Asians can think for themselves on Taiwan

Asians can think for themselves on Taiwan

Nancy Pelosi, then U.S. House speaker, center, gestures as she leaves parliament in Taipei on Aug. 3, 2022. © Reuters

Kishore Mahbubani

June 8, 2023

Outspoken Western leaders are putting region’s peace at risk

A war over Taiwan would be disastrous for Asia. By contrast, it would have only a marginal impact on Europe.

The total population of the 53 countries that make up the U.N.’s Asia and the Pacific Group comes to about 4.5 billion. By contrast, the total population of the 27 countries that make up the European Union comes to around 446 million, less than 10% as much.

So whose voices are making the most noise about Taiwan?

Originally published at NIKKEI ASIA on May 12, 2023

Asian leaders have generally had little to say about Taiwan, notwithstanding some recent statements made jointly with their U.S. counterparts.

European leaders have been much more outspoken about the island. European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen recently commented, “We stand strongly against any unilateral change in the status quo, in particular by the use of force.” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock meanwhile declared, “A military escalation in the Taiwan Strait … would be a horror scenario for the entire world.”

French President Emmanuel Macron tried to balance such provocative statements by stating the obvious: “The question we need to answer as Europeans is … is it in our interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan? No. The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the U.S. agenda and a Chinese overreaction.” But he then was predictably crucified by other Western leaders and media.

Why have Asians been comparatively quiet? The simple answer is that Asians understand that Taiwan is a dangerous and complex issue. They are also aware that the status quo has kept the peace for the decades since then-U.S. National Security adviser Henry Kissinger’s pathbreaking visit to Beijing in 1971. Asians know that it is not wise to rock the status quo.

So who is trying to change the status quo? European politicians suggest that China is trying to do so, but they are being intellectually dishonest. They lack the courage to say openly that it is reckless American politicians like former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who are trying to do so.

Mike Pompeo, another former U.S. policymaker who may be preparing to run for president, has been particularly inflammatory, saying in Taipei, “The United States government should immediately take necessary and long overdue steps to do the right and obvious thing: that is, to offer the Republic of China (Taiwan) America’s diplomatic recognition as a free and sovereign country.”

This is extremely dangerous talk. Any seasoned observer of the Taiwan issue knows that if the island declares independence, China will declare war. There are no ifs or buts here.

Since Taiwan remains the last living symbol of China’s “century of humiliation” between 1842 and 1949, no leader in Beijing can allow the independence of Taiwan or they would be crucified by the Chinese people.

This is why it is wise to let sleeping dogs lie on the Taiwan issue. To be fair, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has tried to do this. I heard both Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin say in Singapore last year that Washington remains “firmly committed to our long-standing ‘One China’ policy.”

Under the policy, “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.”

A Beijing newspaper reports on the Chinese military operation launched after Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 visit to Taiwan: China’s move reminded islanders of a point they clearly know.    © Reuters

Fortunately, the Taiwanese people are aware that it would be sheer folly for the island to declare independence. According to a survey conducted by National Chengchi University in Taipei last year, only 4.6% of the public supports independence “as soon as possible,” while 28% favors maintaining the status quo “indefinitely.”

While President Tsai Ing-wen and some of her predecessors may have flirted with the idea of independence, they knew that the Taiwanese people were not ready for it. This explains why Tsai decided to meet U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California last month rather than on Taiwanese soil. The massive military operation that China launched after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last August had a salutary effect, reminding islanders of a point they clearly know: War will come if they declare independence.

Many Western politicians claim to be speaking out in support of the Taiwanese. To justify her visit, Pelosi expressed “solidarity” with the 23 million people of Taiwan.

But such friends are putting the Taiwanese people in danger and risk inadvertently upsetting the status quo and starting a war. If war starts, the Taiwanese people will have to fight on their own, just as the Ukrainian people are doing. Just as no NATO soldiers are coming to the rescue of Ukraine, none will come to the rescue of the Taiwanese.

All this explains the relative silence of Asian policymakers on the Taiwan issue. The best thing for the Taiwanese people and for the rest of Asia is to preserve the status quo.

In this status quo, the government in Taipei does not claim to represent an independent state of Taiwan. Instead, it claims to represent the Republic of China.

This is a fiction, but one that is necessary to preserve the notion that both mainland China and Taiwan are part of one country. In this regard, it is good that 13 countries continue to recognize the Republic of China. Paradoxically, it is in China’s national interest for this recognition to continue.

Since the quiet status quo has preserved peace across the Taiwan Strait for over 50 years, we Asians should unite and send any visiting European policymaker a simple message: By doing nothing, we have preserved peace in Asia. Why don’t you stay home and fix Ukraine?

With our careful silence, we have preserved the status quo. Please do not disrupt our silence with your loud, interfering voice.

Originally published at NIKKEI ASIA on May 12, 2023

About the author

Kishore Mahbubani is Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore and author of “The Asian 21st Century” and “Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy.” He previously served as Singapore’s ambassador to the United Nations.

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