Fighting peace for Taiwan

by Hisahiko Okazaki

Four months after the presidential elections in Taiwan, there is a big difference when comparing the aftereffects of the elections in 2008 to those in 2012.

Four years ago, there was a sense of crisis over the situation surrounding the Strait of Taiwan. Now the question for Taiwan is how to survive the peace, particularly the propaganda wars in the United States.

In the aftermath of the elections in 2008, much alarm was heard. Many people worried that China would not miss this precious chance after two successive Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) regimes. Many had the worst-case scenario in mind: China would use force or threaten to use force; the Taipei government would accept certain Chinese demands that the DPP government would never have accepted; the decision would be made quickly enough so that the U.S. would not have the time to consider intervention. That would practically in the end free Taiwan. The probability of this was not high, but they were braced for and scared by even the remotest possibility.

Then they thought China would not dare to resort to such a move before the successful conclusion of the 2008 Olympic Games and were braced for the contingency afterward. Nothing happened after the Olympic Games, then, they were weary of a crisis after the Shanghai Expositions. Then nothing happened, until the peaceful elections were held for the second term of a Kuomintang presidency.

Now we may be more assured with the sensibility and common sense of the Chinese. They seem to know with high probability that the U.S. will intervene and that the result of war would be disastrous for China. War would end China’s economic success. A defeated China might lose Tibet, Uighur and even Inner Mongolia.

On the other side of the strait, the Kuomintang also learned that, in peacetime, public opinion decides everything. To advocate for integration with the mainland is unpopular. As soon as the government referred to a political agreement with the mainland, which was one of the election promises, polled support dropped. Closer ties with Japan is popular and gains more support. Without the possibility of Chinese intervention through force, the government always has to think about public polls and the next elections. Democracy is working.

Only two long-term trends may change this status quo. One is the continuous shift in the military balance of power in the strait to the extent of discouraging American intervention. The other is growing impatience on the Taiwan side concerning the present indeterminate status under international law and its aspirations for true independence. But neither of them are expected to happen in the near future, at least, before the next presidential elections four years later.

Now that the situation is stable for some time to come, both the Kuomintang and the DPP know everything should be settled through democratic elections and that electorates do not like either unification or confrontation with mainland China. So, there will be peace, albeit uneasy, in the strait.

Sometimes peace is more difficult to deal with. During the long Cold War period, the periods of tension and so-called détente alternated between the rival sides. Generally it was easier to deal with the period of tension, such as the Cuban crisis or the Berlin crisis, where the public opinion in the free world was united. The more difficult is how to deal with the offer of a peaceful coexistence or détente.

Since 2009, China has been unnecessarily provocative in its behavior, making the U.S. and neighboring countries easier to enhance ties among them. We do not know the exact reason that prompted China to have behaved in that disadvantageous way. If it has anything to do with the power struggle within China in the years leading to the change of leadership this autumn, then, we have to be prepared for a possible Chinese peace offensive after the power structure is solidified again.

Then, Taiwan has to fight peace. Fighting peace has many facets. But here I would like to raise only one point: how to win propaganda wars.

Recently I read an op-ed article in The New York Times written by Paul Kane that I cannot possibly agree with: There are dozens of initiatives President Barack Obama could undertake to strengthen our economic security. Here is one: He should enter into closed-door negotiations with Chinese leaders to write off the $1.14 trillion in American debt currently held by China in exchange for a deal to end American military assistance and arms sales to Taiwan and terminate the current U.S.-Taiwan defense arrangement by 2015.

I learned that the author is with the Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School. I do not know about the connection between China and the center or the author himself. If there are any, there is nothing wrong for a foreign country to support academic studies. Japan itself has supported Japanese studies in the U.S., though the Japanese government is now incomparably less resourceful than the Chinese.

The above case may not have been exactly successful because it was immediately criticized by other columns, but there could be more sophisticated examples. An article presented by Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen in a recent Foreign Affairs piece said that “in the coming years, China will enlarge its regional role, but this growth will only threaten U.S. interests if Washington attempts to dominate East Asia and fails to consider China’s legitimate regional interests.”

Obviously propaganda war started. In order to defend the freedom of Taiwan, it has to survive this competition.

The U.S. is a democratic country. The only way to survive peaceful competition is to win in debates in the U.S., in newspaper columns and in Congress. Taiwan should help, encourage and organize its own, as well as American and Japanese intellectuals to counter any harmful arguments against the security of Taiwan.

Taiwan is well qualified for that. It is free democratic country. People are civil and enjoying a high standard of living, and, above all, liberty. In fact, the recent case of Bo Xilai, together with that of Chen Guangcheng, gave Taiwan tremendous moral superiority over the mainland. Taiwan now has good chances to win over American public opinion.

Hisahiko Okazaki is a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Thailand.