I’ve just returned from Taiwan as a guest of the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs taking part in a ‘soft-power’ trip that they host annually, inviting ‘Emerging Leaders’ from around the world to get a taste for Taiwan, it was interesting- I intend to write up some (borrowing from Bill Bryson) ‘notes from a small island’ soon, but this isn’t the kind of talking (my travel journal, restaurant/food tips and anecdotes) about Taiwan I refer to in the title to this piece, there is an issue that is slightly more pressing: Taiwan, in East/Southeast Asian International Relations terms, is a ‘dirty word’, it shouldn’t be. With clarity not ambiguity, we need to start talking about Taiwan, today.
Last year I completed my Masters degree in International Security studies writing a thesis titled “Understanding why Taiwan remains the most dangerous security challenge in the Asia-Pacific region; should Australia clarify its Taiwan policy position?” Looking ahead to this year, 2012, and the potential leadership lottery outcomes (elections in Taiwan and the US and leadership transition in China) I stated that the coupling of maintained ambiguity that surrounds the ‘Taiwan issue’ with the various potential outcomes from this leadership lottery could lead to miscalculation:
“It is widely anticipated that in the instance of Obama’s re-election, with increasing domestic social problems, US policy would become more introspective; China could calculate that then would be an opportunity to apply greater pressure to Taiwan. If a Republican President is elected, then pursuing the domestically popular policy of opposing and containing China is a greater possibility. If Ma is re-elected China may pressure Taiwan more in recompense for Beijing’s ‘softer’ Taiwan approach during his first term, if he is not, the election of the more traditionally independence minded Democratic Progressive Party candidate might invoke a strong ‘pre-action’ from Beijing. With a CCP leadership change current leaders are considering their legacies, emerging leaders are jockeying for position and contemplating making their mark, while the PLA, anticipating an initial period of leadership weakness, extant in any government transition, and who have acted independently of the party previously, the 2001 EP3 incident and instrumental role within the 1996 Taiwan straits crisis, cannot be seen as a benign, and subordinate to the CCP, variable in the equation.”
As former Australian Prime Minister/Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd commented in the lead up to the Taiwanese election earlier this year “You know with every Taiwanese election, we always take a deep breath and hope for the best because this is one of the red line issues for Beijing, that is, the future status of Taiwan… So, the key thing with this election is obviously if the Democratic Progress Party wins, there’ll be an audible sucking in of breath in Beijing, and if Ma Ying-Jeou from the Kuomintang, the KMT, win, then it will be business as usual.”
For stability (for now), or maintenance of the status quo, the best possible situational outcome eventuated: President Obama was re-elected for a second term in the US; the Chinese leadership transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jingping seems to have been smooth (despite some concerns over the re-appearance (almost from the dead) of Jiang Zemin); and President Ma was also elected for a second term in Taiwan. Following on from the results of this years elections and leadership changes the world exhaled, but the obvious question that arises is can we afford to sweep the ‘Taiwan issue’ back under the carpet for another 4 years and just simply return to business as usual?
The simple answer is no: business as usual is a policy of hope and hope is no policy at all. On the issue of Taiwan, if the real threat of future miscalculation is to be reduced absolute clarity not ambiguity is called for and required. For there to be clarity, we must be able to talk (frankly), say what we really mean and, more importantly, ensure that it is clearly understood. In order to achieve this, we really need to start talking, with clarity, about Taiwan today.
(Part II and why ‘today’ to follow)
Ben Moles completed a Masters in International Security Studies at the University of Sydney last year and was recently an International Security Program intern at the Lowy Institute. (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). Follow on Twitter @bwmoles