Rethinking Australia’s Taiwan policy
17 Dec 2019|

In January 2020, Taiwanese voters will go to the polls to elect their president and legislature. President Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is running for re-election against the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT’s) populist candidate Han Kuo-yu, and the DPP is hoping to hold its legislative majority.

A year ago, in municipal elections, the DPP suffered heavy defeats, most notably in the southern city of Kaohsiung where it had held the mayorship for 20 years. Han won the city for the KMT and has been launched into presidential politics on the strength of it. The losses were, however, the start of a turnaround in the DPP’s fortunes. Tsai appointed DPP veteran Su Tseng-chang as premier. He re-energised the DPP’s legislative agenda, including the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Then, in January, CCP chairman Xi Jinping gave a speech on Taiwan for the 40th anniversary of the National People’s Congress’s letter to ‘Taiwan Compatriots’ that was unbending on the policy lines from Beijing of the last 40 years. Tsai’s measured but forceful response played well with an electorate increasingly frustrated with her technocratic and risk-averse style and her poll numbers began to climb.

The crisis in Hong Kong has given potency to DPP messaging, while the KMT has made some serious election missteps. Now Tsai is looking like being returned for another four-year term, and the DPP may also retain its majority in the legislature.

Regardless of the outcome, Taiwan’s democratic elections have long presented a dilemma for the norms of Australia’s foreign policy analysis. Canberra’s approach remains dominated, although not totally, by neorealist assumptions about the rational pursuit of interests governing the behaviour of state actors in the international system.

Both US interests and the interests of a rising China are served by their relative regional hegemony. Taiwan, in this view, stands either as a complex proxy for a US presence in the region or, if unified with the People’s Republic of China, as a material and symbolic expression of China’s emerging power. Taiwan’s future in these analyses will ultimately be decided by the US and China, and is a metric of their capacity to manage their changing balance of power peacefully or otherwise.

This analytic approach achieves its clarity and force by its determinism and ahistoricism, and its application has allowed the view to prevail in the Australian system that our foreign policy settings are basically and self-evidentially right. Australia’s foreign and security policy goals for Taiwan are a cool-headed calculus for bilateral relations that prioritises both our place in the US alliance and access to the PRC’s market as the great powers find their new balance point.

There are long-recognised limits to this approach to foreign policymaking, not least decades of argument about the value of democracy. More recently, new vectors of non-state global communication, climate and environmental crises, and reckonings for imperial and colonial injustice have challenged its assuredness.

Put simply, even with the coolest of foreign policy, people’s politics and history matter. States act in ways that are often irreducible to a calculation of interests but are instead entangled with historically situated political aspirations.

For Taiwan, its elections are a clear expression of its politics, but also its history. This includes 50 years as a Japanese colonial territory, 40 years of authoritarian rule, and 30 years as a democracy. The pursuit of self-determination and political liberalism by the Taiwanese reaches back to the early Japanese colonial at period beginning of the 20th century. Taiwanese formally petitioned the Imperial Diet in Tokyo for self-government on no less than 14 occasions between 1921 and 1934.

For Beijing, its contemporary party-state politics are steeped in the history of revolutionary struggle for China’s post-imperial future and the intertwined histories of the Chinese Communist Party and the KMT. As with many former empires, the crisis of imperial collapse, when the hard boundaries of nationhood were drawn across the more porous boundaries of empire, is continually replayed as the defining national metaphor.

Taken together, this means that while the Taiwan issue can be about a shifting balance between state actors pursuing regional security and power projection, it’s also about the political aspirations of peoples that trace back decades and will continue to be a force across the Taiwan Strait and in communities around the world.

For the Taiwanese, their aspirations for self-determination will endure whatever future plays out with Beijing. For the PRC, its Taiwan strategy validates the totalising ideology of a relatively closed party-state system that prioritises the rectitude of the party and its vision for ‘New China’.

Australia must contend with these politics and history in its own policymaking. A rising China as a regional power is inevitable and this has generated a debate in Australia that, in the hardening politics of the Xi era, has threatened to split into pro- and anti-China positions. It is a false choice that says more about Australia’s own political history. Instead, we should be able to subject politics and policymaking in Beijing, Taipei, and Washington, too, to new forms of cool-headed critique and assessment.

It is only with a proper understanding of our region and its histories and political aspirations that Australia will find the necessary policy nuance to sustain our security and prosperity in a changing world.