TAIWAN: Whose problem?


China's Dilemma: The Taiwan Issue
By Sheng Lijun
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore
2001 239 pages


It's no accident that Sheng Lijun named his new book on Taiwan China's Dilemma — he seems to see "the Taiwan issue" as primarily China's business. While he rightly recognises the reality of heavy US intervention which has helped create "the Taiwan problem", Sheng has devoted no space to reflect the views of the 23 million people in Taiwan on the future of their island.

This omission forms a prominent feature of China's Dilemma which heavily focuses on China and the US as the main players on "the Taiwan issue". Whenever Taiwan comes up, the attention isn't even on the ruling party of the time, the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party), but essentially only on Lee Teng-hui, the KMT chief and Taiwan's president in the period covered (Lee left the presidency in March 2000 while the book was completed in September 1999).

Sheng provides no analysis of the different forces within the KMT whose open contradictions since the late 1980s have weakened the party's decades-long hold on power on the island (which started with a massacre of tens of thousands of Taiwanese people by the KMT army in 1947) and contributed to its unprecedented loss of the presidency to the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in March 2000.

Nor has he provided any reading of the emerging popular movements in Taiwan — for example, a highly vibrant environmental movement in the 1990s and an impressive democratic movement in the 1970s and 1980s against the KMT dictatorship which was a key factor leading to the 1987 lifting of the four-decade-long martial law regime.

That the book doesn't cover the post-March 2000 period makes it less relevant in helping understand current Taiwanese politics because the DPP victory has significantly changed Taiwan's political landscape. Sheng devotes just over a page to the DPP.

These omissions are worth noting but are not surprising as Sheng has made it clear from the outset that this book is primarily "an analysis of China's Taiwan policy, not of the China-United States-Taiwan triangle". He engages almost entirely on the plane of US-China "geopolitics", covering the period from the early 1990s, especially after Lee's high-profile US trip in June 1995, to September 1999.

Sheng's analysis is not particularly insightful. His tireless attempts to assess (guess a lot of the time) the motivations behind China's post-Cold War foreign policy, especially that towards the US and Taiwan, read more like an uncritical regurgitation of the official Chinese line than a convincing objective analysis.

Sheng doesn't seem to question why the US exerted such a central role in "the Taiwan issue" in the first place. There is no recognition in the book that what drives US foreign policy toward China (and Taiwan) is the defence by Washington of US corporate interests and that this was the reason why Washington supported the KMT regime on Taiwan against the Chinese Communists.

Sheng takes note but fails to explain the repeated zig-zags in US policy since the early 1970s to "engage with" China (i.e., to make it an ally in the US conflict with revolutionary Vietnam and the Soviet Union and to open China up to US goods and investments) while continuing to prop up the KMT regime on Taiwan. To Sheng, 1990s drive by China's ruling "communist" bureaucracy to restore capitalism is simply an effort to "modernise" China's economy.

Sheng implicitly accepted China claim to sovereignty over Taiwan and proceeds on this basis. He gives no consideration at all to the growing sentiment among the Taiwanese people for international recognition of their status as a separate nation, with the right to determine what will be their political relationship with China.

China's Dilemma does provide an extensive factual record of developments related to Taiwan's external relations and manoeuvrings in the 1990s as well as China's reactions to them, but without any credible analytical framework such an intensive treatment makes for very tedious reading.

China's Dilemma is not a book of ideas. It doesn't (or doesn't aim to) tackle the origin and nature of "the Taiwan issue". It is not a very useful book for the left.

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