Changing the Terms of Reference for Taiwan: Expanding the Strategic Options

By Danny Lam

This is the third of a three part series by Danny Lam on the way ahead for the “One China Policy.

When Chiang Kai Shek’s Republic of China (ROC) retreated to Taiwan in 1949, few Kuomintang (KMT) officials could have foresaw the extended stay in Taiwan, whose people they regarded as traitors and Japanese collaborators — Taiwanese having lived mostly peacefully under Japanese rule for close to a half century.

Taiwan as a former Japanese colony retained features to this day that are distinctly Japanese in origin, including the system of real property: measured and administered in Japanese derived units.   Many administrative systems at the local level are traceably Japanese.   Taiwan under Japanese rule was by no means an entirely negative experience, with many public works projects completed by the colonial administration and by Chinese standards, good public administration.

Opposition to the Japanese by Taiwanese nationalists was far less than that faced by the KMT.   Nationalist had no formal presence on Taiwan prior to the Japanese surrender of 1945.   When the KMT remnants flooded the island in 1949, came as ruthless occupiers.

Not surprisingly, the incoming ROC-KMT was regarded as oppressors by Taiwanese: replacing one set of oppressors (however benign), with another group of defeated KMT officials, soldiers, etc.

Thus, it is not surprising that when the KMT successor generation under President Chiang Ching-kuo relaxed controls and democratized, that the opposition coalesced around the pro-Taiwan Independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) despite the KMT’s iron grip on the instruments of power.

Taiwanese have now seen several changes and iterations of government through free elections, with the Presidency and Legislative Branches of government regularly changing hands between the KMT and DPP.

And surprise, things have largely stayed the same.

The ROC remains the formal name and organization for Taiwan, and there has been no serious effort at formal secession to become the Republic of Taiwan.

Meanwhile, the world has changed.

While the ROC is no longer explicitly competing with the PRC for formal international recognition as the government of “all China” as they did under Chiang Kai Shek, the institutional mechanisms and structures supporting that competition remains fully operative.

Taiwan invests hundreds of millions to maintain formal diplomatic recognition with a handful of states notable for their irrelevance.   Relations with a majority of the world’s most influential states are conducted “unofficially” as “economic or cultural” ties, and Taiwan is locked out of a majority of international organizations.   Efforts to alter the international status quo by the KMT and DPP, by governments from Presidents Lee Tenghui, Chen Shui-bian, Ma Ying-jeou have been proven to be ineffective.

At the heart of the failure by successive Taiwan regimes to change the international status of Taiwan is the persistence of the ROC / Chiang Kai Shek foreign policy goal of seeking formal recognition of ROC as it primary goal to the exclusive of all others. From George Kung-chao Yeh to the present day, Foreign Ministers of Taiwan have placed a premium on symbolic acts by foreign nations such as permitting the display of the ROC flag at the expense of substance.

The epitome of this colossal foreign policy blunder was the effort under President Lee Tenghui to join the UN and get a visa for a “private” visit to the United States, which rather than increasing the “space” for ROC, reduced it even as President Lee’s goal was achieved.

When President Lee visited Cornell University, he went out of his way to violate the negotiated understanding with the U.S. to limit the political fallout from the visit, resulting in sterner and strident protests by the PRC for violation of the “one China” policy than necessary. The Lee visit damaged relations with the U.S. for decades, resulting in the downgrading of relations with ROC that persist to this day including lowering Taiwan’s access to sophisticated weapons systems.

(Credit Image: Bigstock)

President Tsai can reflect on the policies under her predecessors and change course beyond the symbolic act of not acknowledging the 1992 consensus.

Without a “clean out” of the foreign policy deadwood and reformulation of ROC on Taiwan’s foreign policy with new ideas, there is limited scope for the U.S. and Allies to improve Taiwan’s standing even as the threat from the PRC have become the major issue of our time.

The time has come for Taiwan under President Tsai to fundamentally rethink their place in the world and how to break the pattern of the past — that if unchecked — will more likely than not, lead to Taiwan’s absorption by the PRC in due course.

Formal declarations or moves toward independence as the Republic of Taiwan is an unworkable outcome that will result in a regime that will not have any improvement in international standing, and, risk a war with the PRC that Taiwan can lose.   Similarly, improved status for the ROC with its present foreign policy is unlikely to happen.

There is an alternative.

The ROC on Taiwan can unilaterally create a new domestic political system that meets the goal of ending the ruinous war for formal recognition of ROC with the PRC, and yet, at the same time, improves the ability of other states to improve their working relationship with Taiwan without any formal recognition of the ROC that they pledged not to under the “one China” policy with the PRC.

President Tsai’s ROC can unilaterally rewrite their constitution to replace the present Provincial Government of Taiwan with a new Province of Taiwan government that will be delegated all the powers of the ROC.

That is to say, all powers including taxation, administration, foreign affairs, justice, and defense except it is only limited to territories defined as within the Province of Taiwan.

Once that is done, the ROC can then vote themselves out of existence (or to become a vestigial organ like the appendix) with a constitutional amendment that ROC President (like the Governor General of the Crown) will only act on the advice and consent of the newly established Province of Taiwan, and have the power to override the legislative, judiciary and control branches of the government.

All but the President of the Executive branch of the ROC will be placed in suspended animation with officials and legislators except the ROC President tendering their resignation and not replaced. The ROC President is appointed by the Province of Taiwan and serves at the pleasure of the Province.   In effect, ROC will no longer exist for practical purposes and serves very much like a symbolic head of state.

This strategy will enable the ROC to exit from explosive issues like its 9 dash line claims in the South China Sea, and a host of issues related to ROC claims.

It will enable “diplomatic” relations to be conducted directly by the Province of Taiwan via their Provincial Representative Offices abroad.

The issue of ROC being a competing “China” to the PRC is entirely sidestepped and the U.S. and Allies will have a fig leaf to plausibly argue that extensive relations with the Province of Taiwan in no way challenge the “one China” policy.

There is a viable way ahead to allow Taiwan to expand its global role without the debilitating dominance of the PRC manipulation of a “one China policy.”


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