Taiwan like "Prometheus Unbound"

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Friday April 15, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Next month, Taiwan's President-elect Tsai Ing-wen is to give her inaugural address and discussion on what she will say and how she should say it, is building. Tsai is not only the nation's first female president, but she is also coming into power with a mandate from an electorate that endured eight years of outgoing president Ma Ying-jeou's failed pro-China policies.

Caution flags are flying. After Tsai's victory, China repeatedly served notice that it would not rule out the use of military force if the de facto independent Taiwan were to discuss de jure independence.

Ma, and a variety of pundits, quickly chimed in. Ma strongly advised Tsai to continue to support the so-called "1992 consensus" -- or "lie" depending on how one looks at it -- invented by Su Chi eight years after the fact in 2000. Su's "fabrication," in Ma's words should be seen as the bedrock of Taiwan's cooperation with China.

Not long afterwards, Beijing continued to emphasize the seriousness of these matters and sent what could be called a warning shot across the bow. After a period of stasis, it re-established diplomatic relations with the nation of Gambia.

Beijing wanted to show Taiwan that the correct interpretation of Ma's "flexible diplomacy" is that Taipei should always kowtow to Beijing's wishes. Adding to this pressure, few if any of Taiwan's allies offered any words of encouragement regarding Taiwan's choices.

With such a background, caution might seem to be the word of the day as Tsai's inauguration approaches. However, on Taiwan's side there is also a separate and distinct reality that needs to be considered. Tsai's electorate gave her a convincing 56 percent victory as well as control of the Legislative Yuan. The pressure to satisfy both sides rests on Tsai as to what she will say and how she will say it.

For the moment let us leave aside the "what" or the content of what should be in Tsai's address and focus on the the tenor of her speech. Much can happen in the ever-volatile South China Sea and global economy in two months.

Focusing on Taiwan's situation and what Tsai's responsibilities are to her electorate we need to ignore the perfunctory advice of pundits who worry that their ox is being gored if they cannot do business with China.

What might be a more proper way to conceive democratic Taiwan's situation in the world?

Some pundits have likened Taiwan to the myth of Sisyphus -- where the nation like the king of Corinth, finds itself continually fighting the odds, eternally pushing a rock up a hill, only to have it roll to the bottom again. These pundits seem to relish that there is little or no support or encouragement from outside.

As Taiwan's allies even hang back, some give the impression that they would be just as happy if Taiwan sacrificed its democracy. This would allow such commentators to pontificate on other areas that do not involve any personal loss.

Instead consider a different myth as point of reference. Consider the myth of Prometheus as portrayed by Percy Bysshe Shelley in, "Prometheus Unbound."

In Shelley's work, it is Prometheus and not the power hungry Jupiter who seeks peace and harmony. Prometheus had already overturned the old world order when he brought fire and hope to mankind (read Taiwan and Asia) and was punished for it.

In the ancient Greek tragedy by Aeschylus, he leaves potential for reconciliation between Jupiter and Prometheus. Shelley who writes Prometheus as standing for the spirit of man against tyranny did not.

Examine Hong Kong in this situation. It is ironic that in Hong Kong, a spirit of envy is growing as people find themselves on the short end of a failed 20-year promise of free elections even over the minutia of choosing their own mayor. They wish for the fire of Prometheus.

Time in Shelley's drama remains on the side of Prometheus who can foresee the fall of Jupiter though he does not reveal the day. The tyrant Jupiter (read China) grows desperate to control even the slightest dissent. Parallels continue to be available in China as president Xi Jinping has much on his plate. The economy is tanking but his answer is to control not only bookstores in Hong Kong but also all media as if in response to the faltering economy.

Taiwan's allies are relatively silent, yet there are other developments happening beneath the surface. Japan realizes that it must not only react to what China is doing in the East China Sea but it has stretched its hands to participate in South China Sea affairs. Though never officially verbalized, Japan knows its freedom also depends on a free Taiwan. In the South China Sea, Indonesia has joined other more directly impacted nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

The reasons for supporting the status quo are changing; as China's economy continues towards a hard landing, its solutions are likely to be draconian and will cause collateral damage. However, in this day and age, collateral damage cannot be hidden as it could in the past when Mao Zedong covered up the Great Famine; neither can atrocities like the Cultural Revolution be swept under the rug. Instant communication pervades.

China is relinquishing the draconian way it handled its one-child policy and China's generals are willing to risk war as a way to solve problems. However, when the single sons of that one-child policy begin coming home in body bags, collateral damage will continue to mount and be harder and harder to hide.

The long and short of it is that there is no need for doom and gloom in Tsai's inaugural address. The tenor should be one of hope, and an affirmation of the command of her electorate. The hope is not only for Taiwan, but also for Asia, which in Shelley's work is Prometheus's wife.

Parallels have their limits, but Taiwan can still be a beacon for Asia. The Taiwanese have witnessed the overthrow of the one-party state that once ruled. Taiwan could be the nation that gives the fire of democracy to oppressed nations of Asia. Tsai should not ignore this.