America's and Taiwan's "Pride and Prejudice"
By Su Chi
United Daily News, July 11, 2021
Recently, the last remaining American troops left Afghanistan. Kurt Campbell, President Joe Biden’s policy coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, stated for the first time that the United States does not support Taiwan independence. And Chiou I-jen, former secretary-general of the National Security Council, said in a radio interview by former President Chen Shui-bian that “Taiwan independence” is not for the Taiwan people to decide alone. These three seemingly unrelated events that occurred half a world apart actually have a common source—the Pride and Prejudice drama series staged simultaneously in the U.S. and Taiwan over 20 years ago. The U.S. has now woken up to its mistakes and is ready to switch to a new play. Taiwan, however, is still indulging itself in the old drama and inextricably bound to it.
At the turn of the century, President George W. Bush entered the White House with a minority popular vote. The "neo-conservatism" that he represented was daring, energetic and eager to show its prowess. His supporters believed that President Bill Clinton squandered the strategic opportunity of American predominance following the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the sole superpower, it was believed, the U.S. should no longer act with forbearance and restraint as before. Furthermore, because the history had proven the superiority of the democratic system, America should expand democracy to other countries unreservedly.
Wolfgang Ischinger, former German ambassador to the U.S., revealed in his memoirs that he once cautioned U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice not to have the illusion that democracy would grow and flourish in Iraq as soon as Saddam Hussein was out of the way. Rice responded indignantly, "But we have taught you Germans, and the Japanese, how to build a democracy. Why wouldn't that work in Iraq?! Are you a racist?"
This "pride and prejudice" naturally brought the United States into the quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq after the September 11 attack, and kept it there for 20 years. Now that the US awakened to the fact that China had taken advantage of this golden opportunity and risen irrevocably, it was too late.
Before World War II, the United States rarely initiated wars. It only entered the fray to finish the wars others started, when they were exhausted by fighting. After World War II, as the "policeman of the world," the United States launched and ended wars. Except for the Korean and Vietnam wars, it often achieved quick victories. During those periods, the United States was like the tall and handsome hero in Western cowboy movies who rode into town on horseback, quickly eliminated the bad and the ugly, saving the town’s folks, and trotted away in the glow of the setting sun.
Unfortunately, after sinking into the Afghanistan/Iraq quagmires, the U.S. became one of those countries that started but could not finish the wars. As the flames of conflict rekindled in other parts of the world, the "policeman" fulminated but had little or no appetite for intervention. For example, many Middle Eastern countries were inspired by the "Arab Spring" into democratization (e.g., Egypt and Libya). All except Tunisia soon reverted to autocracy or, worse, plunged into prolonged civil strife, resulting in the flow of millions of refugees into Europe. Yet, at the cost of strained U.S.-European relations, the U.S. remained largely passive. After Russia annexed Crimea, involved itself in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, and successfully intervened in the Syrian civil war, the U.S. again stood idly by. President Obama solemnly declared that if Syria would use chemical weapons in its civil war, it would be considered by the U.S. as crossing the red line. In the following year, Syria did so but the White House downplayed the issue. Trump’s four years in office also demonstrated amply that he enjoyed quarreling, but rarely took up arms. Similar examples are too numerous to mention.
According to the well-known "five stages of grief" in psychology, the collective mind of the U.S., in the face of the "rising East and declining West " phenomenon, seems to have moved beyond the first stage of "shock and denial" and is currently in the second stage of "anger," even sliding to the third stage of "bargaining." President Biden's domestic reforms and refurbishment of allied relations, as well as Campbell's latest remark, are all partly paving the way for future bargaining with China. As for when to enter the fourth and fifth stages of "depression" and "acceptance", only time will tell.
Taiwan’s problem is bigger than that of the United States. Not only is it still immersed in the "denial" stage but, intoxicated by American sweet words, it fails to see Washington’s new behavior pattern.
Taiwan’s drama began with the "pride and prejudice” of the late President Lee Teng-hui. Lee believed that Taiwan's economy (then a quarter of that of the Mainland), military (China basically did not send fighters out to sea), and diplomatic power finally earned Taiwan a new day under the sun. Against the advice of all others in the Government and Party, he also believed strongly in the imminent collapse of the Communist regime, hence no need to worry about its action. More significantly, he considered himself an invincible top leader in Taiwan and thus empowered to design whatever policy to his liking. Therefore, only one year after the direct presidential election, he hastened to change the presidential system to a "quasi-emperor" system, promulgate the “special state-to-state relationship” with China, and seek another constitutional amendment to confining the territory of the Republic of China to Taiwan only.
Former President Chen Shui-bian and President Tsai Ing-wen basically pressed on with Lee's unfinished ambition. The practice of the past two decades has proved beyond a doubt that Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) main platform of “Taiwan independence,” even only "doing but not saying it," has cost Taiwan enormously: never-ending political strife, deep social divisions, dragon-like economy morphed into a small “snake,” and a hollowed-out national defense. Had the DPP opted to carry out and talk about “Taiwan independence,” the consequences would have been harder to imagine.
Born of the same Pride and Prejudice, the U.S. has awakened to its past blunder. We hope, after Mr. Chiou, other DPP leaders will also begin to reflect on this new reality. Needless to say, the key still lies with the domineering President Tsai - whether she would continue to cling to her treasured "special state-to-state relationship.”
The author, chairman of the Taipei Forum, formerly served as secretary-general of the National Security Council, Republic of China (Taiwan), from 2008 to 2010.