TAIPEI — For all the divisions that define Taiwan politics, parties on both ends of the political spectrum agree on one thing: The island is in trouble. At that point, however, they part ways.
The government of President Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) believe that Taiwan’s biggest problem is the implacable hostility of China and Taipei’s feckless friends who do Beijing’s bidding.
For the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), the problem is Chen and his reckless pursuit of independence.
Taiwanese frustrations are palpable and growing. Yet the Taiwanese response has been reflexive and dangerous: The first inclination is to lash out. That is emotionally gratifying, but it increases tensions and antagonizes friends when Taipei needs them more than ever.
Recently, Taiwan suffered three indignities at the hands of the United States. First, Washington denied Chen a stop on the U.S. mainland on his trip to Latin America and forced him to transit through Alaska on both legs of his journey. Second, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told a Phoenix TV interviewer that the U.S. opposes Chen’s call for a referendum on Taiwan’s U.N. membership bid under the name of Taiwan. He said the move was “a mistake” that could damage regional stability. “We oppose the notion of that kind of a referendum because we see that as a step toward . . . a declaration of independence of Taiwan, toward an alteration of the status quo.”
Finally, National Security Council Senior Asia Director Dennis Wilder echoed Negroponte, calling the referendum bid “perplexing,” saying “It only adds a degree of tension to cross-straits relations that we deem unnecessary.” He then infuriated Taiwanese by explaining the bid was perplexing because “Membership in the United Nations requires statehood. Taiwan, or the Republic of China, is not at this point a state in the international community.”
In each case, Taiwan’s response was sharp. In Alaska, Chen refused to disembark and meet supporters. He called the treatment “unprecedented” and played the role of statesman prepared to suffer on behalf of his country, stating “For the sake of protecting Taiwan’s national dignity and furthering the country’s democracy, the courtesy, comfort and convenience for myself are of little importance.”
Lin Chia-lung, secretary general of the DPP, blasted Negroponte, saying “Taiwan stands on the just and right side while a few U.S. officials will be judged by history. We hope the U.S. would respect Taiwan’s mainstream public opinions and not bow to pressure from the Chinese communists.”
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry dismissed Wilder’s comments arguing “Taiwan is a sovereign independent country, of that there is no doubt. This fact will not be altered by the comments of an official from a foreign country.”
Chen was unmoved and unrepentant. The U.S. “cannot ask Taiwan to be a democratic country but forbid it to hold a referendum . . . the U.S. cannot draw a red line on Taiwan’s democracy but shift it back and forth.”
The U.S. hasn’t moved its red lines. Its policy has been consistent: Washington opposes any unilateral effort to change the status quo. It opposes the proposed referendum because it is seen as moving toward independence, because it will agitate Beijing and increase tensions in the Strait, and finally because ultimately it will be fruitless. It may work as a political gesture to rally independence supporters to Chen and his party, but it will have no effect on Taiwan’s international status or its bid to enter the U.N.
While a referendum won’t influence international opinion on Taiwan’s status, the charge that Washington opposes the effort because it is doing China’s bidding will surely cost Taipei friends in the U.S. Throughout my week in Taipei, independence supporters repeatedly accused the U.S. of sacrificing Taiwan for China. According to them, Washington had to criticize Chen to secure Beijing’s backing on other issues, such as the war against terrorism and the six-party talks.
The argument that U.S. opposition reflected an assessment of U.S. interests — in particular the desire to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait — and anger at Chen for violating the “four no’s” of his 2000 inauguration fell on deaf ears.
The inability to see the consequences of its actions risks alienating Taiwan’s other friends and supporters. Several Taiwanese contrasted Taipei’s behavior with that of Seoul, complaining that Taiwan was a much better ally than South Korea but did not get credit. They pointed to anti-Americanism in Korea, warning that Washington risked creating the same animus in Taiwan if it did not back Taipei’s policies. Koreans in our group were incensed by the comparison.
“Take no prisoners” politics is undermining Taiwan’s future. South Korea and Taiwan have had similar trajectories. Both evolved from military dictatorships to robust democracies, and developed successful economies in the process. That experience could provide common ground for cooperation to promote similar evolutions in other developing countries.
That collaboration is likely to be less high profile than Taipei would prefer, but the goal should be to do good, rather than be seen to be doing good.
Unselfish efforts that aim at producing positive outcomes rather than scoring political points are more likely to earn Taipei goodwill and international recognition.
Brad Glosserman (firstname.lastname@example.org), a contributing editor to The Japan Times, is executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank.