Ambiguity in Taiwan

A trip to Taiwan for the Double Tenth centennial parade sheds light on its culture, but more so on its close resemblance to Israel.

Chinese dragon 521 (photo credit: Lawrence Rifkin)
Chinese dragon 521
(photo credit: Lawrence Rifkin)
The story of today’s Republic of China (ROC, although better known as Taiwan) is so akin to that of Israel that it would not be far-fetched to wonder if – aside from the obvious differences in ethnicity – it were a case of twins separated at birth.
Both began their current incarnations at the end of the 1940s. Both overcame economic paucity to become hi-tech powerhouses. Both, from the very start, have had über-hostile enemies breathing down their necks, forcing them to divert large segments of their national budgets to defense. Both have seen the world cowed into turning its back on them. Both look to the United States, primarily to Congress, as their prime backer, more than occasionally watching with discomfort as the Executive Branch appears to kowtow to their enemies.
And heading into Taipei on a night flight from Bangkok, it is astounding how the approach, over a long blackness of water that’s suddenly broken by a blaze of coastal lights, resembles the final moments of a night flight into Tel Aviv.
I am one of about two dozen journalists from around the world who have been flown in by the ROC to attend the country’s National Day celebrations, popularly known as Double Tenth, falling as they do each year on October 10. The day marks what is viewed as the beginning of the revolution led by Sun Yat-sen against the weakened, splintered and inefficient Qing dynasty. This year’s Double Tenth is even more noteworthy because it marks the centennial of that event.
Dubbed an “Asian tiger” back in the 1960s, along with South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore, Taiwan’s economy is given top grades by both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It has skyscrapers, including Taipei 101, the world’s third-tallest building; advanced transportation infrastructure that features well-built highways and a 300-kph bullet train; and a growing system of “technology parks” that are more like self-contained towns.
While democracy came only recently, watchdog groups give the ROC relatively high marks for important freedoms. Its political culture is so dynamic and freewheeling that its parliament sometimes makes the Knesset seem like an oasis of good manners, with footage of spirited brawls in the Legislative Yuan still appearing from time to time on YouTube.
The island offers color, culture and spectacular beauty. Yet to much of the outside world, it remains something of an east Asian backwater. (Tell people where you’re going and they’re likely to say they love Thai food.) This might be due in large part to the relentless diplomatic pressure from the mighty – and still growing – People’s Republic of China. Sixty-two years after civil war drove the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek and much of the country’s business elite 160 kilometers across the Straits of Taiwan, mainland China views these territories as its own and shuns the fewer than two dozen countries that maintain diplomatic ties with the ROC. (Israel is not among them.)
Despite the mainland’s threat to regain Taiwan one way or another, things are pretty quiet. Although it’s no secret that phalanxes of missiles are pointed in its direction, not one has been fired in anger and no one considers the island a dangerous place, much less a war zone.
So for journalists (save for those covering hi-tech), Taiwan is... well, boring, and it says a lot when a government feels the need to fly them in for such a round-numbered national anniversary signifying a move away from authoritarian rule – which in the end, with no small irony, ends up being covered by the major papers, magazines and news networks from Communist-run Beijing.
The ROC seems so hungry for coverage, in fact, that it gives us the white-glove treatment. Literally. It starts at the airport where, after I clear customs, I’m steered to the longest BMW I have ever seen. A young driver gets out. He’s in a starched uniform and cap. And white gloves. He gives a respectful nod, carefully places my suitcase in the trunk and ushers me into the car. I am engulfed immediately by the smell of supple leather and fine wooden trim. The seating space is the size of a small Jerusalem living room, and quiet jazz wafts from surround-sound speakers that give my home stereo a run for its money.
I could get used to this – which I do during a week of luxurious lodging and sumptuous cuisine. This comes between visits to historical and cultural points of interest, meetings with senior officials from the Foreign Ministry and other government bodies, and a handshake with President Ma Ying-jeou in a gilded room before heading outside the red-brick executive office building to VIP seats on the reviewing stand for the colorful Double Tenth centennial parade.
THE FESTIVITIES begin with the ROC anthem and continue with military and marching bands followed later by a mass, intricately choreographed retelling of the history and culture of China and Taiwan, replete with brave costumed warriors who take on a long, colorful and stunningly designed dragon that winds its way among them, hissing and breathing real fire.
The president, standing at a podium just a few dozen meters to my left, appears on a giant screen to deliver a centennial speech that is full of pride of accomplishment.
“Today,” Ma says, “the people of Taiwan enjoy freedom, democracy and affluence....In the 2011 World Competitiveness Yearbook released by Switzerland’s International Institute for Management Development...Taiwan ranked No. 6 overall, its best score ever. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2011-2012, Taiwan placed No. 13, our country’s best performance in five years, and occupied first place in eight of the survey’s sub-indices.”
He also turns his attention across the straits toward the People’s Republic.
“In commemorating Double Tenth day,” Ma says with a stern visage, “it must not be forgotten that the aspiration of our founding father Dr. Sun Yat-sen was to establish a free and democratic nation with equitable distribution of wealth. The mainland ought to courageously move in that direction.”
