Taiwan’s Journey From Troublemaker to Peacemaker

OXFORD – Is the “harmonious society” that Chinese President Hu Jintao constantly proclaims being realized in China’s relations with Taiwan?

Before Ma Ying-jeou became President of Taiwan (officially known as the Republic of China) in May 2008, Taiwan was regularly portrayed in China as a “troublemaker,” and was the main cause of tension between China and the United States. Now Taiwan has become something of a diplomatic afterthought because it no longer makes trouble. At the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, indeed, Taiwan was barely mentioned, as North Korea, Iran, and the value of the renminbi claimed the most attention.

Support Project Syndicate’s mission

Project Syndicate needs your help to provide readers everywhere equal access to the ideas and debates shaping their lives.

Learn more

It has always been unfair to demonize the Taiwanese merely for wanting what most people around the world take for granted: to uphold their basic human rights and way of life, including the right to decide through a democratic process their own future.

China, however, rejects such sentimentality about self-determination. And, as a rising power, China is not a force that leaders, even democratic ones, dismiss lightly. For years, China’s ruling Communist Party has maintained that Taiwan is a “core national interest,” despite the reality that Taiwan has existed and functioned as a virtual state for 60 years.

China has long threatened to use force if the international community should formally recognize Taiwan’s independence. But the atmosphere gradually changed in recent years, and the “troublemaker” label, applied under Ma’s predecessor, President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has not been used for two years.

Of course, Taiwan under President Ma still wants the same rights that it desired under Chen. But Ma has taken a different approach. He has eased tensions with China by focusing on what both sides can agree upon. China’s leaders find his language inoffensive. He seeks to advance Taiwan’s national interests without arousing the People’s Republic’s threat to use force. And he has sought to forge closer trade and transport links.

Ma’s strategy suits China, whose leaders welcome being able to avoid confrontation with Taiwan, given their current focus on engineering their country’s “peaceful rise.” Moreover, China does not wish to see the DPP and its aggressively pro-independence leaders return to power. When Ma’s popularity fell dramatically as Taiwan’s economy suffered from the global financial crisis, China’s leaders worked with Ma to pre-empt just such an outcome.

This has allowed Ma’s administration to claim credit for improving relations with China. But the fundamental causes underlying the threat of a China-Taiwan war – and conflict between China and the US, which has long been committed to supporting Taiwan should China seek to determine its status unilaterally – have not been removed. The Chinese Communist Party remains committed to forcing Taiwan to accept the idea of ultimate “reunification,” while the Taiwanese remain determined to decide their own future.

But each side’s interests need not be mutually exclusive. The right to national self-determination does not imply an assertion of de jure independence. For example, acknowledgement of Scotland’s right to choose independence has not resulted in Scotland leaving the United Kingdom. What people in Taiwan want is nothing more and nothing less than acknowledgement that they can decide their own future.

Given China’s deep distrust, it will never believe that a DPP president who insists on the Taiwanese people’s right to determine their future will not secretly push for independence. But, since China knows that Ma is not advocating independence, they are able to countenance with greater equanimity his commitment to sustain the Republic of China on Taiwan.

If ever there were an opportunity for China and Taiwan to find a way to ensure that future confrontations do not escalate and drag the US into a conflict, it is now. What Ma must do is forge a clearer consensus within Taiwan that the independence vs. unification issue is a phoney one. The real issue is whether both sides can acknowledge that Taiwan’s people have the right to determine their future.

China’s leaders need to be persuaded that conceding this point does not imply letting Taiwan move towards de jure independence. This may require that the Taiwanese abandon their tendency to hold regular referenda to show that they enjoy this right. And the People’s Republic will need to recognize that the best way to entice Taiwanese to embrace reunification is to make the proposition so attractive that they cannot resist. There is no need to set a timetable for this. As a rising superpower, China should feel confident that time is on its side.

The whole world shares an interest in preventing disagreements between Taiwan and China from becoming a cause for military confrontation between the US and China. Ma has created the necessary conditions for deactivating the trigger. It is time for the rest of the world to support him in removing it forever, so that Taiwan will continue to fade as a global concern.