In the 2007 article “Why We Fight over Foreign Policy” in the Hoover Institution journal Policy Review, Henry Nau writes: “Why do we disagree so stridently about foreign policy? An easy answer is because leaders lie about events aboard.”
But Nau reminds us that we should not exclude another possibility: “What if we disagree not because leaders are wicked and lie but because they, like we, see the world differently and assemble and emphasize different facts that lead to different conclusions?”
In Taiwan’s political arena, there are diametrically opposite perspectives on how the island should deal with cross-strait politics and economics.
President Ma Ying-jeou’s administration spares no effort arguing that China’s formidable rise — with its powerful trade and economy, political clout and military might — means that the best way to ensure Taiwan’s prosperity and security is to reassure and engage China.
For Taiwanese who follow this line of thinking, China is suddenly moving from posing a military threat to being a provider of economic salvation.
Thus, the concept of China’s “peaceful rise,” or “peaceful development,” seeks to assure China’s neighbors that Beijing poses no threat but is in fact a source of opportunity. This has created a bandwagoning effect instead of exerting a balancing impact in Taiwan.
Opponents dismiss reliance on China’s economic salvation as equivalent to “asking a tiger for its skin” because its “attractive economic power” could easily morph into a political liability for Taiwan if trading powers are used coercively.
That is to say, China’s goodwill gestures toward Taiwan are a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This point is vindicated by Beijing seeking to lure and constrain Taiwan with ever-tighter economic integration measures even as it refuses to compromise on missile deployment.
Meanwhile, in the article “Open letter to Taiwan’s president” in the Taipei Times, a group of prestigious international scholars wrote: “Transparency and true dialogue have been lacking in the process. Decisions and agreements [on cross-strait policy] are arrived at in secrecy and then simply announced to the public. The Legislative Yuan seems to have been sidelined, having little input in the form or content of the agreements, such as the proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA).”
The massive demonstrations that were held in Taipei and Kaohsiung on May 17 delivered a message of deep concern about Taipei’s closed-door dealings with Beijing. The lack of transparency in cross-strait policymaking has raised the specters of leaders “lying” and “selling out Taiwan.”
To untie this Gordian knot, Taiwan needs a new, brainstorming approach that can reach a consensus on rapprochement with China.
On June 6, former vice president Annette Lu publicly said: “The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) should behave like a responsible opposition party and have a more open attitude toward cross-strait exchanges.”
Now is about the right time to think differently and theoretically about cross-strait interaction, because “bad” theory often means “bad” policy: If you can’t think or speak in the right way then your intentions are unclear; if your intentions are unclear then the right action cannot be taken; and if the right action cannot be taken then the intentions will never be realized.
Constructivism, a popular approach in international relations, provides powerful insights into cross-strait detente.
Constructivists see cooperation as a process of social interaction in which shared understandings of reality are produced and interests redefined — possibly leading to the development of a collective identity that ameliorates a security dilemma.
If we are able to understand patterns of interaction in the region amid China’s rise then we can better understand how to deal with China, perhaps forming a constructivist perspective with which we can better explain how Taiwan can reassure and engage China.
In his recent book The Three Faces of Chinese Power: Might, Money, and Minds, David M. Lampton writes that “a senior Australian defense official puts it in this way: ‘There are four types of countries in the region [in terms of dealing with China] beyond those that blow with the wind like Laos and Thailand. There are those who tend to resist — Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. There are those who seemingly welcome China’s rise — Malaysia. There are those who are fearful — Indonesia. And there are those like us who work both sides and for whom being forced to choose [between the US and China] is a disaster.’”
Such categorizations show a continuum of evaluations — from China as a threat to a source of opportunity. Taiwan can find its place among these options and develop its own by taking into account the strategic calculations involved in each case.
Two features of Australia’s evolving relationship with China deserve elaboration. The first is security — Canberra worries about China’s increasing military might in the region and hopes to avoid entanglement over Taiwan. The second concerns economic gain: China is now Australia’s biggest buyer of uranium and precious metals.
Singapore’s strategy, on the other hand, involves strengthening defense ties with Washington at the same time as reaping security and economic benefits from a growing relationship with Beijing.
Jakarta worries that the US has become distracted by its domestic and international morass and has switched to a “balance of threat” mode — a bandwagon approach, in effect — in dealing with Beijing.
As Lampton writes: “If the US is going to leave you to Chinese mercies, then make friends with China.”
In turn, Indonesia’s advances to Beijing increased Washington’s ardor, resulting in the jump-starting of more exchange programs and assistance to Jakarta.
Hanoi’s strategy is to keep an equal distance from Washington and Beijing while strengthening economic links with other ASEAN member states.
By doing so, Vietnam seeks safety in a collective network and avoids over-reliance on China.
In a nutshell, the emerging trend among China’s neighbors is to seek to minimize political friction and enhance economic cooperation with Beijing while taking into account the ultimate balancing role of the US. In short, they want to have their cake and eat it too.
These aspects of adaptability to the domestic and international environments must be kept in mind when determining Taiwanese policy on China.
When Global Views magazine surveyed Ma’s approval rating on the first anniversary of his inauguration and on cross-strait issues, it found that Taiwanese welcomed rapprochement with China.
The survey found that 55.3 percent of respondents considered Ma’s cross-strait policy to be more beneficial for Taiwan than that of former president Chen Shui-bian, while 53.4 percent of respondents said Ma’s cross-strait policy had been successful thus far.
But how we can better explain and formulate a security policy toward China using a constructivist approach?
The answer lies in the social interactions and cultural norms that shape common identities, while the interests of the state can facilitate intersubjective (or shared) understandings conducive to the improving of cross-strait relations.
For instance, Beijing and Taipei are now on a conciliatory path because of shared understandings — such as the “one China, different interpretations” policy, the premise that cross-strait peace requires China to desist with its military threats and Taiwan not pushing toward independence.
These premises, reinforced by direct flights, tourism, cultural exchanges and increasing economic interdependence, further weave the fabric of cooperation and help transform national attitudes, preferences and the definition of interests so that mutual trust and accommodation become more likely to seep into the security realm.
That is, both sides seem to be experiencing change through rapprochement at this very moment, and each is now less likely to consider itself the antithesis of the other or perceive the other to be a threat to its identity — the source of the security dilemma in the Taiwan Strait.
Of course, this logic of social interaction does not imply that the currently peaceful cross-strait relationship will proceed without conflict.
There must also be some agreement on the status quo between Taiwan and China, a sense of collective identity, a desire to avoid war and an expectation that both sides will act with restraint when conflicts arise.
Beijing should understand that its attempt to bring Taiwan into the “one China” framework through greater economic integration will be effective only if its military threat dissipates.
But if China sought to dominate Taiwan, even without precipitating military conflict, it would complicate relations with almost everyone else in the immediate region, not to mention the US and Australia.
Taipei should also consider that “a broad-based dialogue as close as possible to a consensus is essential before Taiwan’s cross-strait negotiations can advance to more difficult issues,” as American Institute in Taiwan Director Stephen Young said during an American Chamber of Commerce luncheon on June 5.
“Even as we welcome Taiwan’s increased engagement with the People’s Republic of China, however, we must not lose sight of the qualities that underpin Taiwan’s unique success: the vibrant democracy, civil society and open economy,” he said.
Yu Tsung-chi is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. This essay originally appeared in the Taipei Times.