The Sunflower Movement

Taiwan’s peaceful democracy has been wracked by violent protest over the last few days in response to the passage of the Service Trade Agreement with China, a follow-up agreement to the Economic Cooperation Framework agreement (ECFA) passed in 2010. The violence surrounding the events has left many Taiwanese citizens scratching their heads, wondering how this could have happened in a country known for its friendly and peaceful society. Many wonder what has happened to the democracy in Taiwan, and what this means for its future.

The protests began on Thursday, March 18 when a group of students entered the Legislative Yuan in Taipei around 8pm and occupied the chamber. The occupation began as a response to the announcement by the administration of president Ma Ying-jeou the previous day that the agreed upon line-by-line review of the Service Trade Agreement had reached its expiration and the agreement would pass through the legislature without review. By the end of the day, over 300 people had entered the building and occupied the chamber.

The politics of Taiwan are divided between the Kuomintang party and the Democratic Progressive Party, respectively known as the blue and green parties. The ruling Kuomintang is the more conservative of the two, often shying away from any talk of Taiwanese independence and seen as more conciliatory to the People’s Republic of China. It is under the leadership of the Kuomintang that the first government-to-government meetings between Taiwanese ministers and their counterparts in the Chinese government occurred since the end of the Chinese civil war. Their leadership has also seen the expansion of Chinese trade and tourism in Taiwan, and a dampening of talks of a Taiwanese nation.

The Service Trade agreement opens up 64 sectors of the Taiwanese economy to direct Chinese investment, a move which is seen by many of these protestors as being one step to close to integration of the two economies. In my previous article, I wrote that the much feared takeover of the Taiwanese economy by China has yet to happen, and that still seems to hold true. However, the ways in which the KMT party pushed the agreement through the legislature, by executive order rather than open debate, appears to many Taiwanese citizens to be a quite tyrannical move.

One can only imagine what the Ma administration is trying to accomplish by insisting that there be no compromise and that the agreement will pass through the legislature as previously planned. The pressures on the Ma administration by the Taiwanese population may not be as strong as their suspected desire to impress Beijing enough to have a face-to-face meeting between Ma and Chinese president Xi Jinping.

If indeed Ma wants to go down in the history books as a hero, he is certainly pursuing an odd course on his way to fame. Ma’s domestic approval ratings have already hovered at around 10% for most of the last year before the protests even began. Yet, despite his abysmally low popularity, Ma and Premier Jiang Yi-huah thought it a good idea to send in the riot police on the night of Sunday, March 23 to break up the protests. There were reports of over 100 injuries to unarmed students, reports, and citizens following the incidence of violence.

I have heard several critiques of the protestors, that young students cannot possibly understand the complexity of these issues, and that most of the demonstrators there have little knowledge of the real stakes involved. Many people I have spoken to believe these young protestors are just there to be with their friends. While it’s true that the sunflower painting, arm band making, and constant Instagraming of selfies may seem juvenile in comparison to more violent protests going on in Crimea or Bangkok, this is an important distinction of Taiwanese culture not to be trivialized. Taiwanese society is characteristically nonviolent, the jovial events going on at these protests are a result of a Taiwanese shared consciousness¬†that values peace and social gathering. It is these values that the Ma administration seems to be so out of touch with, and the reasons that the use of water cannons and riot police is so shocking to observers in Taiwan.

At this point, it seems that the protests have become about more than just Sinophobia or concern over ECFA and the Trade Services Agreement. Other Taiwanese groups, like the strong anti-nuclear and gay marriage movements, have also joined in the protests to voice their concerns and oppose the administration. Taiwan is still a very young democracy, less than 3o years old. The protests are now about the vision Taiwan has for its self-determination and the way it wants its democracy and society to be shaped for future generations.

The KMT will almost assuredly suffer severe political backlash as a result of the way the current administration has responded to the demands of the student protestors. Taiwanese politics are notoriously divided and at times raucous, especially where the issue of Taiwanese independence and Taiwan’s relationship with China is concerned. The opposition party has a chance to seize on this political capital and vindicate everything these student protestors have been saying, turning this from a fringe student movement into a mainstream political change that will drive the KMT out of office. Regardless of what happens in the halls of the government, however, the anger and hurt associated with this Sunflower movement will almost certainly continue far into the future, spelling only sadness for Taiwan’s young, fragile democracy.

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Say Goodbye to Taiwan?

