Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Why "Status-Quo?"

By Thomas Huang

Early Latin speakers probably did not realize how this phrase has become the ultimate magic spell on every question related to cross-Taiwan Strait relations today: the "status-quo."

It is indeed a peculiar phrase with peculiar meanings. Generally, it refers to the semi-civil-war-like relationship between the two sides of the Strait. On the Mainland, Beijing vigorously contends its sovereignty over Taiwan, the last stronghold of the Republic of China (the government that the PRC claims to have taken the place of), and vows to crush the regime on Taiwan by force if the latter declares outright independence. On the other side of the water, a young democracy is wending its way through the jungle of the ROC's old constitutional framework that still claims the legitimacy to rule the vast Mainland Territory, which encompasses the PRC and Outer Mongolia. For whatever reason, despite the political cataclysm that had occurred on the island, an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese residents favor such ambiguous, up-in-the-air state of cross-strait relations in all of the opinion polls during the last decade. People's logics are simple: if we can remain independent without declaring it, why bother. Plus, it is not all that bad - cross-strait commerce goes on as usual, and more non-stop direct flights are becoming available.

Yet politicians think differently about the messy "status-quo." Washington wants to keep it because it decides that it is best to offend neither side across the Strait.
Beijing barely tolerates it as the "less evil" compared to an American intervention in favor of Taiwan. Taiwanese Greens want to fight it, because they fear that maintenance of "status-quo" will enable the PRC to grow strong enough and eventually take over Taiwan, while tying up Taiwan's hands so that it cannot adjust its position to defend itself. For Blues, they simply use it as a shield against the nativistic challenges from the Greens, striving to defend the last bit of space for the legacy of the Republic of China.

Despite the confusions, growls and quarrels, status-quo is perhaps still the more plausible choice for all sides, whether they like it or not.
Things do get tricky when neither the definition nor the consequence of such "maintenance" approach is clear, and the Greens (and potentially one day Blues also) are certainly well justified to worry about the potential of a PRC invasion. Yet things can have a more positive outlook.

For a long time, tensions across the strait have remained a matter of pride and prejudice. No one wants to appear self-defeating, as the various versions of nationalistic prides make it hard for any side to bend on the "matters of principle" (原則問題). Meanwhile, protracted hostility has paralyzed people's willingness to learn, to understand and to think from others' perspectives. As a result,
in cross-strait politics today, irrationality proliferates when prejudice prevails. Many hypochondriac reactions of Beijing, like the one over the proposal of "Second Republic Constitution" in Taiwan earlier this year, could have been avoided if Beijing is willing to abandon its condescending manner of studying Taiwanese popular opinion so that it can hear the voice of a broader Taiwanese public. PRC "patriots" will probably find the Greens not as evil as they think, either, once they start engaging in dialog with the "traitors" in their eyes. Similarly, the green supporters on Taiwan may also find their perception of the Communist Mainland as a monolithic Juggernaut too much of an overkill, once they embark on an Odyssey to discover the Mainland China they do not know.

However, understanding is always easier said than done, and it will not be an overnight project to rebuild trust between the long separated. Yet a relatively stable political atmosphere is the foremost prerequisite to breaking the ice of misunderstanding. Surely, "status-quo" sets limit to Taiwan's can's and cannot's, but it curbs the Mainland in the same way it disciplines Taiwan. Fear over Taiwan's potentially perilous position in the long run is not unfounded but based on a hardly convincing argument which assumes that "the PRC will never change" - an assertion even the conservatives around me have no faith in. In fact, China is more likely to change in the direction Taiwan wants - more peaceful and tolerant, if Beijing's leaders are shown more about the virtuous side of Taiwan's democratization instead of being reminded all the time that the DPP is a pro-independence party.

With political wisdom, it is entirely possible and worth trying for Taiwan to take advantage of the "status-quo" policy, instead of lamenting about the unjust and unfair treatment it suffers; undue complaints and defiances help nobody but the ultra-nationalists on the Mainland.


Michael Turton said...

Did you catch this link to the CRS report on the evolution of the One China policy?

Michael Turton said...

Nice post. But I don't think the "status quo" is really all that useful a phrase anymore, since our State Dept now interprets it entirely in Beijing's favor. What we need is a rethink of the idea.


Thomas said...

Thanks for the link to the report. I'll take a look at it.

The State Department cannot get tough because the neocons are already on decline (well they should be). I don't expect the lameduck administration can do anything significant in its last one year and a half. Just hope the new US president will come up with a somewhat fair policy.