Su Chi: Fitting Taiwan into the new East Asia

The ancient sages advised adjusting to difficult events as they happen to achieve maximum results with least effort. Trying to go against the tide will accomplish little, despite herculean exertions. In the last 20 years Taiwan has seen many examples of this lesson. A crucial one involves how Taiwan will fit into the new geopolitical order in East Asia.

In the first half of the 1990s, former President Lee Teng-hui took advantage of the end of the global Cold War and third wave of democratization to push for democracy in Taiwan, cross-strait rapprochement and pragmatic diplomacy, creating a promising new state of affairs.

During the same period, the Chinese communists exploited 9/11 to direct U.S. attention to the war on terror, gaining 10 valuable years in which to grow rapidly. In the last four years the Ma Ying-jeou administration’s policy of reconciliation with Beijing has relieved outside pressure to some extent, but the two sides of the strait are no longer comparable in terms of the clout they pack.

A new order is coming together in East Asia, one even more complicated than before, making future developments hard to predict.

New leaders are emerging throughout the region. Mainland China will see a complete turnover in the party, government and military. In Taiwan the president was re-elected, but a significant number of party and government aides have been replaced; circumstances are similar in the U.S. Elections next month in Japan and South Korea could bring in all new faces as well.

Relations between the U.S. and mainland China will be the key factor determining the future political climate of East Asia. With the Chinese communists’ worldwide influence growing daily, Washington will have to take Beijing’s views on regional and global issues even more seriously.

Another cause for concern is the nationalistic fervor now permeating East Asia. Historical complexes, the economic downturn and domestic political infighting have together given rise to a number of territorial disputes. But countries in the region are also speeding up free trade talks, hoping to use economic integration to maintain growth momentum amid the global recession. These variables could impact Taiwan’s economy and international standing.

But developments in mainland China are the most intimately related to Taiwan. Xi Jinping was “democratically nominated” by more than 400 people, and his policies will have to differ from those of Hu Jintao.

Starting in 2008, Hu managed to stabilize cross-strait relations and establish a foundation for peaceful development in just four years. This is why he was amenable to passively going along with the Ma administration’s 1992 consensus; its policies of no unification, no independence and no use of force; diplomatic truce; shelving disputes; and economy before politics.

Hu was also content to allow Taiwan to benefit from the Cross-Straits Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA).

Xi, on the other hand, worked for 22 years in Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai, and is sure to have his own systematic approach to cross-strait relations. His “electors” would not be happy to see mainland China, which has already risen dramatically on the world stage, continue to act so passively. With the prospect of 10 years in power, Xi will not be satisfied with maintaining the status quo and merely carrying on with Hu’s modus operandi.

When Xi will make his move, and how forceful it will be, cannot be foreseen at this time. Taiwan must be prepared.

Faced with these new conditions, nations in the region are forging new alliances and relationships. But Taiwan, the most internationally isolated country and the one most in need of adjusting to the new order, seems content to persist with its internal dissension and squandering of resources.

It is the collective responsibility of Taiwan’s political parties to create the greatest good for the country. Unfortunately, after democratization, party heads appear more and more concerned only with votes and opinion polls. Their outlook is myopic and parochial, and they have forgotten the true nature of their job. As a result, those who love money are unable to bask in luxury; those who seek fame have none; those who love power cannot get hold of the reins.

If party leaders continue to look out only for their own interests, making no concessions to the greater good of the nation, the democratization of which Taiwan is so proud may turn out to be a bad example for East Asia.

Su Chi is a former secretary-general of the ROC National Security Council, professor at Tamkang University’s Graduate Institute of China Studies and chairman of the Taipei Forum.
Copyright © 2012 by Su Chi