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.