Two sophisticated, articulate, and opposing takes on the current imbroglio over the UN referendum today belie the claim we here sometimes too hastily make that no one in Washington really gets Taiwan.
The first is an address to the United States-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference by Thomas J. Christensen, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. Among other things, Christensen argues that Taiwan's security is predicated on a moderate political approach to relations with China that does not include assertions of independence such as the UN referendum. He calls the UN referendum "ill-conceived and potentially quite harmful" specifically objects to the "in the name of Taiwan" component of the UN referendum rather than a UN referendum per se, and echoes Dennis Wilder's comments from two weeks ago by bluntly stating that "the US does not recognize Taiwanese independence."
Christensen's rhetoric is especially interesting because it echoes Stephen Young's rhetoric last year when Young attempted to appeal directly to the Taiwanese people in a statement of US policy. Christensen's adress is studded with this rhetoric:
The lie in this rhetoric comes out in that last little phrase "the Taiwan people." The Taiwanese are not "the Taiwan people" or "the people of Taiwan" as Christensen calls them earlier. The Taiwanese have long since come to see themselves as a nationality, not as the inhabitants of some island whose political status is unresolved. To refer to them in the hollow and dehumanizing language of DiploSpeech while ostensibly making a direct appeal to a friend intellectually dishonest and ethically corrupt.
I would like to emphasize that we do not like having to express publicly our disagreement with the Chen Administration on this or any other policy. Taiwan is a longstanding U.S. friend, and we do not like there to be gaps between us on important issues. I can assure you that we would not have done so had we not exhausted every private opportunity through consistent, unmistakable, and authoritative messages over an extended period of time. The problem here is not misunderstanding or lack of communications: it is that we believe this initiative is not good for Taiwan or us and that we have found ourselves with no alternative but to express our views directly to the Taiwan people.
He also contradicts himself by on the one hand stressing the importance of symbolism in relations across the Taiwan Strait ("in the world of cross-Strait relations, political symbolism matters, and disagreements over it could be the source of major tensions or even conflict") while later urging the Taiwanese to set aside their silly preoccupation with the formal diplomatic relations or membership in international organizations and content themselves with their substantive integration with the international community.
There is much more of interest in Christensen's speech, but I'll stop here by suggesting that it should be read in the context of his Statement Before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in 2005 where he argues that:
In my opinion, under certain extreme conditions the mainland would attack Taiwan regardless of the balance of military forces across the Strait or across the Pacific. In other words, there are circumstances in which the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would rather fight and lose militarily than to remain idle in the face of what they would define as Taiwan’s provocations. This means that, under these circumstances, any strategy of deterrence adopted by the United States and Taiwan, no matter how robust, would simply be ineffective in preventing conflict. For example, I believe the CCP elites would almost certainly use force if Taipei passed a constitutional revision in Taiwan that would create permanent legal independence for the island from the Chinese nation. In my opinion, the deterrence strategies of the U.S. and Taiwan would not likely play a role in preventing a military attack in such a scenario.
The second article is an op-ed piece ( not yet online) entitled "Righting Chiang-kai Shek's Wrongs" in today's Taipei Times by Stephen Yates, former deputy assistant to US Vice President Dick Cheney for national security affairs and president of DC Asia Advisory. Yates makes a strong argument that Taiwan's UN referendum needs to be understood in the context of the development of Taiwan's democratic institutions and that "there is no doubt that plans for a referendum will proceed no matter what Washington says or does. " While Yates in my view overemphasizes the importance of undoing Chinag Kai-shek's poisonous legacy, he does a good job of debunking the notion that Chen is simply poking China in the eye for short-term political gain. It is indeed more complicated than that.
Most commentators, including Christenson and Yates, have overlooked the Chen administration's repeated statements on 'Taiwanese consciousness' (taiwan yishi) and 'Taiwanese subjecthood' (taiwan zhutixing) in part, I suspect, because foreign policy wonks don't do philosophy even if their Straussian mentors do. Taiwans name change is all about getting the Taiwanese people to recognize themselves as their own masters. That act of self-recognition is deeply bound up in being able to say Taiwan's own name to themselves, which is what the UN Referendum is all about. If the Taiwanese do not know who they are--as evidence by their inability to even say who they are, all is lost for the DPP's nation building project. While these considerations may be outside the scope of strategic group think, they are core issues for the DPP and its Long March to create a new national identity for Taiwan.
Is Yates a lobbyist for the Taiwanese government. One suspects that he must be given DC Asia Advisory's creepy characterization of the services it provides:
Leveraging our rich variety of strategic partnerships, DCAA offers valuable insight and access to leaders in government and business across Asia, empowers clients to manage the impact US politics and policy can have on their bottom line.
I can't find Yates or his firm listed as a lobbyist, but I doubt he or Randall Schriver write Taiwan Times op-ed pieces for the generous NT$1.5 per word that the TT pays. How do lobbyist like this manage to get around registration requirements? Inquiring minds want to know.
Yates's bio interestingly notes that Yates spent two years as a 'church volunteer' in southern Taiwan. Is this a euphemism for having been a Mormon missionary? If so, perhaps those missions really are functioning as a sort of informal training ground for future friends of Taiwan. While Yates may or may not be a paid lobbyist, his sympathy and understanding of Taiwan shine clearly through his piece today just as Christensen's patrician distaste for Taiwan is subtly woven into his despite his protestations of friendship.