Taiwan Must Avoid Short-Termism and Think Strategically

Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
Why you need to know

With control of both the legislative and executive branches of government, it must be very tempting for the DPP to take bold actions. But there are risks in doing so, and the Tsai administration is well aware of that.

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Following the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) resounding victory in the Jan. 16 presidential and legislative elections, it has understandably been tempting for elements within the green camp to try to immediately fix issues of high symbolic importance to them, such as the rectification of names or the removal of portraits.

Many of those efforts have occurred as the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration tries to find a proper balance in its efforts to achieve transitional justice. Such balance is necessary, as going for the Kuomintang’s (KMT) jugular would smack of triumphalism — or worse, retribution — mere months after the DPP has for the first time in Taiwan’s history captured both branches of government.

To its credit, the Tsai administration has deflected the pressure from the more hardline legislators in the DPP and members of civil society, not because it doesn’t believe in the need for rectification but rather because it knows that haste would, at this juncture, be counterproductive.

The new government has also been pressured by “deeper green” elements within its ranks on matters pertaining to national symbols, which if mishandled could have a deleterious impact on the always-precarious relationship with China. Though tempting in the wake of the DPP’s electoral successes, such hubris should be avoided, especially when the proposed policies confuse short-term gain with strategic thinking.

A recent example was a motion proposed by Wendy Yang (楊琬柔), a DPP representative in California, during the DPP party congress at the weekend. Yang was proposing that the name of the national carrier, China Airlines, be changed to Taiwan Airlines.

Although there is nothing fundamentally wrong with such a proposal — after all, China Airlines can easily be confused with Air China, the carrier from across the Taiwan Strait — party members should always remind themselves that Taiwan does not operate in a political vacuum and that it is in fact in a difficult position due to Beijing’s influence. What party representatives, legislators and officials in the Tsai administration should always ask themselves whether the benefits of a new policy outweigh the risks associated with their implementation: are Taiwan’s strategic needs being met, or is the return only short-term and emotionally satisfying?

It is hard to imagine that Beijing would not react negatively to a renaming of China Airlines, which it would regard as a move to alter the status quo. In this case, we need to ask ourselves what benefits would accrue from such a move and weigh those against the countermeasures that Beijing would likely adopt to punish Taiwan. Yes, Taiwan has every right to choose how it names its entities, and yes, it makes perfect sense to do so. But now is not the moment, not when the repercussions of such a move would inevitably undermine the Tsai administration’s ability to keep cross-strait relations on an even keel; and not when President Tsai’s strategy should be to buy time and to continue to consolidate Taiwan’s democratic institutions.

However tempting such changes may be, party representatives should remember the price that Taiwan paid when it let impatience replace political calculations during the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) era. Back then, did mail delivery, for example, improve following the renaming of Chunghwa Post to Taiwan Post in 2007? Did the move solidify Taiwan’s democracy? Help rectify its status internationally? The same question needs to be asked today: Would the removal of portraits of Sun Yat-sen in government buildings, proposed by DPP legislators earlier this year, accelerate transitional justice? At what cost, in terms of the divisiveness that this would cause in Taiwanese society and the empowerment of deeper-blue elements in the KMT? Would renaming China Airlines improve Taiwan’s ability to secure observer status, if not membership, at the International Civil Aviation Organization? Would it help business? Improve air safety? And just as important, what would be the costs of doing so, such as providing incentives for Beijing to retaliate by isolating Taiwan and to destabilize an extraordinarily difficult balancing act that President Tsai must succeed at?

However logical such a name change might be, it’s not the time to do so: it simply gives ammunition to the real enemy and makes President Tsai’s job much more difficult than it already is. Which is why the DPP and the Tsai administration should distance itself from such proposals, especially after they make headlines and are further debated on TV talk shows. The administration should make it very clear that while, in a democracy, party members are allowed — encouraged, in fact — to express their opinions, such policy proposals do not, for the time being, reflect the government’s policy and are not under serious consideration. To its great credit, thus far the Tsai administration has succeeded in not allowing the more fundamentalist elements in the green camp to hijack its policies. That must continue. That is not capitulation; it’s just being intelligent in the face of extraordinary challenges.

Taiwan is in a precarious, unusual and oftentimes uncomfortable position. That is its fate and the price it has to pay for refusing to yield to a formidable opponent. However troubling it may be to set aside one’s pride or sense of justice (common sense, in fact), it cannot afford to lose sight of the strategic objectives; and to get there, it must continue to buy time and to consolidate itself while avoiding taking actions that would destabilize the whole act.

Above all, Taiwanese need to be patient. Despite the many challenges it faces, time seems to be on Taiwan’s side. Why, therefore, take unnecessary risks?


First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White

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