Thursday, November 08, 2007

China and the Democracy Thing

This is my reply to Yu Bin, whose reply to me strikes me as somewhat evasive. The thousand Chinese Missiles and the explicit threat to invade if Taiwan does not do what it is told are what we commonly call an ultimatum in the rest of the world.

Taiwan's Right to a State

Ian Williams | November 8, 2007

Editor: John Feffer

Yu Bin takes as axiomatic that Taiwan has no right to independence, regardless of the views of its people, although he admits that they are overwhelmingly in favor of it. Indeed, in his view Taiwan appears to be a metaphysical construct sundered from its own people. "Ultimately, Taiwan is cheating Washington, as well as the rest of the world -- all, ironically, in the name of democracy. One wonders if a democracy should be held to a higher, not lower, ethical standard," he said. Since when has implementing what people probably want been "cheating"?

The analogy he makes between North Korea and Taiwan had some relevance 30 years but contemporary reality strains it to breaking point. The only serious threat to the Kim regime in North Korea is its own spectacular economic incompetence, which is a necessary consequence of its idiosyncratic totalitarianism. South Korea's worse nightmare would be to inherit responsibility for the bankrupt North, even though both sides express nominal aspiration for unification.

However the differences are more salient than the superficial similarities. While Beijing maintains official state relations with Pyongyang in as normal a fashion as possible for such a regime, Washington bows to Beijing's pressure and extremely limited inter-state relations with Taiwan. As I said, this does pose serious problems, by sending the wrong message to the hawks in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and depriving Washington of influence in Taiwan.

Yu Bin claims that "North Korea strives for substance (survival and security), while Taiwan is obsessed with superficiality (self-identity and self-righteousness)." However, he also asserts, "Nor should it be interpreted that the Mainland is not prepared militarily in the event of crisis," which is clearly a matter of some objective substance compared with the paranoia of Pyongyang. A thousand PRC missiles pointing across the Straits toward its "compatriots" in Taiwan and the anti-secession Act "legalizing" military action against the island are hardly "superficial" issues.

Taiwan has abandoned the revanchist claims to the Mainland of the Republic of China (ROC). In the peculiar looking-glass view of the PRC, this means that the island's government is threatening stability in the region. History is generally more logical: it is the deliverer of ultimata rather than the recipient that threatens stability. In fact Taiwan's renunciation of the nuclear option is highly commendable and restrained in the circumstances.

It is not provocative to hold views different from the government of China, where even peaceful "secessionist activities," are treated as active treason. Just consider how unlikely it would be for a British or Canadian government to send troops to prevent a democratically mandated secession by Scotland or Quebec. In fact a British claim to Ireland based on a much longer occupation has more credibility than China's title to Taiwan but London wisely refrains from making it. In the modern world, countries do not annex territories against the will of the inhabitants.

Regardless, Yu Bin claims, "An independent Taiwan is unacceptable to any regime on the mainland, be it traditional, communist, or democratic." This is hypothetical since in stark contrast to Taiwan there is no mechanism to ascertain the views of the mainland Chinese. As I pointed out in my original piece, if Mao Zedong could envisage self-determination for Taiwan, and the Chinese Soviet Republic constitution could guarantee it for minorities, then so can any future regime in Beijing.

In contrast, while Taiwan's government is obviously playing to the gallery of public opinion with its referendum on the UN application, it will also unequivocally establish for the international community, not least that part of which professes democratic values and the right to self-determination, the will of the Taiwanese population, which Yu Bin admits is overwhelmingly against reunification.

He refers to desinification as a nefarious policy, which is a peculiarly PRC view. It is perfectly possible for countries to share languages and cultures but to form different polities, as the Austrians and the Germans, Spain and most of Latin America, and Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even the United States so eloquently demonstrate. The Taiwanese government is certainly emphasizing the distinctive aspects of the island's life such as the indigenous tribes. In fact, one Kuomintang (KMT) official claimed that the emphasis on protecting and emphasizing tribal culture was the result of seeing the official policy toward minorities in the PRC. Singapore's overwhelmingly Chinese culture does not mandate annexation by Beijing.

"A more peaceful and mutually beneficial compromise on the Taiwan issue remains wide open," says Yu Bin. It takes two to compromise. Anything that does not leave Taiwan with effective recognition as a state will not be acceptable to the Taiwanese voters. If China could accept as a face-saver even as exiguous a relationship as, say the British queen as head of state of New Zealand, that could work. But the PRC's insistence on inheriting the mandate of heaven that the Manchus had is at odds with its own history and with modern democratic practice.

There is little doubt that many in the Bush administration would like to throw Taiwan to the wolves, in order to court China's cooperation in the way he suggests. But politically, at home and with its allies in the region, the administration cannot and in fact should not abandon its commitment to Taiwan.

Ian Williams contributes frequently to Foreign Policy In Focus ( on UN and international affairs. More of his work is available on

For More Information

This strategic dialogue consists of two original pieces -- Yu Bin's America's Rogue Ally and Ian Williams's Support Taiwan's Democracy -- and two responses, this one and Yu Bin's Making Democracy Safe for the World.

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