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While the World Wasn't Looking, Crisis-Prone Taiwan Had A Political Revolution

To live in Taiwan is to live in a state of perpetual change – and occasional crisis. While the world focused on the mass protests in Hong Kong against the potential loss of its sovereignty to Beijing in 2014, Taiwan’s political revolution received scant attention from Washington and the capitals of Europe. It is unsurprising. In its grand project to steer China toward free trade and international norms, the United States has steadily reduced its political commitments to Taipei over the past half century out of expediency. The result? Not only does China remain a dictatorship and a flagrant violator of human rights but the long American slide toward appeasement has both emboldened Beijing and compromised international security.

Between China and Taiwan: A Strait in Dire Straits

Since the retreat of Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek to the island of Formosa (Taiwan) from Mao Zedong and his victorious People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in December 1949, Beijing has produced three international crises over the Taiwan Strait in its attempts to intimidate, marginalize, and subordinate Taipei. In the autumn of 1954, the American government under President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles demonstrated its feckless Asian foreign policy after the PLA fired on small islands still under the control of Chiang. Rather than firmly denouncing Chinese aggression, the administration waivered and remained largely silent. Consequently, Mao interpreted the passive American response as latent indifference, and the Chinese military promptly seized Yijiangshan Island in January 1955 – just as a Mutual Defense Treaty was being finalized between Washington and Taipei. When the PLA subsequently captured the Dachen Islands from retreating Nationalist forces one month later, Eisenhower suddenly reversed course and launched a policy of strategic brinksmanship. Although the palpable possibility of nuclear war curbed larger Chinese military ambitions, it was evident to all that the international system had become dangerously fractured only a decade after the Second World War. Indeed, a replica of the First Taiwan Strait Crisis occurred three years later over the islands of Quemoy and Matsu - ending with yet another American threat of annihilation.

After Taiwan lost its seat in the United Nations to China in 1971, President Richard Nixon won a victory in Cold War realpolitik by further exploiting the ideological rift between Moscow and Beijing with his historic visit to the latter several months later, and relations between the two countries improved steadily in the following years. Despite its repressive rule, President Jimmy Carter, who had proclaimed in his “Inaugural Address” less than two years earlier -- “Because we are free, we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere. Our moral sense dictates a clear-cut preference for those societies which share with us an abiding respect for individual human rights” -- de-recognized Taipei for Beijing as the official representative of China on 1 January 1979. In its wholesale diplomatic demotion of Taiwan, the United States had made an unmistakable announcement to the world: Politics and interests had triumphed over principles and ideals in American foreign policy -- a decision of extraordinary consequence that would ultimately undermine security in the Taiwan Strait and beyond.

In 1995, Jiang Zemin, the General Secretary of China, ignited the fuse of the most recent near-military confrontation between Beijing and Taipei by declaring “The principle of One China must be upheld as it is the prerequisite to achieving peaceful reunification” and adding “Any attempts to promote Taiwan independence [would] be opposed.” As Taiwan had recently instituted a series democratic electoral reforms and received a significant upgrade to its air force from the United States under President Lee Teng-hui, the People’s Republic of China (China) and the Republic of China (Taiwan) again clashed over rival ideologies and nationalisms. Three months later, Lee replied to Zemin by stressing separate development and the necessity of maintaining the political integrity of Taiwan in any “One China” arrangement. When he subsequently decided to apply for an American visa to deliver a foreign policy address at his alma mater -- Cornell University in Ithaca, New York -- Chinese leaders became alarmed at the prospect of the “renegade” island being accorded quasi-state recognition. To avoid antagonizing Beijing, the White House expediently balked at Lee’s request. In Congress, however, a bipartisan resolution was drafted and passed nearly unanimously by both chambers in support of receiving the Taiwanese leader – and implicitly rebuking President Bill Clinton for his near-craven stance toward China.

