Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Storm in the Taiwan Straits...

Today, the head of the KMT party in Taiwan decided to pay a visit to the Chinese mainland, where he'll meet Chinese President Hu Jintao on Friday. The KMT, or Kuomintang, is the Nationalist party of Taiwan. This is the same political party that, 57 years ago, lost a civil war to the Chinese Communist Party and fled to Taiwan, taking with it many of China's imperial treasures.

The KMT ruled Taiwan with an dictatorial and corrupt fist for forty years, turning a country that had never really been incorporated into the Chinese sphere (and spent 50 years learning how to be Japanese) into a country of people who thought of themselves as Chinese, and the only place on Earth that still uses traditional (not simplified) Chinese characters and the Wade-Giles system of romanization (remember "Peking"?). The KMT is the reason that the name of Taiwan is still officially the Republic of China, and that for so long, Taiwan claimed to be the rightful government of China (and, oddly, Mongolia as well).

The opposition to the KMT, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), emerged only after years of violent political oppression. First elected to power in 2000, barely re-elected in 2004, and losing control of the legislature, the DPP still advocates greater independence from China (with the eventual but unspoken goal of de jure independence and statehood) and the KMT, in a strange twist of fate, has become the party of unification.

Now, Lien Chan, the head of the KMT, is going to China, when technically Taiwan and China are still at war, China has hundreds of cruise missiles aimed at the island, and the mainland just passed a law authorizing the use of force should Taiwan move towards independence in any way. To put it in persepctive, Lien's trip is equivalent to a French legislator visiting Germany to meet with Hitler in 1938. It is, at best, treasonous activity of the most vile form. President Chen Shui-bian, in a precarious political position, has been forced to legitimize the trip; he should not. Instead, he should retaliate by banning Lien from entering the country, lest Lien face an arrest warrant and a trial for treason on his arrival in Taipei.


False-Speak Will Doom Us

There is an interesting phenomenon that anyone who listens to politicians long enough will notice. Politicans--at least American ones--rarely speak in terms of reality. Instead, they speak in terms of the way they perceive things should be. Thus, Taiwan was China until 1979, when the US decided that the reality had somehow changed. Today, if you ask a US representative, he'll faithfully tell you that Taiwan is indeed a part of China, just like there was no genocide (just "acts of genocide") in Rwanda in 1994, and there is currently no genocide in Darfur.

It is in this false-speak, the worst indication of a vapid policy that has either (a) moral legitimacy or (b) power considerations, but not both, behind it, that American statesman thrive. But what we fail to realize is that our speech matters, and that the Chinese are manipulating the space between our speech and reality to their geopolitical advantage in every area of the globe.

To the people of Taiwan, it matters that the US does not recognize them. To these 23 million people, devoted trading partners of the US, who created a thriving capitalist democracy with their bootstraps, our position matters. And our refusal to take the hard stance with Taiwan, in recognition of the power positions on the ground, while claiming the world's moral high ground, is rank hypocrasy.

Taiwan's current status in the world is often known by the moniker "strategic ambiguity." Strategic ambiguity may be fine and dandy as a middle course in a State Department policy letter, but it rarely leads to good outcomes. As a foreign policy, it's a recipe for confusion, inaction, and regret that the United States seems doomed to repeat, because of its dual allegiances to morals and power considerations.

Though our current leader seems blind to this fact, our time as a superpower is limited. Such is the inevitable tragedy of great power politics. We as a country need to face this reality, and decide how we will lead the post-Cold-War world. Our greatest leaders--Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy--would have us do so in a moral fashion. Which course shall we choose? The moral one? Or the one that prolongs the inevitable, at the expense of our dignity?

We've already sacrificed 800,000 in Rwanda and 400,000 (and counting) in Darfur to the chopping block of strategic inaction. How many of Taiwan's 23 million will we add to that number?


greg said...

Very interesting post. I do have to wonder, however, how much your distaste for everything to the left of center -- not to say that China's government isn't EXTREMELY left of center -- may be influencing your judgment on geopolitical and cultural issues. If China's already emasculated Communist Party were overthrown tomorrow, do you think that the situation with Taiwan would change at all? How much of the tension between the two countries is due to ideological, as opposed to structural, conflicts? Don't the Taiwanese think of themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese, in the same way that Corsicans have multiple national identities (that may be a bad example)?

Nick said...

Well, my distaste for China has more to do with their rising threat to the national security of the United States than anything. A brutal record on human rights, and a bold, naked, calculating realpolitik foreign policy to back it up doesn't add to that image.

Communism certainly doesn't help, and certainly probably funds both of the above, but I think it's going too far to say that simply because China were to turn democratic, its threat to global stability would be eliminated. I do not truly believe in democratic peace theory, because democracies are so easily overthrown for the "more belligerent" forms of government that are supposedly more war-prone.

If China were to turn democratic, might it make unification easier? It might certainly make it harder to paint in such moral terms, but I think the Taiwanese would still have a good claim.

In any case, your questions seems to ask me to deny the basic history underlying the problem, which is in fact that conflict between democratic and communist governments. I'm not going to apologize for preferring the former.


It's true that many Taiwanese do consider themselves "Chinese." However, this is becoming a generational thing. This belief that Taiwanese were Chinese was in fact promulgated by the KMT government and the new population of mainlanders that fled to the island. The history of China, not Taiwan, was taught in schools, Chinese and not Taiwanese became the official language, etc. There's been some good literature on how this situation strongly resembles a colonial situation: the denial of collective memory in favor of an imposed identity.

The Taiwanese case is a difficult one, mostly because the collective history involves a country tossed to the wind, and receiving so much imposed influence (in 1895, Taiwan was became the first Japanese colony). A good capitalist doesn't believe in "false conscioiusness" arguments, and so accepts prima faciae the asserted Chinese identity of the Taiwanese, while post-modernists seek to look beyond the claim to the historical evens that fund it.

No one's saying there are easy answers here. But what's very clear is that many people answer the way they do in Taiwan's polls, and vote the way they do in Taiwan's elections, because they honestly fear annhilation should the island misstep. Whateveer funds people's choices, they should be free to make them without the unilateral threat of violence.

greg said...

And, just in case you look back down at this post, a fascinating piece on exactly this issue (in the New Left Review, no less):