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Will the DPP experience a Paul V Kane boost?

The now-infamous opinion piece written by former marine officer and Harvard scholar Paul V. Kane, “To Save Our Economy, Ditch Taiwan” (New York Times, November 10, 2011) which advocated a renunciation of the US security commitment to Taiwan in exchange for China’s writing off US debt is, quite rightly, engendering serious blowback. So much so that it may in fact have the opposite effect for which Kane (and no doubt the leadership in Beijing) initially hoped.

For months now, think tanks and academics have tiptoed around the very same idea: that of revisiting the US defense commitment to Taiwan in favour of giving Beijing a louder voice in how it is implemented.

But Kane’s piece has been far less oblique than these others, laying bare the ethical component of their inherent quid pro quo. The result has been a widespread re-examination of just why the United States made a security guarantee toTaiwan in the first place, and forcing a reckoning of just what moral implications such an exchange would entail.

Moreover, the notoriety of Kane’s suggestion has allowed it to reach beyond the usually insulated world of analysts and policy wonks, and touch upon the general public. It has shined a light on the issue and dragged it to the forefront of popular discourse.

To be fair, Kane’s timing was off. Americans are getting tired of China. The much ballyhooed peaceful rise has been trumpeted in every media report and press briefing for the past decade, and the unspoken assumption that American power in the world is declining in favour of a passing of the torch to China has been allowed to suffuse the popular imagination without much introspection or challenge. Kane’s rather mercenary proposal has laid bare the ethical aspect of that slide, and it may well prove to be the straw that break the panda’s back, illustrating just how far the partnership with China has slowly and incrementally pushed Americans’ moral comfort zone over the years.

It is therefore not surprising that the reaction has been a loud rejection of any plan that would hand a functioning democracy over to an authoritarian government, especially in exchange for something so vulgar as money. Americans instinctively feel that this would leave a stain on their souls.

How does this affect Taiwan? The people, as well as the government, of Taiwan are almost pathologically fixated on what is said about them in the international arena. Thanks to Kane, many column-inches are now being filled by Western commentators expounding on the moral issues associated with selling out a longtime friend and ally, in a way and with a determination that has not been seen for years.

Many Taiwanese are naturally heartened by this: they are proud of their democracy; they have fought for it, and bled for it. They know, however, that they are in a fragile position, and being the pragmatic people that they are, they know that they cannot defend it (either militarily or diplomatically) without the United States in their corner.

Over the past few years, the narrative in the mainstream American media has been about how expensive the Taiwansecurity guarantee is, and how the little island democracy is an irritant to closer Sino-US ties. The Taiwanese have naturally begun to hedge their bets. This has been one of the reasons for the level of support shown to Ma Ying-jeou’s China-friendly policies and the resurgence of the old-guard way of thinking within the KMT.

This resulted in a redefinition of the status quo over the past few years: from one that was inching towards independence to one that is inching towards unification.

But as American voices backing support for their democratic ally have become louder in the past days, the Taiwanese confidence in being able to resist the slide into the PRC’s sphere have likewise gained traction. Many undecided voters are beginning to calculate which of the island’s two main parties is best able to maintain the status quo that they most hope to see: and that party is the DPP.

It is too early to see any of this is reflected in the polls, especially as its effects would be obscured by the many other issues defining the campaign so far, not least of which are some very poorly thought-out, ill-timed statements by the incumbent KMT. But if the fallout from the Kane proposal continues to loudly support the American value of respecting allies over money, and democracy over expediency, then we can expect to see a heartened and confident electorate go to the polls in January in support of the DPP candidate, Tsai Ing-wen.

Dean Karalekas is a researcher at National Chengchi University and a PhD student in its International Doctoral Program in Asia-Pacific Studies. 

Published inInternational PoliticsTaiwan 2012

4 Comments

  1. Paul Kane Paul Kane

    Dean –

    Thanks for taking time to read my piece and consider its points, and though I gather you didn’t enjoy the satirical aspect to it – – it does seem to have stirred healthy debate about the status of Taiwan and her mutual interests with the U.S.

    Stirring debate on an otherwise calcified foreign policy topic was the only “intended purpose” of the piece.

    I have a huge respect for the people of Taiwan and her brave military forces, and I was not advocating one way or another, only that the subject deserved a “multi-directional” review and discussion.

    Most policy writing is literal, and usually, very “in-the-box” and un-original. Most pieces advocate this way, or that way. I did neither. The piece was intended to stir discussion without any preconceived positions of givens or fixed points of departure.

    You might re-read The Atlantic’s Jame Fallow’s piece on the mix of serious with facts, irony and Swiftian satire. Satire is not humor or intended as a joke. It is a useful literary technique. Swift never said in his pieces they were satire, but gave tiny nods or hints. That was why I said, most people would consider it impractical and absurd.

    But it does seem the piece has succeeded in stirring debate. Always, a healthy thing in any democracy, eh?

    Cheers and thanks for reading the piece. – – Paul V. Kane

  2. Dean Karalekas Dean Karalekas

    Hi Paul,

    I admit your Swiftian humour passed right over my head: either I’m too obtuse (although I consider myself quite the funnyman) or it was a tad oblique. Either way, if sparking debate was your intent, then mission accomplished.

    I for one am glad: As I said, academics and security talking heads have been circling in on this proposal for months—even asking questions like “should America’s security guarantee with Taiwan be maintained?” only serves to normalize the notion, which is the first step to its praxis.

    By laying it out in no uncertain terms, you may have delivered a shock to the commentariat that forced them to do the hard economic, political and moral calculus. Fortunately, most seem to have concluded that it’s a bad, bad, very naughty, idea.

    I believe that China is yesterday’s news—if you’re an economist, that is: if security’s your bag, China is tomorrow’s news. The problem is, nobody wants to admit it. Or, if they have too much bad money thrown there, they refuse to.

    The best that a small country like Taiwan (or Vietnam, or the Philippines, or South Korea, all of whom eye America’s security promises to Taiwan as a barometer) can hope for, if they’re playing the long game, is to avoid falling too deep into the PRC’s pocket before the Chinese bubble bursts. And it’s already showing signs of strain. They can’t do this without US support.

    But I’m monologuing again! This is a blog about the Taiwanese election: and intentionally or not, the response to your proposal has been a wide dismissal of the notion of ditching Taiwan. In an election between a party for China rapprochement and one for continued de facto independence, I stand by my prediction that this will end up bolstering support for the latter.

    For that, Taiwanese should thank you!

  3. Amy King Amy King

    I have to say that the so-called Swiftian humor passed right over my head as well if that truly was the writer’s original intention. Perhaps Kane gives the average American reader too much credit in being as level-headed, educated, and filled with justice as he considers himself. Given the U.S.’s history of every now and then selling out countries or people groups that had trusted the American government’s official or covert support, it’s natural for those better informed to not immediately recognize that article as an absurd and morally reprehensible piece of satire. And if even they got Kane’s sense of humor (haha!), to not be wary of the potential, no matter how remote, of others who might think it’s actually a jolly good idea. Just try to tell me that the writer didn’t consider that to be a possible reception. If that’s the case, then Kane is truly naive.

    Also, I agree that debate is a healthy thing in “any” democracy… if the general American ignorance about the Taiwan-China situation weren’t so willfully in China’s favor already.

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