electoral restraints on Tsai going any further in her efforts to reassure Beijing, assuming that she would want to anyway.

Bush’s statement that “the policies of a DPP government might cause a reversal in cross-strait relations” is followed by an insistence that “…how China reacts will be crucial…”, but I agree that it is incorrect. Mr Enav is correct that it should have been written along the lines he suggests, e.g. that a “Chinese reaction to the policies of a DPP government might cause a reversal in cross-strait relations”.

“Also included in Bush’s article is his unfounded description of the Sunflower Movement as a radical fringe, when in fact it enjoyed widespread popular support…”

That is almost certainly correct.

“Beyond that it also features his identification of the Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) candidacy as the main reason from Ma’s low approval rating…”

That claim is in error; Bush identified the choice of Hung as one of the KMT’s political mistakes, not as the cause of Ma’s low approval rating. Although obviously a political mistake may cause a low approval rating, that was not what Bush was writing about. His judgement that the choice of Hung was the “main” political mistake can certainly be argued with; I would say their main political mistake was made three years ago. Others might choose a different mistake (there was no shortage of choice).

“Looked at in a context, what comes out clearest from Bush’s analysis is the profound disappointment that he and an important section of the Washington policy community feel over the clear-cut failure of the Ma/China/Obama condominium to lay the Taiwan problem to rest once and for all.”

That is inferred from the article, rather than expressed or implied in it. The disappointment may be real, but the clearest thing from the article itself is Bush’s hope that the Chinese government restrains itself from reacting badly to a DPP electoral victory.

“In the second instance the American end of the community seems to have blithely assumed that China would help Ma out when it counted most — by reducing the number of missiles it has deployed against Taiwanese targets, for example, or providing Taiwan with enough international space that the Taiwanese population at large could feel good about it. Of course China did nothing of the kind.”

This is probably a fair criticism; if that “community” did indeed make that “blithe” assumption then they should be rightly pilloried for it, at the very least. The Chinese had every incentive to maintain and even advance their military designs over Taiwan, and U.S. policy did not alter the incentive structure the Chinese were acting within.

“…what is really going on now, it seems, is that Bush and other senior American policy makers dealing with Taiwan are harvesting the fruits of one of the most impressive achievements of American Asian policy in the entire post World War II era: the institutionalization of democratic systems in polities that once rejected them.”

But that is to repeat the error of which Bush was accused earlier in the article: that what happens in Taiwan is the cause of fresh U.S. government worries (the “fruit”) about potential Chinese aggression toward Taiwan. It isn’t. Arguably the “fruit” that U.S. government officials are “harvesting” is not that of foreign policy success, but that of foreign policy failure: the failure of the Allies in 1945 to press on and destroy the communists before the spread of nuclear weapons. Millions of people have paid for that failure of western courage, and it is likely the case that people will continue to pay for that failure today and into the future.

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