I recently had a conversation with a Taiwanese-American friend of mine visiting Taipei from California about the future of Taiwan in relation to the rise of China. He was of the opinion that Taiwan had already lost the long term battle for sovereignty, and that it was only a matter of time before it would be absorbed into China in a manner similar to Hong Kong, the “one country, two systems” model. As a business man, however, he viewed this eventual unification as likely to take place in the manner of a corporate merger, with the possibility of a military conflict between China and Taiwan completely forgone.

John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, a renowned theorist on US-Chinese relations, weighed in on the debate last month with his much talked-about piece “Say Goodbye to Taiwan“, published in the National Interest. Mearsheimer is an academic know for his solid support of the realist theory of international relations, namely that all states exist in a state of anarchy and are constantly seeking to maximize their power vis-a-vis competitor states. In Mearsheimer’s estimation, every country would relish the chance to rule the entire world given the opportunity. It is this course of the accumulation of regional hegemony that will eventually bring the United States and China into conflict over the issue of Taiwan.

While it is true that successive leaders of the People’s Republic of China have made it clear that China’s stated intention is eventual unification with Taiwan, Mearsheimer’s quite pessimistic view of the future of Taiwan is based upon the assumption that the current status quo is unsustainable. The 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement and the subsequent Trade Services Agreement signed between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, however, demonstrate some of the headway that the countries have made in mutual recognition of the other. Critics of the agreements would argue that the agreements actually bring the two sides closer to unification, but the much feared Chinese takeover of the Taiwanese economy following the signing has yet to occur. If anything, the recent conclusion of the first government to government meeting since the end of the Chinese Civil War gives credence to the idea that, at least for the time being, China is willing to at least partially acknowledge the authority of the government in Taipei.

Taiwanese national identity has undergone a rejuvenation in the past two decades, particularly since the lifting of martial law in 1987 and the emergence of a multi-party democracy. Should pro-de jure independence advocates have their way, China will almost certainly respond with military force, despite the doubts of those who believe Beijing would never resort to such an extreme solution. However, the issue of Taiwanese independence is something to which the Chinese government would almost assuredly respond to with a fervently nationalistic knee jerk; there is little room for a rational, measured response where issues of high sentiment are concerned.

Mearsheimer argues that the best way for Taiwan to solidify its current status would have been the bomb, though he concedes that neither Beijing nor Washington would be comfortable with a nuclear-armed Taipei. Mearsheimer, however, reveals his tendency to view all these developments through the lens of great power competition. There are other ways Taiwan can preserve its current status into the the long term, namely by coalition building with other Asian states anxious about the rise of China in the region. By remaining relevant in the continuing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Taiwan asserts its position as an agent in the Asia Pacific region rather than merely a bystander. Though few states recognize Taiwanese sovereignty, building closer economic and cultural relations with states like Japan, Vietnam, and Indonesia would give Taiwan valuable Asian allies in its struggle for self-determination.

In the estimation of realists like Mearsheimer, a strong offense is the best defense, and Taiwan, with its limited military might, cannot stand against the Chinese for very long. While this is true, it is not necessarily true that Taiwan would be completely abandoned by the United States were it to be threatened by mainland China. While China sees the issue of Taiwan as an internal challenge, and an attempted takeover of Taiwan would most likely not be a prelude to Chinese expansionism throughout Asia, in terms of strategy a Chinese Taiwan would not bode well for the United States. By shifting much of its naval might to the Pacific, the United States has made a strong statement that the region is of great value to its interests, interests that include containing the growing might of China.

Mearsheimer, though an accomplished academic, has a penchant for a viewing ¬†events in a way that feels more like a Netflix series than a balanced interpretation of facts. In the long term, China is facing an environmental crisis far more devastating than is being talked about and an economy burdened by an aging population and growing inequality. Their military, though rapidly modernizing, is still at least a decade away from catching up to other world powers. The political consciousness of young Chinese is growing at a fast pace thanks to new exposures to media and communication, and an invasion of Taiwan may do more harm than good to China’s face. None of this is to say that China will forgot about the issue of unification with Taiwan anytime in the near future, but if Taiwan is careful about the way they approach the issue, their doomsday may not be as imminent as Mearsheimer believes.

What’s going on in Nanjing?

Mainland Affairs Council chairman Wang Yu-Chi and his Chinese counterpart State Council Taiwan Affairs Office chairman Zhang Zhijun meet in Nanjing.

An historic round of talks began in Nanjing, China yesterday as ministers from both Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China came together in their official capacities for the first time in 65 years to discuss the opening of a communication channel for further engagement in the future. Zhang Zhijun, head of the PRC’s State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, and Wang Yu-chi, head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, who first met on the sidelines of the informal Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) economic leaders’ meeting in Bali, Indonesia last October, agreed to move forward with talks in their official capacities at the summit.

