Perceiving Taiwan

Yesterday’s conference went pretty well. There was one talk I found particularly provocative – University of Macau Professor Hu Weixing’s consideration of “perceptual gaps” in US-China relations.

Professor Hu said that the issues were the 3 Ts: Tibet, Taiwan and Trade. For him, however, Tibet was not such a big deal (but the US should really stop meeting with the Dalai Lama) and trade will get worked out. Professor Hu said that Taiwan, on the other hand, is a big deal and that China is stronger and more confident and wants a solution to the Taiwan stalemate.

Here’s where the perception gap comes in:

1. American think Taiwan is no big deal and that the US and China should come together to work on more important international issues like the environment and trade. The Chinese, however, think Taiwan is a huge deal. The Chinese think they cannot rise without Taiwan and that Taiwan is the biggest deal in US-China relations.

2. The US sees the function of arms sales to Taiwan as stabilizing the region and China sees those sales as destablizing the region.

3. The US thinks that China should blame Taiwan for wanting to arm themselves in defense against China. China thinks that the US should not seek to sell arms to rogue states.

It was interesting to listen to Professor Hu speak and I had so many questions. Amazingly, in the question and answer session, neither the American respondents nor any other members of the audience so much as whispered “Taiwan.” It was really the most conspicuous
elephant-in-the-room I have ever seen ignored and quite an impressive feat of political obfuscation on the part of the US State Dept folks.

All the same, I just do not understand the situation. What does it mean to say that China cannot rise without Taiwan? Does China believe that Taiwan is going to come back into the fold? By choice? By force? Does China believe that the US could let Taiwanese democracy disappear into an authoritarian single-party state? Do China see that the US is currying favor with China by refusing to recognize Taiwan as an independent nation?

While Taiwan may be THE issue in China, Tibet clearly trumps it in the US. Maybe that is because of the government in exile and because Tibet is understood to be an occupied country. China “liberated” Tibet 50 years ago and still, in the eyes of many, the situation is neither forgotten nor forgiven. Taiwan goes largely unnoticed because of the status quo that arms sales help create. I suspect this would change quickly should Taiwan lose its (unofficially recognized) independence. Such a situation would have serious ramifications for the ability of the US to engage China politically and economically. My big question for Professor Hu is, then, from the perspective of US-China relations, what diplomatic solution would be better than the one we have now?

In concluding his remarks, Professor Hu said that Americans question the logic of China’s national interests (meaning preoccupation with Taiwan). On this point he is right. I just do not see the sense of it and would love to have someone explain it to me – starting with that most important part where China needs and has a legitimate claim to Taiwan.

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