A Game of Cards Across the Strait

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Friday February 5, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The stakes had certainly been high in Taiwan's January 16 elections. Threats of doom and dire consequences had filled the air and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) did not hesitate to play the "scare card." It declared that any vote against the KMT was a vote for an uncertain future. Further, voting for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen would create a "scorched earth" policy where most of the 23 nations that recognize Taiwan would quickly rush to China. Only the KMT could prevent this, or so they said.

The People's Republic of China (PRC) added fuel to this fire. It threatened war if Taiwan did not accept the so-called "1992 Consensus" of "one China" albeit with two interpretations or if Taiwan uttered the dreaded independence word. Yet despite it all, despite this foreboding doom, Taiwanese overwhelmingly chose DPP candidate Tsai. Why?

To understand how this happened and how the people rejected the KMT's and PRC's rhetoric and discourse, it is helpful to use a metaphor of a game of cards in which players compete different parties compete to declare what will be trump.

Brandishing the ace of clubs the PRC has constantly reminded Taiwan that it could not wait forever for the cross-strait issue to be settled. The patience of this sizable power has allegedly been wearing thin; Taiwan must come to see things Beijing's way and admit that clubs are trump.

There have been nations that recognize clubs but favor diamonds. They are aware of the trade advantages and economic benefits China provides them. They certainly do not want Taiwan rocking the boat. True, these nations also trade separately with Taiwan; they recognize its passports and grant its citizens separate visas etc.

However they see no reason to endanger their pursuit of diamonds. Clubs and diamonds can be played together, especially if diamonds are trump.

Included here has been the US. It has been playing its cards with strategic ambiguity for a long time. It also does not want to hear any independence rhetoric from Taiwan. By nature it has to support democracy, but it feels that if diamonds were trump, all would benefit.

Taiwanese of course, chose hearts. Their love of their nation and appreciation of the freedom of their hard-won democracy have left them no choice despite any past cultural links they may have had to China or any threats that come from there. Ironically even the very presence of Chinese tourists in Taiwan has demonstrated over and over how Taiwan is different from China.

By choosing hearts, the majority of Taiwanese are conveying subtle and not so subtle messages. They recognize the word games that their outdated 1947 Constitution imposes on them with its claims of ruling China.

However, they also know that they are different from those KMT members who insist on clinging to an outdated past with hearts that have been left in China.

Voting Taiwanese do not deny the attraction of diamonds or the threat of China's clubs yet in the final analysis, hearts have remained their best choice.

The choices account for three suits, yet there is one more, spades, a suit that diamond seeking pundits in the West often ignore. Claiming the inevitability of Taiwan coming under China, these pundits neglect or forget Japan. It is a mistake often made. While it recognizes its own need of diamonds, Japan plays the game with its cards close to its vest; it does not openly declare its reliance on spades.

In contrast, as China chooses bombast and states that it would declare war if Taiwan declared independence, Japan avoids showing its hand. Nonetheless for those that know how to read cards, if China attacked a democratic Taiwan, Japan would find a way to come to Taiwan's defense. Never show your cards unless you have to, that is an unspoken rule of the game, and Japan plays it well.

Thus while China desires and covets Taiwan as an access to blue water, Japan knows that its national interests and long-term safety depend on a free and democratic Taiwan. In this, Japan has already shown its hand by protecting the islands that it calls the Senkakus (the Diaoyutai Islands), and by extending its presence and influence into the South China Sea.

Japan has a sizable army and navy. It is up to Taiwanese to realize if they have not already that spades can protect hearts.President Ma Ying-jeou has claimed that he has reduced tensions with China and that even relations with Japan are good, but the voters have seen through Ma. This election has not only been a rejection of Ma's China friendly policies, it has likewise been a referendum on his Japan policy.

The results are in, and they are clear. These presidential and legislative elections have been more than just national elections; they are an indication of the future. In this, they reflect and are part of the on-going game of cards that is being played with China, where Taiwan has become disenchanted with whatever diamonds may have been promised. Surveys support the realization that Taiwanese see that China's promise is not the panacea that it was portrayed to be eight years ago.

As the game goes on, Taiwan is also becoming more conscious of the benefits of its shared history with Japan, benefits that both sides can develop. For if Taiwan wishes to protect its independence and its democracy, it would need to promote a stronger alliance with Japan. By choosing hearts over clubs and diamonds, it is not rejecting assistance from the suit of spades.