Campus & Community

Taiwan’s status discussed

6 min read

Foreign minister talks about Taiwan in the ‘New Age’

Taiwanese foreign minister Hung-mao Tien spoke about his country’s complicated position in the international community. The talk was sponsored by the Asia Center and the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. (Staff photo by Stephanie Mitchell)

Speaking at Harvard Sept. 6, Taiwanese foreign minister Hung-mao Tien offered a term from the language of political science to describe the relationship between his nation and mainland China.

Taiwan, he said, was the smaller party in “an asymmetric dyad,” comparable to Finland in the recent past in its relationship to the Soviet Union or Israel in its relationship to the Arab world.

The term is not only a giveaway of Tien’s academic background (a former professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin and a prolific author, he was introduced by Asia Center Director William Kirby as probably the most academically accomplished foreign minister in the world), but it also hints at the difficulty of defining Taiwan’s complicated and problematic status within the international community.

“What both of these examples [Finland and Israel] show,” said Tien, “is that countries in this kind of position can successfully survive, and even develop positive relations with the larger component of the dyad, but support from outside is certainly necessary to avoid the smaller player being absorbed.”

The ominous word “absorbed” is well chosen, since mainland China does not even regard Taiwan as a country, but as a renegade province, whose reacquisition is one of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stated political goals.

The PRC has maintained what Tien referred to as a “diplomatic blockade,” against Taiwan, using political pressure to discourage other countries from recognizing its smaller neighbor. Only about 30 countries now maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The United States is not one of them.

Tien spoke under the auspices of the Asia Center and the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. His talk, “Taiwan’s Foreign Policy in the New Age,” compared Taiwan’s relationship with the PRC to David and Goliath. Taiwan, he said, is “engaged in a struggle for survival, in the face of the threat of force that the PRC hangs over our heads.”

But like David in the biblical confrontation, Taiwan is not entirely without resources. The stone in its sling is the assistance it counts on from larger democratic nations, in the form of either military hardware or the promise of military support. Despite the fact that it does not officially recognize Taiwan, the United States is one of the major suppliers of such help.

Taiwan also hopes to gain membership in global or regional organizations that have so far excluded it, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the United Nations.

Among the strengths Taiwan would bring to such groups, Tien declared, is a commitment to democracy – evidenced by the diversity of its political parties and its 80 percent voter turnout.

These achievements are all the more remarkable considering Taiwan’s recent history. Following the Communist victory on the mainland in 1949, 2 million Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan and established a government in exile that was essentially a military dictatorship. Over the ensuing five decades the government gradually democratized and has incorporated the native population within its structure.

Indeed, a note of frustration seemed to enter Tien’s words when he compared Taiwan’s progress as a democracy with the way it has been treated by the rest of the world.

“We are tired of calling everybody’s attention to the fact that we are not a part of PRC, some kind of special region or something. We are a vibrant democracy with full sovereignty. Unfortunately, we still find ourselves rejected by the international community, in the same category as rogue and pariah states such as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Cuba. We do not export arms, steal nuclear know-how, lob missiles over other countries, invade our neighbors, persecute scholars and religious worshippers, or violate human rights. We are isolated simply because of the fact of our proximity to our formidable neighbor across the Taiwan Strait.”

Kirby, the Edith and Benjamin Geisinger Professor of History, acknowledges that being consigned to a backdoor relationship with other countries can be distressing to Taiwanese officials, but he questions whether the country’s status is truly comparable to that of the world’s rogue states.

“In fact, Taiwan has de facto working relations – economic, political, and cultural – with almost all major countries except the PRC,” Kirby said.

But in order to avoid arousing the PRC’s ire, the United States and other countries must resort to a system of fictitious titles. For example, although Taiwan sends officials with ambassadorial rank to the United States, those officials are referred to as representatives of private lobbying groups.

“Taiwan has been highly effective at building unofficial relations with other countries. The PRC’s effort to isolate Taiwan diplomatically has been successful on a formal level, but not on an informal one,” Kirby said.

Tien spoke of his country’s efforts to open a dialogue with the PRC and to work out the terms of a lasting peace. “Our government, from the president on down, has repeatedly shown goodwill in this regard, on a wide range of occasions and issues, but as yet to no avail,” he said.

But while relations between the two governments appear to be frozen, commercial interaction is alive and well. According to Kirby, Taiwanese companies have invested billions of dollars in the PRC, and, in fact, Taiwanese investment is one of the principal reasons for the PRC’s recent economic growth.

But since, for the most part, direct investment in the PRC is illegal, most of this activity is funneled through dummy companies or simply goes on under-the-table. This past August, Taiwan made a proposal to the PRC to establish direct economic linkages, but so far no agreement has been reached.

Tien ended his talk with a reminder that as Taiwan has become more democratic, political parties and points of view have proliferated. No longer does the government speak with one voice as in the days of Chiang Kai-shek.

The result, Tien said, can be messy, but “it is to be welcomed by those of us who believe that democracy is an end in itself. In Taiwan, we do believe that it is, and we are working hard to make this goal a reality.”

Contact Ken Gewertz at