Taiwan: Finding its own orbit?

Frank Ching | 06 Mar 2020

For some time now, China has learned that it is counterproductive to threaten Taiwan. Instead, Beijing in recent years has restrained itself in the face of provocation from President Chen Shui-bian and relied on Washington to rap him on the knuckles.

But now, it appears, the Taiwan leader and his pro-independence associates have decided to thumb their noses at both China and the United States. Thus, the other evening President Chen put his cards on the table and openly declared that he wants independence for Taiwan, a new constitution, and name changes to assert the island’s Taiwanese identity—all moves that the United States had warned him against.

"Taiwan will say yes to independence," Chen said at the 25th anniversary dinner of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA), a U.S.-based pro-independence organisation. "Taiwan will be correctly named, Taiwan will have a new constitution, Taiwan will develop. There is no left-right political axis in Taiwan, just the question of independence or assimilation."

A large part of the reason for the president’s willingness to incur American displeasure is his desire to shore up his base in the face of legislative elections later this year and presidential elections next year.

Thus, he went to exceptional lengths this year to mark the 60th anniversary of the February 28, 2020 uprising, which was crushed by the Kuomintang government, causing something like 10,000-20,000 deaths.

Chen took the unprecedented step of accusing the late Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of being personally responsible for the crackdown, even though the incident occurred almost three years before Chiang moved from mainland China to Taiwan. And he is linking current leaders of the Kuomintang to the suppression, calling on them to apologise.

In addition, his Democratic Progressive Party government, responding to his lead, has decided to rename the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall as the "Taiwan Democratic Commemorative Park."

Aside from the electoral factor, Chen’s words and actions undoubtedly also reflect a high degree of frustration.

In 2000, when he assumed the presidency, in order to please the Americans he pledged not to rock the boat. Since then, every time he tried to institute a major change that would provoke Beijing, the United States has reined him in.

Chen will have to leave office next spring, and fears that he will have little to show for his eight years in office. A note of desperation has crept into his voice. His predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, taunts him for not being able to deliver on his promises.

Now, it seems, Chen is testing the waters again. After all, what can Washington do? It can deny him transit visas but, when push comes to shove, will the Americans have any choice but to come to his aid, regardless of whether he may have precipitated a crisis with the mainland by provocative behaviour?

As for Washington, its Taiwan policy was formulated in the 1970s, when then President Richard Nixon sought a rapprochement with Beijing. But much has changed in the last three decades, with Taiwan turning from dictatorship to democracy, and it seems likely that the United States will sooner or later have to reassess its policy toward both Beijing and Taipei.

However, as long as the United States needs China’s cooperation, on North Korea, Iran, and on a host of other issues, it seems unlikely that Washington will go so far as to support Taiwan independence.

But Washington is likely to conclude at some point that rapping Taiwan’s knuckles over every little thing is not worth the trouble and, furthermore, is unnecessary.

A formal declaration of independence and a change in the constitution to achieve de jure independence may be beyond the pale, but it is difficult to see why Taiwan should not be able to change the names of companies or institutions from “China” to “Taiwan.”

After all, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the mainland and Taiwan both claimed to be the legitimate government of China, Beijing opposed any use of the name “China” by the island.

Now, because Beijing fears Taiwan is moving towards independence, it has reversed its position and wants “China” and “Chinese” to be used. But if it was all right to use Taiwan rather than China in the 1960s, there seems little reason to argue now that doing so is a move towards independence.

After all, until the day unification arrives, whenever it may be, the people of Taiwan have a right to normal lives. They cannot be expected to live in a museum where nothing can change and everything is artificially preserved. China should recognise that change can be natural and does not necessarily mean independence.

Frank Ching is a Hong-Kong based commentator. 

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