Taiwan an opportunity for peace

Written by Gerrit van der Wees.

Professor Graham Allison of Harvard University got it wrong, again! In a November 9th article in the WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and the Washington Post, Professor Allison took the commemoration of the end of World War I as an opportunity to elaborate further on his “Thucydides Trap” theory, pitting a rising power (China) against an established power (the United States).

In the article, Professor Allison described Taiwan as a major flashpoint, because – as he wrote: “For China, Taiwan is a “core interest” — regarded as much a part of China as Alaska is to the United States. Any attempt by Taiwan to become an independent country could easily become a casus belli. In 1996, when the Taiwanese government took initial steps toward independence, China conducted extensive missile tests bracketing the island to coerce it to stop.”

The problem is that Professor Allison rather recklessly adopts the Chinese narrative on how it sees Taiwan, and fails to present the facts as they are: in its long history, Taiwan was never ever part of the PRC: it was a Japanese colony until the end of World War II, and it was then occupied by the Chinese Nationalists, the losing side of the Chinese Civil War.

As is well-known, from the 1950s through the 1970s the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek competed with Mao Tse-tung’s Communists for international recognition as the legitimate government of “China’, a battle eventually lost by the Nationalists.

But the main point lost on the leaders in Beijing – and Professor Allison – is that during the 1980s and 1990s Taiwan morphed into a vibrant democracy that wants to live in peace with all its neighbours (including China) and wants to be accepted as a full and equal member in the international community.

It is thus fundamentally wrong – as Professor Allison does — to couch Taiwan’s achievement of democracy and efforts to gain international recognition as attempts to “become an independent country” which would become a casus belli for war. By the same token it is highly erroneous to state that in 1996, “the Taiwanese government took initial steps toward independence.” In 1996, the people of Taiwan for the very first time in their history exercised their right to elect their own president. That was a major achievement in democracy, which is of course not liked by Beijing. Words matter, professor Allison!

So, what narrative should we follow if we want to avoid a major conflict – and that is what professor Allison professes to try to achieve with his essay. For one, his essay is titled “The next great war.” If one wants to push for peace, then it might be helpful to start with another title: How about “The next great peace”?

If professor Allison, and others like him who have rather carelessly used the Taiwan case to bolster their “Realist” theories, such as George Washington University Professor Charles Glaser, and professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, it would be more constructive to analyse and present ways and scenarios that would lead to peaceful coexistence of Taiwan and China as two friendly neighbours. For this to happen, it would be necessary for three parallel processes to take place:

First, the rulers in Beijing must look at Taiwan in a new light. Chinese leaders need to move away from the old animosities, contradictions and perceptions dating from the Chinese Civil War, which ended 69 years ago. It needs to become clear to Beijing that the perpetuation of the current zero-sum strategy of military, economic and political pressure is not conducive to cross-strait relations, and that peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait can only be achieved if China moves toward acceptance of Taiwan as a friendly neighbour.

Second, the international community must reimagine its Taiwan relations. Taking into account that the democratic Taiwan of 2018 is not the same as the repressive Republic of China (ROC) of 1971, the US and Western Europe in particular need to look at Taiwan in its own light and its own right. We need to bring Taiwan in from the cold of political isolation and start working toward a normalization of bilateral relations. Under the principle of universality, we also need to start supporting Taiwan as a full and equal member in the international family of nations.

Third, in due time and at its own pace, Taiwan needs to reinvent itself. This process has already been under way since the transition to democracy in the early 1990s, but it can be expected to accelerate under President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party.

Through a process of democratic reforms, Taiwan needs to adjust the administrative, legislative and judicial structure to present-day needs. The overall structure dates from the time when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) ruled China. Last but not least, through their own democratic mechanisms, the people of Taiwan need to adjust the governmental and constitutional structure to present-day reality.

Thus, instead of the narrative of “Taiwan as a flashpoint”, professor Graham Allison and others need to focus on these three interrelated processes, which provide a constructive way forward, so Taiwan can have a bright future as a free and democratic nation that is accepted as a full and equal member in the international community.

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat.  From 1980 through 2016 he also served as editor of Taiwan Communiqué, a publication chronicling Taiwan’s momentous transition to democracy.  He presently teaches history of Taiwan at George Mason University. Imaga credit: CC by U.S. Navy


  1. Dear Gerrit van der Wees;

    Your article to Professor Graham Allison was well described as a wake up call for Professor Allison. Thank you very much for voicing out the fact and reality for the 23 million people on Taiwan as well as all foreign Taiwanese in US and the rest of world.

    Keep up the good work.

    John Pang Yu
    US Citizen
    Founding President and Headquarters President Emeritus
    North America Taiwanese Engineering & Science Association


    1. Apparently, independence advocates for Taiwan have a blind spot in their perception of Taiwan’s position in the world. As long as the world does not care about “the fact and reality for the 23 million people on Taiwan as well as all foreign Taiwanese in US and the rest of world”, no “voicing out” of that fact among small circles of friends will make any difference.

      And how could it be different when even the people of Taiwan themselves are starkly disunited in their reading of that fact and reality? How could it be different as long as the people of Taiwan are too timid to make any decisive move asserting their sovereignty?


  2. The problem is rather that Gerrit van der Wees does not get the point of Graham Allison’s argument. The steps of that argument are:

    1. The dominant power and a rapidly rising power were drawn into a major war in 12 out of 16 cases during the past 500 years. Such, a war appears nearly unavoidable in those cases, even might be started inadvertently.

    2. Currently the United States is the dominant power and China is the rapidly rising power.

    3. He doubts that preventive and mitigating steps will suffice to allow the United States and China to avoid a destructive confrontation, unless President Xi Jinping fails in his aim to make China great again.

    4. Taiwan is one of the major hotspots of contention between the United States and China.

    A meaningful critique of those arguments would contain:

    ad 1. The two most recent cases did not culminate in war. So, perhaps, there is some learning from history.

    ad 3. In fact, preventive and mitigating steps did suffice to avoid a destructive confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.

    ad 3. We might replace the patronising unless-clause in Allison’s argument by ‘unless president Trump and successors fail in their aim to keep the United States great’. It seems equally convincing.


    – Whose narrative on the sovereignty over Taiwan is true or false does not matter as long as the declarations and the actions of the contestants are informed by their power interests foremost, such making Taiwan a major hotspot. Power interests shape narratives to be used to legitimise those power interests. Only the foolhardy expect truth in a narrative.

    – The “rulers in Beijing” have a clear vision on how to preserve “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”. It can only be maintained if Taiwan is reunited with China eventually, thus denying the United States the opportunity to use the island as a tool to contain China’s ambition. From their point of view the statement “the rulers in Beijing must look at Taiwan in a new light” makes no sense. And anyway, who do you think you are, to make such a request of us.

    – It is true, “the democratic Taiwan of 2018 is not the same as the repressive Republic of China (ROC) of 1971”. However, if I am not mistaken, the government of Taiwan is still representing the Republic of China and the constitution of the ROC still presumes or claims sovereignty over all of China. So, if “the international community must reimagine its Taiwan relations”, what’s the base in international law for such re imagination once the PRC is accepted as representing China?

    – It is an empty request that, “in due time and at its own pace, Taiwan needs to reinvent itself”. Just that it’s doing in one way or another for several decades now.


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