To demonstrate both its supreme indignation at Lee’s American visit and its military capability, Beijing initiated a series of military exercises six weeks later – including firing surface-to-surface missiles near Taiwan. Instead of condemning China for its provocative response, Clinton placated Beijing behind the scenes with a communique stressing his commitment to a “One China” policy. What was the result of his timorous diplomatic gesture? The Chinese leadership initiated yet another round of military exercises and missile tests in the Taiwan Strait. Indeed, the policies pursued by Lee were legitimate and necessary measures to secure Taiwanese sovereignty subsequent to the brutal suppression of democratic aspirations in China only a few years earlier – resulting in the massacre of hundreds if not thousands of unarmed protesters in Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989. At a pivotal moment for Taiwan and the region, the United States half-retreated and slid further toward appeasement.

What about the neoconservative administration of George W. Bush? Surely his government was more resilient against Beijing and its power politics, right? Not at all. Fourteen months after the president labeled Iran, Iraq, and North Korea an “axis of evil,” American forces were dispatched to oust the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in March 2003. In contrast to his blunt, Manichean rhetoric on Al-Qaeda and terrorism, Bush followed his immediate predecessors by allowing Beijing to define and narrowly limit U.S. relations with Taiwan. Although he continued to provide arms – including missiles to Taipei, Bush capitulated to pressure from China’s President Hu Jintao and publicly stated his opposition to the expansion of Taiwanese sovereignty in front of Taiwan’s Premier Wen Jiabao – to the surprise and dismay of the island. At the end of the decade, the stark disjuncture between American military and diplomatic policy toward Taiwan suddenly seemed both antiquated and untenable. Yet, it remained and still remains unaltered despite significant economic and political alterations to the security environment.

Embrace & Recoil: President Ma, China, and Popular Backlash

In 2008, Taiwanese voters elevated Ma Ying-jeou (b. 1950) to the presidency. Although he openly proclaimed his support for the Hong Kong protesters and refused to negotiate on reunification, he began to court Beijing with economic diplomacy to reduce tariffs and stabilize relations. After signing off on the sweeping Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China in 2010, Ma concluded a number of subsequent deals to expand free trade. In a word, the effects of his initiatives have been nothing short of staggering across Taiwanese society. Beyond a dramatic increase in tourism and travel, a significant portion of Taiwan’s industrial base and a number of Chinese banks have migrated across the Strait respectively. When Ma inked an agreement in mid-2013 to allow extensive, reciprocal competition in the service sector between the island and the mainland, a number of Taiwanese activists – known as the Sunflower Student Movement – staged a demonstration in the halls of government several months later and vocally denounced the pact as an elitist act of subservience to Beijing. Due to their intense three-week campaign, the public began to question the integrity of the deal, and the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) has yet to be approved by the legislature.

While CSSTA hangs in the balance, a new free trade agreement between Beijing and Seoul, which was signed in November 2014, now threatens to cripple Taiwan’s export-driven economy – as China’s imports from Taiwan will be supplanted by South Korea to a significant extent. Accordingly, the Gross National Product (GDP) of Taiwan has been forecast to fall by a half percentage point, and pervasive concerns over Chinese economic dominance in the region have stirred and revolutionized politics in Taipei. After years of pent up frustration with President Ma and his trade liberalization policies with China, Taiwanese voters turned to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and issued a resounding, widespread defeat of the Kuomintang Party (KMT) at the end of last year. Not only did KMT lose two of its principal political bases – Taichung and Taipei – but the president was also forced to step down as party chairman. As the political status quo of East Asia has been broken, should not the international security paradigm for Asia be reassessed?


Over the past twelve months, the tides of self-determination and economic sovereignty have swept through the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. As a result of popular protests in Hong Kong and Taiwan against greater alignment with Beijing, the political dynamics of the region have shifted dramatically. As Winston Churchill once quipped “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” Is not the same definition true with a Bear (Russia) or a Dragon (China)? To construct a viable framework for international security in the twenty-first century, the United States and Europe must actively and publicly support the surge of democratic sentiment in Hong Kong and Taiwan to protect human rights and prevent China from successfully exporting its hegemonic designs. Otherwise, the next crisis between Washington and Beijing might be beyond both brinksmanship and diplomacy.