HO CHI MINH CITY — Sure, the election of the next president of the United States will be the most closely watched election in Asia or anywhere else this year. America, for all its stumbles, is still the No. 1 superpower: So whomever the American voter picks, the world is stuck with.
But there’s another power — up and coming, predicted to become superpower No. 2 before long — that we will all watch closely: China. It doesn’t, to speak of, have direct elections of any vast significance; nor (at least not yet) does its annexed Hong Kong.
Another orbiting territory does hold elections — real ones, fiercely fought, as if the people have never known anything else. And one was held there just recently. The result offered dramatic and historic significance. It is Taiwan, the island off mainland China.
Yes, its population is but 23 million or so, but nonetheless it’s a major player in the evolution of Asia. That’s because of tensions with mainland monster China, which considers the island a bratty defector from the otherwise always-close mainland family. That Goliath-David odd-couple relationship helps set the tone of the East Asian region. Whoever Taiwan had elected as its president last month inevitably would be a closely watched event.
What Taiwan decided was historic: That it was time for a change. Overwhelmingly, voters said the tactics of confrontation with China, as practiced by the outgoing Democratic People’s Party government, were not getting anyone anywhere, and they said control of the central government should switch to the Kuomintong. The KMT party, for years in opposition, is the very party with which Beijing has repeatedly declaimed as the most comfortable.
With this stunning result, you could almost hear a collective sign of relief sweep across Asia. The triumphant KMT was led by the debonair Ma Ying-jeou. For months he had been expected to win the presidential race. But the resurgent troubles in Tibet had forecasters wondering whether the party that was so committed to negotiation with Beijing would be able to maintain plausibility with Taiwan voters when the world’s TV cameras were suggesting that Beijing didn’t seem to be in favor of negotiating with anyone right now.
Taiwan answered the clubs of Tibet with votes for change — for dramatic movement away from confrontation. With the thundering certainty that only a decisive ballot box result can offer, the vote heard around Asia was a call for sanity, civility and stability.
Even if the result had gone the other way, Beijing would not have learned any lesson; it would not have viewed its Tibet repression as ill-advised. On the contrary, it probably would only have cemented the Communist mind-set that reason has no compelling force of its own and that resorting to force is never unreasonable as long as it is effective.
The voters of Taiwan in effect sought to offer their own — dramatically different — message. They anointed a new government that ran on a high-profile platform of negotiation rather than confrontation. The brave voters of Taiwan were not cowered by images of the police and military clubs being used against the protesters in Tibet.
Rather, they were saying that had mature and forward-moving negotiations been in place over there, probably the clubs and police would never have had to come out.
Travel enough across Asia and you sense quickly that the region understands China’s rise as an inevitable factor of history that must somehow be accommodated — not confronted. A military clash between a colossus of 1.3 billion people and an island of 24 million would strike most Asians as a potentially tragic mismatch; Tibet, with scarcely 3 million, would seem to have no better chances.
As cold as such a calculus is for pragmatic Asians, it was the only calculation that made sense; and it pointed irresistibly toward a formula of diplomacy.
Over the millenniums, Asia has acquired much genetic experience in surviving in the shadow of the Han-Chinese giant. But survival requires wise and sometimes wily adaptation, not dinosaur-like blustering. You may not like the fact that Mother China has so much gravity and weight in Asia, but if you don’t, in truth, your quarrel is less with China itself than with history. Taiwan’s voters understand this unavoidable reality; let us hope the next American president, whoever she or he is, does, too.
At the same time, China needs to learn its own lessons. In only a short time, the eyes of the world will be upon it as the curtain rises on its much-anticipated Summer Olympics. Thus Chinese diplomacy must do a better job of making China seem more diplomatic. All along, its government should have been negotiating with the Dalai Lama — odious as the thought may be in Beijing circles — rather than mixing it up militarily in the streets of Tibet with Tibetans who are very uncommitted to making China look nice.
The Chinese government has too often stood on ceremony in resisting calls that talks with the Dalai Lama is the best way to avoid violence and maintain peace. Silly issues of form and appearance kept getting in the way; and the Dalai Lama’s own irritating and showboating hobnobbing with avowed critics of China didn’t add to his popularity in Beijing.
No matter: China’s central government must rise above its tendency to be huffy about ceremony and overly sensitive about status and reach out to the troublemakers if it wishes to avoid trouble. Then, should trouble come, the world will know whom to blame. But without negotiation, the worst is sure to come. This is what the voters of Taiwan said, overwhelmingly, this weekend. And they were so right and timely to say it. There’s a lesson for China and Tibet.
UCLA professor Tom Plate, veteran journalist and author, has been traveling in Southeast Asia. Copyright 2008 Tom Plate