Who Is Pushing Away from Whom in the Taiwan Strait?

photo credit: AP/達志影像
Why you need to know

President Tsai is being accused of trying to move Taiwan away from China. Rather than accuse Taipei of breaking an unwritten rule, we should instead ask why China has become less and less attractive to the people of Taiwan.

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No matter what President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) says or does nowadays, we can be sure there will be observers who are eager to regard her every move as evidence that she intends to pull Taiwan away from China. 

Oftentimes the wording used by editorial writers seems to imply that proximity to China is a Law of Nature, with the implication that “pushing away” is a violation of the rules.

Much of that stems from the notion that “one China” is a principle, a much-used and misused term that suggests a natural state when, in reality, it is very much a political construct used by Beijing to justify its unchanging policy vis-à-vis Taiwan. If the Taiwan-as-part-of-China trope is indeed a principle, then it follows that any position that argues otherwise involves a contradiction of some law.

The image of China as a gravitational force is reinforced whenever analysts and editorial writers describe President Tsai as “pushing away” from China, as Bloomberg did in an editorial published today.

There is flagrant bias in this way of describing the situation, which argues that Taiwan’s efforts to have normal ties with its neighbors—including Japan, which the author seems to regard as a worrying development—is somehow problematic. In reality, establishing constructive relations with other countries is the normal conduct of states and does not necessarily mean that this involves “pulling away” from other relationships. In other words, diplomacy isn’t a zero-sum game: it is perfectly possible for a country to diversify its interactions while simultaneously continuing to engage countries that exert a major influence on it, as no doubt China does with Taiwan.

What often is left unsaid about cross-strait relations is that the relationship should be, and is, a two-way street, meaning that China can “push away” from Taiwan just as much as Taiwan can do so from China. And in that respect, some “pushing away” has undoubtedly occurred.

By becoming increasingly (some would say jingoistically) nationalistic, repressive and unwilling to respect international norms, that is exactly what Beijing has been doing—it has been pushing away from a national narrative and way of life that is acceptable to the Taiwanese (or many Hongkongers, for that matter). Beijing’s push to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese has been an abject failure, and its refusal to identify the real causes of that failure has also contributed to the souring relationship, even as ties gave the appearance that they were improving, as was the case during the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration. One can hardly blame the Taiwanese for Beijing’s fixation on economic determinism—a strategy that was doomed to fail from the outset—and ham-fisted use of “soft power.”

A relationship between two close friends can sour because one side has decided to engage in, say, a life of crime; it is hardly fair to blame the reasonable party for refusing to follow the other into delinquency.

Through the consolidation of its liberal democracy and desire to be a responsible stakeholder within the international community, Taiwan has clearly signaled where it stands, and it has been consistent in that stance over the years. Conversely, by cracking down on its own society and engaging in dangerous expansionism, Beijing has only succeeded in undermining its gravitational pull, its “soft power,” for the sake of short-term, and likely illusory, domestic stability. There is no principle out there, no law of nature, dictating that Taiwan should follow China into that downward spiral. Taiwan isn’t pushing away; it is very much standing still.

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