Written by Gerrit van der Wees.
Image credit: Civilian recognition of Taiwan! by Can Pac Swire/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0
This article was originally published in The Journal of Political Risk and can be found here.
A recent episode in Prague illustrates in two important ways that China’s relations with the West are changing fast. It shows the need for the US and Western Europe to reimagine relations with Taiwan, bring Taiwan in from the cold of political isolation, start working towards a normalization of relations, and find a rightful place for that democratic country in the international family of nations.
A Prague Spring in the offing?
First, consider that policymakers in the Czech Republic are increasingly pushing back against the way China has been attempting to isolate Taiwan internationally. Led by the new mayor of Prague Zdeněk Hřib, elected in November 2018, and his up-and-coming Pirate Party, the city last year broke off sister-city ties with Beijing – which had imposed unacceptable “One China” conditions on the arrangement – and established ties with Taiwan’s capital Taipei.
To be sure, at the national level, key policymakers like President Miloš Zeman and Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, both associated with the right of center business community, are still very much in Beijing’s pocket. But observers in Prague indicate that a new Prague Spring is in the offing.
The pro-Taiwan sentiment extended to the Czech Parliament, and at the end of December 2019 plans were made for Senate speaker Jaroslav Kubera to lead a delegation to Taiwan, accompanied by a number of Czech business leaders. However, it was recently disclosed that on January 10th 2020, the Chinese embassy in Prague sent a letter – apparently with the approval of Zeman’s office — threatening that China would retaliate against Czech companies if Mr. Kubera went ahead with the visit. The letter even specifically mentioned “Skoda Auto, Home Credit Group, Klaviry Petrof and others.”
Second, the ham-fisted effort by the Chinese embassy is emblematic of the way the PRC and its representative offices around the world have gone about their work: pushing their points and arguments in a manner that many find inappropriate in diplomacy. One way the Chinese embassy attempted to push the Czech Senate Speaker Kubera into a corner was by stating: Top representatives of Western countries, including the USA, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, abide by the One-China Policy, and none of them has visited Taiwan.
One China policy outdated
An element of the problem is that the Chinese embassy is partly right: while quite a number of parliamentary delegations from the United States, the UK, France and Germany have visited Taiwan, the governments of the United States and European nations have refrained from sending higher level officials, as they still consider themselves bound by the “One China policy.”
The problem with that anachronistic policy is that it may have served well as an answer to the situation in the 1970s, when there were two repressive regimes – the Chinese Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek (who happened to be sitting in Taipei but in no way represented the Taiwanese people at the time) and the Chinese Communists of Mao Tse-tung — claiming to represent all of China. But, that it is totally inadequate in 2020.
The fundamental difference between 1979 – when the US severed relations with the “Republic of China” – and 2020 is indeed that back in 1979 Taiwan was ruled by a repressive KMT regime that still claimed sovereignty over China, while during the past 30-plus years Taiwan has morphed into a lively democracy, with a population that is eager to be accepted by the international community as a full and equal member, and is willing to fulfill its responsibilities as a world citizen.
Taiwan’s vibrant democracy is new fact on the ground
Thus, while the “One China policy” may or may not have served a useful role in the past, the question is whether it is still an adequate legal and political basis for US and European relations with the vibrant democracy that is Taiwan today.
By still clinging to the “One China policy”, the US and other countries are perpetuating Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation and lack of international status. Taiwan’s transition to democracy represents a new fact on the ground that should prompt the international community to move away from the antiquated “One China policy” concept, and move towards acceptance of Taiwan as a full member in the international family of nations.
The main obstacle is of course the insistence by the PRC government in Beijing that it has sovereignty over the island and its 23 million inhabitants. In fact, at no point in its existence since 1949 has the PRC exercised any control over Taiwan or had any sovereignty over the island. However, it sees itself as the successor of the KMT regime of Chiang Kai-shek, and the ancient Chinese Ming and Ch’ing dynasties.
Start looking at Taiwan in a new light
The problem is thus that Beijing still sees the relations with Taiwan through the dark glasses of the Chinese Civil War, which was fought in China between Nationalists and Communists. The leaders in Beijing need to start looking at Taiwan in a new light. They need to move away from the old animosities, contradictions and perceptions dating from the Chinese Civil War, and move towards the concept of peaceful coexistence as friendly neighbors.
Perpetuation of the current zero-sum strategy of military, economic and political pressure is simply not conducive to peaceful cross-Strait relations and will perpetuate tensions for a long time to come. Peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait can only be achieved if China accepts Taiwan as a friendly neighbor.
It would certainly help if other international democracies, in particular the United States, Western Europe, India, Japan, Australia and New Zealand would jointly help convince China to alter its approach to Taiwan, while leading the way by at the same time reimagining their own Taiwan relations.
Taking into account the fact that the Taiwan of 2020 is not the same as the ROC of 1979, we 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 towards a normalization of bilateral relations. And, under the principle of universality, we need to support Taiwan as a full and equal member in the international family of nations.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016 he served as chief editor of Taiwan Communiqué. He currently teaches history of Taiwan at George Mason University and Current Issues in East Asia at George Washington University.