The Taiwan that Roared

Posted January 3, 2007

Categories: Articles, Asia

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the ending of martial law in Taiwan. But don’t expect any major global celebrations of Taiwanese democracy. For all the vibrancy of Taiwanese politics and the high performance of Taiwan’s economy, the island is something of an embarrassment to the international community. Taiwan looks like a state. It acts like a state. But only two dozen other countries recognize Taiwan as a state, and these are not exactly the world’s heavy hitters: no European countries except the Vatican, no Asian countries outside of Oceania, no North American countries.

Taiwan would like to change all that. It is focusing now on joining the United Nations. And rather than simply continuing to knock on the door of the UN, which has remained dead-bolted, Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian is proposing to ask the Taiwanese people in a referendum next March whether they want in. The referendum will coincide with the presidential elections, which has drawn charges of politicking on the part of the ruling party.

The big problem, though, is Beijing. Mainland China views any formal Taiwanese declaration of independence as an act of war, equivalent to South Carolina seceding from the Union in 1860. Beijing has called the referendum a step toward independence.

What’s a democracy to do?

Taiwan’s democratic deliberations raise an age-old dilemma. What happens when democracies make decisions that could potentially precipitate major conflict? Certainly the Taiwanese do not want war with the mainland. But they also don’t want to be told what to do. Taiwan does not see itself as an adolescent in need of parental guidance – either from Beijing or from Washington (which has come out against the referendum).

Taiwan is by no means the only country to struggle with this dilemma. The majority of the U.S. electorate supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (not that there was a referendum, mind you, but the polls were unfortunately all too clear). Just because a majority of any group of people believes something to be true and right doesn’t mean it is either true or right.

This week at FPIF, our contributors Ian Williams and Yu Bin square off on this question in our latest Strategic Dialogue. Like North Korea’s alliance with China, Yu Bin argues, Taiwan’s ties to the United States have often proven more hindrance than help. “Each tries, either for internal or external reasons, to assert its own interests: passionately, persistently, blindly, and even at the expense of those of the ‘big brother,’” he writes in America’s Rogue Ally. “They exploit the differences between major powers. Neither cares much about the stability and security of the surrounding regions.”

Ian Williams strongly disagrees. Instead of just throwing money and arms at the island, he argues in Support Taiwan’s Democracy, the United States should recognize the country’s democratic aspirations. “The lack of U.S. diplomatic support for Taipei lessens the chance of a negotiated solution. It weakens the Taiwanese hand while encouraging Chinese obstinacy. If the United States has no official relations with the island, then why should Beijing? The recent appearance of President Bush at the presentation of the Congressional Medal of Honor to the Dalai Lama demonstrates that the sky does not fall in when Beijing is displeased.”

Exporting (Lack of) Democracy

It is probably no great shock to anyone that Washington has so far taken a dim view of Taiwan’s democratic roars. The Bush administration is less interested these days in the export of democracy than its curtailment.

Consider the upgrading of U.S.-Mexican ties, which “twists the plot by presenting Bush administration efforts to create a North American security strategy in the guise of a war on drugs,” explains FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen in Plan Mexico. The new arrangement will include “expanding the presence of U.S. drug enforcement and customs agents within Mexico, requiring legislation to commit Mexico to fight ‘international terrorism,’ and curtailment of civil liberties similar to those found in the U.S. PATRIOT Act that would legalize increased spying.” Not only can Mexico now enjoy our cheap corn, it can consume our cheapened democracy as well.

Meanwhile, Washington’s mishandling of its relations with Moscow is having a malign effect on Russian democracy. The party of Russian president Vladimir Putin faces so little political opposition that it has decided to run against an opponent that has no face, no name, and no spot on the ballot: the West. Kremlin officials have charged that the CIA is bent on fomenting a velvet revolution in Russia and that the West wants to dismember the country and gather up all its valuable natural resources.

Putin and friends can point to a number of policies that seem to bear out their points. NATO expansion, U.S. military support of Georgia’s increasingly less democratic leader, and the proposed placement of U.S. missile defense along Russia’s perimeter can look a lot like encirclement to those within the circle. “At the same time, U.S. efforts to restrict Russian sales of weapons and high technology — particularly nuclear technology — are easily used as evidence of the supposed plot to reduce Russia to a mere exporter of raw materials, as is perceived U.S. stalling on Russia’s bid to enter the World Trade Organization,” writes FPIF contributor Robert Coalson in Running Against the West.

Syria and the IMF

The International Monetary Fund is not exactly democracy central (or Comedy Central for that matter). But the new head of the Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is probably its most progressive leader to date. As France’s finance minister, he pushed through the 35-hour workweek and tried to put up a firewall to protect against the virus of neoliberalism sweeping through Europe.

“How comfortable should we be with Strauss-Kahn’s seemingly more open and progressive attitudes?” ask FPIF contributors Soren Ambrose and Bhumika Muchhala in Changing of the Guard at the IMF. “Most civil society organizations that monitor the Fund would like to significantly reduce its power to impinge on countries’ economic sovereignty and limit the scope of development spending. Strauss-Kahn, however, has reaffirmed that the Fund should remain involved in low-income countries (throughout Africa, the Caribbean, and Central America in particular), which are the last bastion of the IMF’s dwindling lending power.”

Finally, here’s an easy win for the Bush team if it’s smart enough to seize the opportunity: constructive dialogue with Syria.

Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad “has shown moderation and restraint in recent months beyond what could be expected from many of his regional counterparts,” writes FPIF contributor Shana Marshall in Engaging Syria. “First, the recent Israeli air strike inside Syrian territory is almost a carte blanche for violent retaliation, yet there has been none. Instead, Syria has lodged a formal complaint with the United Nations — not exactly the behavior we would expect from a leadership knee-deep in a nuclear program. Second, Syria has welcomed nearly one million Iraqi refugees with access to free education and medical care. The United States refuses even to admit Iraqis who have collaborated with coalition forces. Third, despite U.S. economic sanctions, an International Monetary Fund report released in August shows Syria continues to make real strides in reforming its economy. The United States has much to gain from negotiating with the young president, such as cooperation on Iraq, peace settlement between Syria and Israel, and at least some leverage over Hezbollah and Hamas. Yet it continues its almost unconditional policy of isolation.”

If you’re in the DC area, please join us for a constructive dialogue of our own. We’ll be talking about our Just Security report, which proposes an alternative foreign policy framework, on November 7 at 5:30 at Teaism (400 8th St., NW).

FPIF, November 5, 2007

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