Though the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have refrained from engaging each other in any official capacity since the end of the Chinese Civil War and the exile of the Kuomintang political party to Taiwan, they have long maintained informal contact through the mainland-based Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) and the Taiwanese counterpart Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF). Indeed the highly controversial 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and the subsequent Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, both of which opened up further links between the economy of the mainland and Taiwan, were both negotiated through the ARATS-SEF channel rather than official government-to-government contact.

The meeting that occurred in Nanjing, though certainly historic in its symbolism, was not expected to bring with it much tangible rapprochement between the two opposing sides. Indeed, it is unlikely that China, with its ever-growing influence over the Asia Pacific region, will back down from its stated foreign policy objective with reunification with Taiwan. For his part, Wang was barred by both sides of the Taiwanese Legislative Yuan from touching on any politically-sensitive subjects, or even signing any documents, during his visit to Nanjing. The rumored possibility of a possible meeting of PRC president Xi Jinping and Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou was not even brought to the table during the discussion.

While not much has actually changed as the talks draw to a close, the larger symbolism and what it means for the balance of power in the Asia Pacific region should not be lost. China’s earlier demarcation of its Aerial Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and its continuing territorial disputes in the South China Sea clearly demonstrate China’s intention to command a larger influence over the East Asian region. Though the combat-readiness of China’s military is certainly questionable after a series of high-level embarassments, in this case it seems that China’s forward-thinking foreign policy will make the use of such recourse unnecessary. As talks continue to go forward between the PRC and the ROC, the question of the status of Taiwan within the larger context of China’s growing influence may become even more ambiguous.

What’s going on in Bangkok?

I recently took a trip to Bangkok to experience the protests going on in Thailand firsthand as well as to gain a better perspective on what the root cause of this seemingly spontaneous act of disorder in such an otherwise peaceful country is. I can say that I came away with both fresh insight into modern Thai society as well as a host of new questions about what is going on in Bangkok.

Thaksin Sunawatra: Shadow Prime Minister in Exile

The immediately recognizable root of the conflict seems to stem from the influence that Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled previous prime minister of Thailand, still wields over the government of Thailand through the proxy of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, the current PM of the country. Mr. Shinawatra, a Thai business tycoon turned politician who was overthrown in a 2006 coup, still has a great deal of popular support amongst the rural population of Thailand, where he is credited for lifting many out of poverty over the course of his term in office.

One of many protest signs lining the street of Bangkok at the moment
One of many protest signs lining the street of Bangkok at the moment

So why all the uproar over a man who was not only the first Thai prime minister to win comfortable reelection in 2005, but who has also been exiled from Thailand for over 7 years? The short answer is that people aren’t buying this exile. Though many throughout Thailand believe that Mr. Shinawatra brought a great deal of progress to Thai society, the charges of large scale corruption that have been leveled against him since his overthrow as prime minister are astounding. In 2008, he was sentenced to two years incarceration in absentia over a corrupt land deal in which he and his wife acquired state real estate at a third of its estimated price during his tenure as PM.

This is not the first time Bangkok has experienced these sorts of protests (the most recent ones in 2008 being even more severe), but they all seem to link back to the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, a figure who has, in some parts of rural Thailand, become even more revered than the Thai king himself. Ms. Shinawatra’s party, the Pheu Thai party, holds an insurmountable majority in the Thai government due to its overwhelming popular support in rural Thailand even as many protestors in Bangkok accuse her of using her family’s personal wealth and prestige to subvert Thai politics for the Shinawatra’s own personal gain.

The Battle in the Streets of Bangkok

Protests are now occurring in major areas of Bangkok

Despite the sensationalization of a few isolated incidents by much of the Western media, the protests in Thailand seem to be mostly non-violent albeit significantly disruptive. The interesting thing about the protests, however, is that they are not directly protesting the Pheu Thai government, but rather the special election itself that has been called by PM Shinawatra. In an attempt to legitimize her party’s control over the government, a special election was held this past weekend which the Pheu Thai overwhelmingly won. The protestors, mostly consisting of middle-class Bangkokers dissatisfied with the levels of corruption they perceive to be going on in the government, are protesting the election itself, claiming the results to be undemocratic on the principle that the Pheu Thai party commands the preponderance of political power in Thailand.

