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Home Editorials of Interest Taipei Times Impact of US debates for Taiwan

Impact of US debates for Taiwan

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Looking at the three US presidential debates from abroad, one cannot help but feel that this year’s election has fallen into a slander campaign between Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump.

Trump, in particular, is notorious for making scandalous and outrageous remarks to rally his anti-establishment supporters and garner media attention. As a result, there has been a lack of thorough discussion over political visions and policy differences between the two.

Of all the nations, China used to pay a great deal of attention to the contents of US presidential debates: Chinese Communist Party leaders mobilized their US specialists to closely monitor candidates’ remarks on China’s human rights records, economic and foreign policies and the Taiwan question.

However, this year, China has perceived the presidential campaign as a form of entertainment rather than worrying about any criticism coming from Clinton or Trump. Most Chinese diplomats, foreign policy analysts, academics and students are convinced that the US might need China more than China needs the US.

They think that with the escalating North Korean nuclear crisis, the Islamic State threat and global warming, the US has to cooperate with China on geopolitical and environmental issues. This confidence is derived from their evaluation of US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy over the past eight years.

Feeling disillusioned with the aftermath of the global war on terrorism, the Obama administration realized that most of the chaos in the world are completely beyond the US’ ability to resolve. Obama has been cautious in handling regional and global crises. Detecting a growing sense of protectionism in the US, Beijing is keen to exploit this opportunity to challenge the framework of international governance held by Washington and to force Taipei to acknowledge the “1992 consensus.”

Nonetheless, running a US presidential campaign is different from governing the nation and managing international crises. When the dust of the campaign settles after Nov. 8, the new US president will assess the pros and cons of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia.

Compared with the administration of former US president George W. Bush, Obama has been conciliatory toward geopolitical rivals in Asia and Europe. He has utilized multiple diplomatic channels to deter China from deploying military force to change what Beijing perceives as an unfair and unfavorable system of global governance. The objective is to facilitate China’s constructive rise within the long-standing international system and norms. This pragmatic thinking seems to be built on two considerations.

First, many Western policy think tanks are still wondering whether a rising China will be a “status quo” state or a revisionist state that attempts to challenge the US-led global order. The lack of clarification from Beijing has prompted Washington to employ a dual strategy of engagement and containment in an effort to stabilize regional security in Asia. Washington continues to communicate and work with Beijing over the North Korean nuclear crisis while urging the latter to stop further expansion into the South China Sea and threaten Taiwan’s existence.

Second, the conventional theory of international diplomacy argues that lesser powers live at the mercy of greater powers, and the latter make unilateral decisions without acknowledging the former. Following the outbreak of the Korean War, the US signed a series of mutual defense treaties to integrate nations like Japan, the Philippines and South Korea into its regional security system, housing US military bases and intelligence facilities in the western Pacific.

However, the heavy reliance on Washington for protection means that these nations’ greatest fear will be an abandonment by the US in a time of war, because it is hard for any US president to defend Pacific allies when the US’ national security is not under threat.

Growing insecurity and bleak times provide a fertile ground for the pursuit of independent agendas among regional leaders. This explains why Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to amend the nation’s post-World War II constitution and increase military spending, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced he would cut ties with the US and embrace China as a new economic and strategic partner.

As a middle-power state in the Pacific, Taiwan is still reluctant to be a part of the Chinese political union. Yet it acknowledges that Washington will be unlikely to risk going to war with Beijing over the Taiwan question. The challenge for Taiwan is how to gain formal and informal diplomatic recognition for its survival.

In the US, Taiwan should reach out to the general public and US congressional representatives. During the Martial Law era from 1949 to 1987, the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan was a shining example of grassroots activism, partnering with sister churches in the US and Europe, and utilizing transnational Christian networks to support Taiwanese struggle for democracy and independence.

By comparison, many overseas Taiwanese advocacy groups were funded and run by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) elites and officials. While striving to advocate pro-Taiwan agendas in public, they operated as chattering clubs in the China towns and were less effective in communicating with mainstream society.

Faced with China’s intense campaign to isolate Taiwan, the nation needs a larger platform to operate and engage with the global community. Informal international recognition is as important as formal diplomatic ties. Unless there are systematic attempts to advocate the Taiwanese cause abroad, the US public would know very little about the nation’s rich heritage, technological innovations and democratic accomplishments.

Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is a history professor at Pace University in New York.

Source: Taipei Times - Editorials 2016/10/26

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Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office Deputy Chief Prosecutor Chou Shih-yu at a news conference yesterday in Taipei provides information on an investigation into alleged funding from China of the pro-unification Web site Fire News.
Photo: Liu Hsin-de, Taipei Times

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