Untying The Knot

I recently decided to pull the trigger and go to Taiwan on vacation, and then immediately realized was that I probably still don’t know enough about the Taiwan situation to fully appreciate what I was going to be seeing! I started searching for a book book about Taiwan and  found one book which I was optimistic about, the 2005 book by Richard Bush Untying the Knot: Making Peace in the Taiwan Strait. The scores were mixed, but everyone mostly agreed that Bush had a very complete history and overview of the modern (since WWII) Taiwan.

Reading the book for myself I understood the low scores, Bush’s writing style is hard to read. He goes into a depth on some issues which is hard to follow. He provides lots of background, facts, and names but assumes that you already know the importance of the issue. It’s a dry narrative which sometimes leads you to question what another thirty pages on a subject is going to accomplish that the last fifty haven’t.

Two of the aspects of the Taiwan-China situation however were interesting and new to me. I liked the discussion on the push and pull over Taiwan sovereignty and then how the US’s interests in the situation gets handled by all sides.

Taiwan Sovereignty

Bush covers the topic of Taiwan sovereignty in great depth, even going into “What does it mean to be sovereign?”. He discusses the evolution of China’s, Taiwan’s, and the US’s thoughts over time. His first main point I found surprising is that both the Chinese and Taiwanese governments want reunification. I never considered if Taiwan itself wants to be part of a greater China. The professed Chinese in fact also states that China doesn’t think Taiwan actually wants reunification either, but he finds evidence to contrary – assuming it can be done on Taiwan’s terms.

Though both countries want unification, their ideas on the subject are very different. He describes how China seeks to promote the “One China” policy and a Taiwan settlement similar to Hong Kong and Macau. Taiwan on the other hand is promoting an approach more akin to a federation like the EU, where the sovereign governments of China and Taiwan are joined more loosely. I never considered that sort of unification before and I could see it working for both sides – China saves face and Taiwan gets China on its side instead of against it (perhaps).

China feels that is has the upper hand though and so doesn’t feel the need to negotiate, Taiwan is on the clock to capitulate because of China’s increasing military power and the increasing economic dependence of Taiwan on China. Taiwan recognizes this, but seems content to continue their current course and seeing where it leads. As an outside observer it’s sad to see the heavy handed diplomatic approach to diplomacy China takes. It hurts their cause in my opinion when they reject out of hand any olive branch Taiwan extends, and then use it bash on the Taiwan leader’s who were behind it. China is gaining relative power to enforce any agreement on Taiwan it wants, but resentment against China is building in the international community so it’s tough to say that they will ever get to the point where they can force a capitulation.

Using The US

China and Taiwan’s relations with the US is another interesting aspect of the China-Taiwan situation. The US’s interests and motives have been very ephemeral. Initially, Nixon’s goal via normalizing relations with China in the 40’s was to create a counter to the USSR. Later this receded as Taiwan’s role as a source of cheap manufacturing increased. Now of course China has largely taken over that role as Taiwan has moved up the value added chain. Because of the US’s current interest in keeping both China and Taiwan stable and productive we are ironically most interested in neither side gaining an upper hand.

In an interesting balance act the US must keep both sides from believing we are unconditionally for or against them. By keeping a presence in the region (and implicitly agreeing to defending Taiwan) we prevent China’s use of force. We also don’t want to be drawn into a war by Taiwan though, and so make it plain that unilateral movement towards independence will mean we will not protect them. Taiwan and China both use significant energy and money attempting to persuade the US through lobbying and business deals/threats to come to their side. This interesting three way tug of war is something I didn’t consider much, but now I see is obviously at the heart of most every large news story involving Taiwan, China, and the US.

While the pragmatic approach that Bush takes in his analysis is refreshing and he brings up many important facts in his arguments, he never gets around to really promoting one angle or another. This is obviously mostly a primer on the situation, but his style of writing makes this book hard to recommend. My search for a great book exploring modern Taiwan continues!

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42 thoughts on “Untying The Knot”

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