As if to underline a determination that no one will be taking control of Taiwan, the middle of the program includes a clear show of strength. There are fly-bys of USsupplied fighters and helicopters, and an endless roll-by of truck-mounted commandos, frogmen and infantrymen, followed by armored vehicles and mobile missiles, and even a rolling launcher with a large, gray unmanned aerial vehicle that looks suspiciously like some of the drones being turned out by Israel Aerospace Industries.
Although Israel long ago gave up parades of this kind, it is here where the core similarity between the two countries becomes most palpable. There is a clear sense of military readiness, but it is coupled with a deep-seated understanding that not all is black and white.
“Cross-strait peace is an essential condition for Taiwan’s prosperity and development,” Ma continues. “Over the past three-plus years, our government has pressed for improvement of cross-strait relations under the framework of the ROC Constitutions and based on the ‘1992 Consensus,’ whereas each side adheres to the ‘one China’ principle but is entitled to its own interpretation of what ‘one China’ means.”
It’s the old diplomatic sleight of hand called “constructive ambiguity” utilized – for better or for worse – by the architects of UN Resolution 242 in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War, and time and again in truces, accords and agreements between Israel and the Arabs. Clearly, it comes in handy elsewhere in the world, too.
And Ma immediately goes on to invoke his “Three Noes.” No, not the “Three Noes of Khartoum” in which, meeting in that Sudanese city after the 1967 war, the Arab nations told Israel: No negotiations, no recognition, no peace. Ma’s Three Noes are instead a further bow to the ambiguity that has been the centerpiece of his administration since he was elected in 2008.
“Within this framework,” he declares, “we are maintaining the status quo of ‘no unification, no independence and no use of force.’ This has greatly relaxed tensions across the Taiwan Strait and garnered the international community’s affirmation and support.”
THESE THREE noes show Ma’s centrist position. He leads a camp, headed by his Kuomintang Party and dubbed “Pan- Blue,” that espouses a nationalist identity, although not one of independence. The primary goal is coexistence with the mainland, the chief tool being economic cooperation.
Since he’s been president, cross-strait tourism has been way up, with an estimated two million visitors from the mainland expected in 2012. On any given day you can see them crowding into the superfast elevators that whisk them to the top of Taipei 101, or ogling the spectacular cultural and artistic treasures that the Nationalists took with them in 1949 and which today are on display at Taipei’s famed National Palace Museum.
There is a political camp in Taiwan that favors outright unification, although it is so small as to be considered a fringe movement. As such, Ma’s chief rival when he faces reelection in mid-January will be Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party and de facto head of the “Pan-Green” camp, which leans toward full independence from the mainland – over which many experts say Beijing would surely go to war.
Tsai has zeroed in on the current president’s proposal for a trade agreement with the mainland. She says it would make the ROC subservient to the People’s Republic, while Ma believes it would increase exports and employment for Taiwan without hurting its standing relative to the People’s Republic.
Polls show that in a two-way race, Ma would win some 55 percent of the vote. Yet in recent days, a third candidate has thrown his hat into the ring. Like Ma, James Soong, head of the smallish People First Party, adheres to an anti-independence platform, and observers feel that he will simply drain off enough votes to give Tsai a victory. Both the People’s Republic and the US are known to favor Ma – Beijing because he’ll stave off pro-independence forces, and Washington because his policies appear to have the best chance of maintaining stability in what has often been an unstable region.
Solidifying the similarity between Taiwan and Israel even more was a recent op-ed in The New York Times titled “To Save Our Economy, Ditch Taiwan.” In it, Paul V. Kane, formerly an international security fellow at Harvard, argued that US President Barack Obama “should make it clear that today American jobs and wealth matter more than military prowess” by “enter[ing] into closed-door negotiations with Chinese leaders to write off the $1.14 trillion of American debt currently held by China in exchange for a deal to end American military assistance and arms sales to Taiwan....”
Readers’ replies were quick in coming. Brian Su, an official at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York, said Kane was willing to “sell friends for shortsighted benefit.” Mention of Israel was almost inevitable, with another reader asking, “[W]ould anyone argue that we sacrifice Israel in return for Iran’s agreement on nonproliferation?”
But it’s a lot more than just the joint threat of being thrown under a bus that binds the two countries.
“Israel and Taiwan signed a cooperation agreement on hi-tech five years ago,” says Su Yu-ping, an ROC diplomat who was seconded to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Tel Aviv at roughly the same time and today is an official in the Foreign Ministry’s Department of West Asian Affairs. “We have very close relations in science and technology. Israel is very good in design, and Taiwan is very good in manufacturing.”
While Israel does not maintain diplomatic ties with the ROC, it recently waived its visa requirement for Taiwan nationals, as Taiwan did for Israelis. “We would like to raise the level of our relations, of course,” adds Su, although he acknowledges that the visa decision is a start.
Considering the fact that Israel’s bilateral trade with the People’s Republic dwarfs the mostly hi-tech business it does with the ROC, the visa waivers might be the best that can be hoped for right now, even for twins separated at birth.