Tsai Ing-wen and Changing US Perceptions

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Tuesday October 23, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

In her Double Ten National Day speech, President Tsai Ing-wen went over numerous topics; but she primarily focused on the threats and challenges that Taiwan faces both externally and internally.

Externally, of course, Tsai could not avoid the consistent problem that Taiwan has with the People's Republic of China, which continually threatens the regional "status quo" with its "unilateral diplomatic offensive." This offensive forestalls any progress in cross-strait peace and stability.

After Tsai's address, the US State Department followed up with a fairly standard and almost clichéd response.

US officials praised Tsai's moderation, and encouraged what may be called the traditional "don't rock the boat and hopefully all will be well" approach.

American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Chairman, James Moriarty, stated that the most significant aspect of Tsai's address was her commitment to "pragmatic and peaceful" cross-strait policies despite there being not much of a response from the other side of the Strait.

Former AIT chairman Richard Bush also brought out how the US government appreciates Tsai's moderate and balanced approach.

However, unfortunately, for those who have been in Taiwan for some time, these words were too much like faint praise; and they provided a déjà vu feeling of: "Where have I heard this before and how often?"

Most Taiwanese must by now be wondering why it is that the US constantly preaches to the choir and does not address the source of the problem.

The ironic reality here is that the words of caution about not rocking the boat and the desire that both sides work together for continued peace and stability are always directed at Taiwan. Yet, the real source of cross-strait problems has never been Taiwan, but China.

Further, the department's remarks also stand in sharp contrast to the US' recent actions around the world where it has acted quickly, and sometimes even belligerently with little regard for discussion or negotiations. This has been done not just with adversaries but also with allies.

For example, Taiwanese, can observe how the US pulled out of the Paris climate accord with little discussion because it felt that itself, and not the world, was not benefiting that much from the deal.

The US, similarly, pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, threatened to quit the North American Free Trade Agreement and slapped tariffs on friend and foe with little hesitation. Again these were done because the US felt that its ox was being gored and not that of its neighbors. There was little time spent in discussion.

This is what Taiwanese must constantly filter.

One of Taiwan's problem has been the US' slow learning curve as to what has really been happening in Taiwan in the past half-century.

First, Taiwanese have won a slow but painful victory to achieve their current democracy from the Chinese Nationalist Party's (KMT) one party state.

Second, the sense of Taiwanese identity has grown by leaps and bounds after the nation escaped from the Stockholm syndrome imposed by the one-party state rule.

The language in the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué, which was drawn while Taiwan was still under the one-party rule, betrays the backwardness of US thought and lack of consciousness of a Taiwanese identity. There, the US acknowledges that, "all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and Taiwan is a part of China."

One could excuse such language, given the times, but for the US to simply repeat today that it still stands by the exact wording of that out-of-date Communiqué is deeply problematic.

The people on this side of the Strait identify themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese.

Another example is the almost ho-hum reiteration in which the US again and again states that it respects the "one China policy" when the real issue is not the "one China policy" i.e. that there is only one China. The real issue is the "one China principle" by which China tries to maintain that Taiwan is part of one China.

Instead of playing cat-and-mouse with the confusing wording of "policy" and "principle," a simple solution for the US would be to dispense with the vagaries and simply place both statements in the same sentence.

When China asks the US to stand by the Shanghai Communiqué, the US can make matters clear by stating in one sentence that it continues to respect the "one China" policy, but it does not accept the "one China" principle. Placing both ideas in the same sentence clearly demonstrates a US consciousness of their difference and spells it out to the world.

In this matter, Taiwan does not have any problems with the "one China" policy; it has problems with Beijing's "one China" principle.

The only people in Taiwan who might have trouble with this are a minority of KMT members who want to resurrect the "one China" principle ideas in the fabricated and dead "1992 consensus."

For the most part, Taiwan clearly puts forth its perception and bottom line for cross-strait talks. It sees Taiwan as a free and democratic country, while China does not want it to be such. Taiwan has no problem working with China as long as it does not violate its nationhood."

By taking this position, Taiwan is telling the world that it refuses to sit idly by and allow it to be the slow-boiled frog while the rest of the world focuses on personal interests and the US trade war with China.

Fortunately, some leaders in the US are finally recognizing China's hegemony in the region as the lifeline of US shipping lanes is threatened in the South China Sea and its ox is metaphorically in danger of being gored.

People saw a different rhetoric by White House National Security Adviser John Bolton who made no bones about calling China out and to coin a familiar phrase, said that the South China Sea was "not a Chinese province."

It would be to Taiwan's advantage if Bolton and the department could be on the same page in their discourse and rhetoric and realize that the nation working towards stability in the Asia-Pacific region is Taiwan.

Taiwan, therefore, does not need to hear the cautionary tone of how both sides should engage in "constructive talks." Instead, as Bolton has put it, China's aggressive behavior needs to be adjusted not only in the "trade area, but in the international, military and political areas."

This should be done before any talks.

Taiwanese can then wonder at these two different rhetorical styles from the US and hope perhaps that the White House and AIT as well as other nations will find a way to talk the same talk.

This may be the greatest lesson to be gleaned by all as they ponder Tsai's speech.