Former vice president Annette Lu and her supporters have floated the idea of a ‘neutral’ Taiwan that is ‘devoted to peace.’ Not only is that proposal based on a naive view of China, it could take Taiwan down the road to ruin.
Sometime in 2014, former vice president Annette Lu and other luminaries launched her Peace and Neutrality for Taiwan Alliance, an initiative that seeks to secure genuine political neutrality for Taiwan as the region becomes a battleground for U.S. and Chinese influence.
Under Lu’s proposal, which would come in the form of a referendum, Taiwan would “give up confrontation with China, and … proclaim to the world that we want peace and neutrality.
“We will forge friendship with every country that is friendly to us, including China,” she told a press conference last year.
According to one foreign supporter of the idea, neutrality would “reinforce Taiwan’s democracy by setting a policy in line with the views of its people, and making it clear that no government could simply go to war.” It could also “provide real security, and broadcast to the world that Taiwan is devoted to peace.”
“If China invaded an officially neutral Taiwan,” the author said, “it would be threatening and attacking an open, democratic, and peaceful country — a difficult position for its autocratic government to defend.”
Backed by a handful of (mostly deep-green) former officials, the former vice president’s proposal is commendable if only for its willingness to think outside the box. After all, diplomacy, and the art of the impossible, often require creativity and a break with longstanding practices as conditions change over time.
But I’m afraid that’s about as far as this idea can go. That’s because the notion that a declaration of neutrality would vouchsafe Taiwan’s existence is predicated on a misreading of Chinese ambitions and foreign policy. It is erected on a failure to see Taiwan not as an end in itself for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but rather as an integral part of China’s region-wide expansionism. Within its near-abroad and in East Asia in general, Beijing seeks to reinstate its status as primus inter pares. And in societies and territories it regards as its own, Beijing will not countenance the existence of equal governments, “neutral” or otherwise.
The idea of neutrality would work if Beijing’s fundamental disagreement with Taiwan stemmed from Taipei’s security relationship with the U.S.; under that logic, removing of that irritant should satisfy Beijing and thereby resolve the matter. But in reality, with or without a U.S. security umbrella, the very existence of Taiwan as a separate — and stubbornly anti-unification — political entity is what troubles Beijing. That continued existence, which Lu avers would be better protected if Taiwan declared neutrality, cannot be reconciled with the CCP’s worldview.
That continued existence, which Lu avers would be better protected if Taiwan declared neutrality, cannot be reconciled with the CCP’s worldview.
Moreover, a neutral Taiwan could potentially be destabilizing for the entire region, as it would technically remove itself as a crucial chokepoint in the first island chain and within the community of democracies in Asia. Taiwan’s membership in a (tacit) multilateral security alliance in Asia serves as a reassuring factor, if you’ll permit me to be instrumentalist for a moment, with countries whose interests are threatened by Chinese expansionism.
The notion that Beijing would be satisfied with a neutral Taiwan is both naive and dangerous. It would be tantamount to capitulation, as a necessary peace treaty (and “giving up confrontation with China”) would undoubtedly require ending U.S. arms sales and security guarantees in return for “promises” by Beijing not to change the status quo or to invade a now practically defenseless piece of real estate. That would be one hell of an act of faith on the part of the Taiwanese, especially with Beijing’s track record of keeping its promises (I’m also puzzled by the contention that neutrality would “[make] it it clear that no government could simply go to war,” as Taiwan’s military posture is unquestionably defensive in nature). Let me emphasize again that Taiwan isn’t an end in itself for Beijing, but rather a proximate element in a much larger strategy of territorial expansionism. Therefore, Beijing would unquestionably take the “gift” of a neutral Taiwan and proceed to securing the next layer in its outward expansion into the East and South China Sea, as well as parts of the West Pacific (see Howard W. French, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power [reviewed here] and Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?).
What is also troubling about Lu’s proposal is that it dovetails with, and could eventually legitimize, China’s United Front efforts to convince the U.S. to abrogate its security guarantees and cease arms sales to the island-nation.
Some advocates of this strategy have used the experiences of Switzerland and Sweden as examples for Taiwan. Unfortunately for them, both countries’ track record of neutrality when they found themselves caught in the furies of war and Great Power ambitions is not altogether encouraging, what with Switzerland’s allowing Italian and German military supply trains to use its territory during World War II, which it materially benefited from. Not to mention Swiss state-subsidized timber companies building the Dachau concentration camp before the war, or the country’s refusal to admit Jewish refugees during the war, or Sweden’s early accommodation of the Nazis, whose military it allowed to cross its territory while denying similar access to British and French expeditionary forces (see Andrew Roberts: The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, pp. 113-4). So much for neutrality and calculations of the national interest under extraordinary circumstances — choices that a neutral Taiwanese government would also have to make in times of war in Asia, and in dealing with a government in Beijing whose ideology is bent on rewriting the very rules of the international politics.
Lastly, Lu’s campaign for a neutral Taiwan has from the outset been part of a second initiative, this one to pressure the Tsai Ing-wen government to lower the threshold on referenda and to permit direct democracy à la Switzerland. We’ve already seen the downsides of plebiscites with their exploitation by populist conservatives opposed to the legalization of same-sex marriage: recall attempts and a proposed referendum intended to undo a landmark ruling by the Council of Grand Justices and to turn back the clock on gender equality education in schools. In a world awash with disinformation, and given Taiwan’s highly fractured polity, direct democracy is hardly the best solution for these trying times, but rather a recipe, as the examples mentioned above make perfectly clear, for democratic instability.
The proposal that Taiwan would benefit from a declaration of neutrality is one of those dangerous ideas that had better never be acted upon.
Lu’s Peace and Neutrality for Taiwan Alliance, and some of the backers for direct democracy, also overlap — dangerously so, I would add — with the Happy Island Alliance and its proposed referendum on independence, which stems from impatience within the (marginal) deep-green camp with President Tsai, whom they accuse of not being “strong enough” in the defense of Taiwan’s sovereignty. Whether the two are one and the same or two sides of the same coin would make little difference for Beijing, which would regard the efforts as a move toward de jure independence and therefore “legitimize” the use of military action against Taiwan. Moreover, the idea that a successful referendum on any of those questions would engender recognition of statehood by the international community is based on wishful thinking. Symbolism aside, Taiwan the day after would be no closer to securing recognition for itself, while it would have created conditions for a much less secure environment for itself. At this point, the contention that “If China invaded an officially neutral Taiwan it would be threatening and attacking an open, democratic, and peaceful country — a difficult position for its autocratic government to defend” would be a moot point, not to mention that Taiwan already is all these things — open, democratic, peaceful, and a country.
It’s entirely fine to propose new ideas to resolve the impasse in the Taiwan Strait. But not all ideas are viable ones, and a few, those that are based on a misreading of Chinese aims and political philosophy, can actually be detrimental to Taiwan’s survival. The proposal that Taiwan would benefit from a declaration of neutrality is one of those dangerous ideas that had better never be acted upon.
Top photo courtesy of the Tsai Ing-wen official Facebook page.