Though many government offices have been blockaded and a few people have been injured in the resulting clashes between armed protestors and security forces, Ms. Shinawatra and her government seem to be clinging to power, as tenuous as that power may seem. Indeed, the slogan touted by the “yellow shirts” (the name the protestors have adopted to align themselves with the ever-popular monarchy), “Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand”, seems not to have played out as tourists continue to flock to the city and major services continue to operate as usual. For now, it seems, the political scene in Thailand will continue to revolve around a single name: Shinawatra.

Eye in the Sky

China recently announced a new air defense identification zone (ADIZ), an area of airspace which it now declares to be under its exclusive right to regulate and patrol. The new ADIZ, which encompasses the controversial Diaoyu islands that under currently under ownership dispute, is an aerial analog of China’s maritime assertive in the South China Sea and the next step in China’s expansion of what it considers to be its zone of control in East Asia.

The identification of a new zone of strategic control is potentially disruptive of the already fragile balance of power in the East Asian region. China had demanded that all non-commercial flights passing through the zone identify themselves to China air authority. Japan, the other major power in the region, has already instructed its airlines to ignore the new protocol, and South Korea announced the creation of its own air defense zone, which overlaps the one that China now claims.

All of this seems to be indicative of a wider foreign policy objective that the Chinese government has been describing as a process of territorial reacquisition. From the Xinjiang and Tibet areas of western China to the Diaoyu islands and South China Sea (and even to Taiwan), Beijing claims that these sort of territorial expansion does not constitute a new Chinese manifest destiny, but is rather a reclamation of the territories stolen from it during its “Century of Humiliation”.

And then there were 22

This week, the government of the African nation of Gambia announced that it would immediately end all ties with the Republic of China (also known as Taiwan) and withdraw its embassy from the Taiwanese capital city of Taipei. This surreptitious end of formal linkage with Gambia brings the number of countries that recognize the sovereignty of Taiwan down to 22 in total.

While the government of China in Beijing denies having any discussions regarding the establishment of diplomatic relations between their government and current administration of Gambian president Yahya Jammeh prior to Tuesday’s announcement, Gambia is already looking to establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China and is beginning preliminary negotiations with Beijing. Gambia’s president has stated that he believes opening diplomatic ties with the PRC will be a crucial step towards his “Vision 2020” for the development of Gambia, and that although Gambia has been a strong supporter of Taiwan for the past 18 years, cutting off relations with the island nation is necessary for the national interests of Gambia.

Gambia is the first country to renounce recognition of Taiwan since the beginning of the Ma presidential administration in 2008. The remaining countries recognizing the Republic of China consist mostly of small island nations or struggling Central American economies and none of the top global powers officially recognize the sovereignty of Taiwan. Despite an agreement between the Ma administration and the Chinese government in Beijing not to poach each other’s allies, nearly all of the countries formerly recognizing the Republic of China have shifted their diplomatic preference to China, a trend highly indicative of the growing political power concurrent with China’s meteoric economic growth.

The Taiwanese government believes that the suspension of ties between their country and Gambia almost certainly came as a personal decision of President Jammeh, a notorious erratic ruler who earlier this year announced that Gambia would also leave the Commonwealth. Though it has not specified the exact amount, the Ma government has confirmed that in January of this year the Jammeh government made a financial request in excess of $10 million USD, a demand inconsistent with the Ma administration’s “flexible diplomacy” policy which aims to retain all of Taiwan’s remaining allies at the lowest possible cost to fragile Taiwanese economic interests.

The ending of ties with Gambia, though perhaps not posing a serious economic or political problem to Taiwan in the near future, is certainly part of an alarming trend which sees the PRC growing in international influence and the list of allies of the Taiwanese government becoming smaller and smaller. Though the Ma administration is often criticized for being too acquiescent to Beijing, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the continuing negotiation of free trade agreements between Taiwan and other East Asian nations sees Taipei struggling to hold its own against the further encroachment of China upon its sovereignty.

The rapid economic growth in China is bringing with it a concurrent growth in military capability and an aggressive expansion of its foreign policy, all with the stated goal in mind of eventual reunification with Taiwan. Taiwan, which was ceded to the Japanese empire in 1911 in the Treaty of Shimonoseki, is currently ruled by the Guomindang (or Nationalist) party, a political party originating in mainland China and exiled to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War. Although governed independently, Taiwan is still claimed by the People’s Republic of China and the government in Taipei is declared a rouge provincial government with no legitimate sovereignty. Although the situation has been relatively stable since the election of Ma Ying-jeou as the Taiwanese president in 2008, tensions continue to exist on both sides of the Taiwan Strait as China seeks to further isolate Taiwan diplomatically in preparation for an eventual reunification.